China’s Push for Improved Connectivity Augurs Badly for Russia’s Positioning in Central Asia

Changes in the balance of power (economic and military included) are often presumed to be too large and dramatic in scope for analysts to start talking about unfolding great geopolitical shifts. Nothing as seemingly large as to cause a reversal of close China-Russia relations is currently taking place between Moscow and Beijing. In fact, the bilateral ties are growing in complexity, ranging from military cooperation to general geopolitical aligning against the US-led bloc. This is what is taking place on the surface, but on the ground across the Eurasian landmass, it is increasingly difficult for China and Russia to keep quiet about their differences.

A good example of differing visions between the two is the Central Asian region. Geographically isolated, with most of its critical infrastructure directed towards the Russian heartland, the region is a breeding ground for unfolding changes in the Eurasian balance of power. One of the misconceptions in the current studies on China-Russia relations and their potential competition is to expect something as drastic on a par with what took place in Ukraine in 2014, pitting Russia against the West. Nothing even distantly as similar is likely to happen between Beijing and Moscow. Instead, we should be looking at relatively quiet processes which range from changing infrastructure, to seemingly benign political gestures and statements that signal upcoming geopolitical shifts.

For Russia, “losing” Central Asia is not about Chinese military bases suddenly popping up in the region. It is about subtler things. Serving as the region’s exclusive interconnector with the outside world, whether in imperial or Soviet times, in many respects the dependence of Central Asia on Russia was contingent upon geographic inevitability. No alternative routes existed, while the neighboring powers were poor and weak. Breaking this geographic prison, therefore, will be tantamount to a loosening of Russia’s economic grip and the consequential decrease of Moscow’s geopolitical influence. It is also not so much about “losing” Central Asia to China per se, but rather losing the region to the region’s states themselves, which will be capable of diversifying their trade routes and economic contacts with the outside world.

China is nevertheless instrumental in opening up Central Asia, and trade corridors are a good indicator of the changing times. With Beijing’s active involvement, a new transportation route was unveiled in early September when a freight train from China, through Kazakhstan, reached the Turkmen city of Anev three days later, covering in total some 8780 kilometers.

In August, the Islamic Republic of Iran unveiled two corridors to the heart of Central Asia: the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran (KTAI) route, and the Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan route. According to the Islamic Republic of Iran Customs Administration (IRICA), Iran sent two shipments of goods from Shahid Rajaei Port in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas to Uzbekistan via the newly established route, Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan.

All these routes have problems rooted in general security and political procrastination on behalf of the governments involved, but they nevertheless indicate a growing impetus for changing centuries-old communication and trade routes. Moreover, all these initiatives are backed by China.

Specifically, Beijing is reportedly about to sign a whopping $400-billion agreement with the Iranian government, which will involveIran’s deeper integration within Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with a likely emphasis on opening new trade and energy routes to/from Iran to/from China. Sea routes would matter, but more so will the corridors to China via Central Asia.

To China also goes the initiative to open this June a new multimodal transportation route from its western border to the heart of Central Asia – Uzbekistan. The corridor starts from the Chinese city of Lanzhou and runs through Kyrgyzstan towards Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. Construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan corridor has been postponed for decades. Kyrgyzstan was a major obstacle because of its financial troubles (government debt, which currently amounts to $4.7 billion, of which $1.8 billion is controlled by China), anti-Chinese sentiment, and internal political disturbances. Therefore, Beijing and Tashkent came up with an idea of a combined road-rail corridor: freight from China will be unloaded in Kyrgyzstan to be driven across the country by road to reach the Uzbek section of the railway. The route is intended to become only the initial section of a larger new international corridor running from China to Europe without transiting Kazakhstan and Russia.

More importantly, the corridor will allow Uzbekistan to reach out to Iran, China, or to use the westward route across the Caspian Sea to link to the European market. The latter possibility is especially appealing geopolitically, making the route the fastest trail to the European mainland by using significantly improved port infrastructure in the Caspian and Black seas such as Azerbaijan’s Ailat and Baku ports, and Georgia’s Batumi and Poti terminals.

This not to say that Russia has not been paying attention. Along with, or rather behind Bishkek’s procrastination was a Russia opposing the project all along. A change in the direction of the railways and roads would be damaging for Moscow. The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan corridor would attract up to 10-15% of the freight from the Kazakh-Russian route, hurting Russia’s transit capabilities. Furthermore, an overtly invisible but deeply ingrained fear of the expanding BRI could also motivate Russia’s calculus of purposeful torpedoing.

Along with the new trade corridors comes China’s expansion of political contacts with Central Asia. On July 16, a “5+1” format video conference of the foreign ministers of China and the five Central Asia states was held. What might otherwise seem an inconspicuous event, the discussion surprisingly touched upon political processes: a notable shift from China’s traditional emphasis on economic matters. Other Chinese initiatives, such as lending Uzbekistan $100 million via the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to support the battle with pandemic, are also notable.

These developments indicate how fluid the geopolitical order in Central Asia is, and how vulnerable Russia’s positions are there. Apart from cultural affinity (spread of the Russian language, etc.), Moscow’s grip on Central Asia is not as certain as it might seem. Alternative roads, railways and other infrastructure could do as much harm geopolitically as a Ukraine-style crisis. Moreover, one of the fallacies about China’s Central Asia policy analysis by outside watchers is that China is often portrayed as aiming to take over the region from the Russian orbit, which will inevitably create troubles in bilateral ties with Moscow. In fact, what the Chinese have been doing so far is to empower Central Asian states by multiplying their export/import opportunities, i.e. indirectly diminishing Russian influence and minimizing pretexts for Moscow to accuse Beijing of anything resembling undermining Russian interests in the region.

By Emil Avdaliani*

*Emil Avdaliani is a non-resident fellow at the Georgian think tank, Geocase, and teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and European University.

22 October 2020 15:56