Central Asia’s Great Game

One of the main criticisms against Washington’s attempt to sanction Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggressive actions in Ukraine is that this is driving Russia and China closer together. Such concerns are unfounded, first because the two are already close strategic partners, but more importantly because neither really trusts the other … nor should they.

The truth is, when Russia and China get in bed together, they both sleep with one eye open!

This is not to say that Sino-Russian cooperation has not been significant. Last year Russia’s Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation signed a $400 billion contract to jointly build a gas pipeline. They further agreed to do their transactions in their own currencies rather than U.S. dollars.

Both regularly veto or water down U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolutions regarding Syria and North Korea. Moreover, China has been noticeably quiet regarding Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs, which violates one of Beijing’s most sacred principles.

Fears of a Russia-China condominium are exaggerated, however. Beneath the surface, a creeping competition will erode the partnership’s foundation. The two may be enjoying a honeymoon, but this is still a marriage of convenience.

No other place provides more fertile ground for their geopolitical competition than their shared periphery, Central Asia, aka Russia’s “near-abroad.”

China’s presence and influence in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is increasing. The westward strategy articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his “New Silk Road economic belt” highlights Central Asia’s importance.

Beijing has been investing billions of dollars in Central Asia’s energy sector. It views these countries as important allies in the fight against Islamic extremists that foment ethnic unrest in China’s west. As the U.S. “rebalances” to Asia, China seeks strategic space to the west.

If Ukraine is Russia’s front yard, Central Asia must be considered its back yard. Russia has long-standing historical, economic and political ties to this region. Moscow is especially keen to maintain control of Central Asian energy and resource exports to protect its own market position: Central Asia is a potential competitor to Russia’s energy exports, the lifeblood of the Russian economy. Its ownership of the old Soviet pipeline network offers control over Central Asia energy exports.

Russia is also able to enhance the quality of its own product by blending it with higher-quality oil from Kazakhstan, while maintaining control over price and supply. Thus far, Russian and Chinese interests in the region have converged. Security concerns such as Islamic extremism have brought the two together, leading to greater cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — but naming an organization encompassing the Central Asian states after a Chinese instead of a Russian city must add salt to the wound. Deeper Chinese engagement in Central Asia makes competition inevitable. For Russia, the stakes are high.

As energy-rich Central Asian countries explore new supply routes, such as the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline, Russia fears the loss of its leverage and the emergence of new competition. Lower profits from energy exports coupled with economic challenges and plunging currency values will accelerate Russia’s downward economic spiral.

Economically, Russia is still important for Central Asia countries and remittances from Central Asian workers in Russia sustain their economies. But increasing Chinese economic engagement offers Central Asian countries an opportunity to diversify their economic relations. China’s trade with the region reached $46 billion in 2012, almost double that of Russia.

Facing an economically stronger China, Russia will have to use more resources to keep pace and keep Central Asia in its orbit.

Many see arms trade as an example of a strong China-Russia axis. But while Russia sells weapons to China, it sells even more to India, China’s strategic competitor.

Russia refuses to sell China its most advanced weapons to protect its intellectual property and for fear that China’s military could become too strong. Consequently arms trade has caused tension between the two.

The real problem is that wherever Russia turns, it encounters China and vice versa.

In the Russian Far East, Moscow fears Beijing’s encroachment. Far from the capital and sparsely populated, the Russian Far East has absorbed increasing numbers of Chinese merchants, changing the demographic landscape in China’s favor and prompting fear of eventual annexation, even if Beijing has yet to roll out a new map with more dashed lines to the north.

There are western limits to Putin’s desire to rebuild the Russian Empire (read: NATO). The near-abroad is likely to be next. Moscow is likely to become aggressive toward China if it starts losing its diplomatic grip on this region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put growing emphasis on “defending Russian compatriots.” There is no reason to think Central Asia will be exempt from this “humanitarian” tendency. Will China accept a redefinition of Russian interests that comes at its expense?

In the end, geopolitical competition will prevail. China is beginning to reassert itself as a continental power, while Russia struggles to maintain its economic and political supremacy in Central Asia. The 21st-century version of the Great Game is on.

Ralph A. Cossa and Virginia Marantidou are president and resident WSD-Handa Fellow respectively at the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. The article is an abbreviated version of a recent article on the same subject that appeared in the PacNet Newsletter.

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