Asia and Eurasia
Central Asia in Change: Beyond the ‘Great Game’

All the major powers are active in Central Asia, including China, Russia, the United States, Europe, India and Japan. This would not be a problem for the Central Asian countries if the major powers were on good terms, but the reality is that the relationship between the major powers in Central Asia is complicated, writes Zhao Huasheng.

Due to its unique geographical and geopolitical location, Central Asia has always been a crossroads for great powers. Due to the special background of relations between Central Asia and Russia, great power relations for the Central Asian countries are also of particular importance, even with regards to their political security. Therefore, the proper management of great power relations is not only a diplomatic skill for Central Asian countries, but also a way to secure the security and stability of their countries.

All the major powers are active in Central Asia, including China, Russia, the United States, Europe, India and Japan. In terms of geopolitical and strategic influence, China, Russia and the United States are undoubtedly at the forefront.

This would not be a problem for the Central Asian countries if the major powers were on good terms, but the reality is that the relationship between the major powers in Central Asia is complicated, and it is popular to interpret it in terms of geopolitical competition, which was called the new “the Great Game” in West, that is, it is competitive and confrontational in nature.

This understanding cannot be said to be wrong when it is applied to US-Russian relations in the region. Geopolitical rivalry has been the mainstream of US-Russian relations over the past years, except for during brief periods, and it remains so now, and will persist in the foreseeable future.

But it is not true for the relationship between China and Russia in the region. China and Russia have been engaged in regional security and economic cooperation in Central Asia since 1998. Although there will be some normal competition between the two countries, strategic cooperation is a basic feature of bilateral relations. The SCO, established in 2001, is both a product of China-Russia cooperation and a platform for cooperation between them in Central Asia. Many have predicted that China and Russia will be in conflict in Central Asia, but it has not happened in over 25 years.

As for US-China relations in Central Asia, the picture is more complex. The two countries seem to share some similar ideas, although not necessarily from the same starting points, such as opposing terrorism, supporting the diversification of foreign economic relations in Central Asia, supporting the independence and territorial integrity of Central Asian states, promoting regional connectivity, and improving the investment and trade environment, but in practice there has not been much substantive cooperation. There are also geopolitical tensions between the two countries, such as China’s opposition to the US military presence in Central Asia and the “colour revolutions” imported from outside by the West, but this has not provoked major conflicts either, as Russia is at the forefront of US targeting.

Faced with the complex situation of relations between major powers, multifaceted diplomacy is a common policy adopted by Central Asian countries. Multifaceted means developing relations with all countries, which, in the words of Tajikistan’s official documents, means maintaining an “open door” to all countries that are willing to cooperate.

Developing relations with all the countries is common diplomatic practice in the diplomacy of most of the countries, but as the diplomatic concept of Central Asian countries, it has a deeper background and meaning. The states here clearly refer to the great powers, and the great powers in turn refer mainly to other great powers other than Russia, because close relations between Central Asia and Russia have always existed.

From the perspective of the Central Asian states, multifaceted diplomacy is the optimal option because it is in their best interests. The great powers are at odds with each other, but the Central Asian states have no grievances with them, although they also conflict on issues such as human rights and democracy, and they do not want to follow one great power in being opposed to another; they would like to be friends with each of them and to make each of them treat them as friends. It would be ideal for the Central Asian states to have mutual checks and balances among the major powers in Central Asia, as this would open up a wide space of freedom of manoeuvre for them and help prevent the region from being dominated and controlled by the major powers.

Despite the deep divide between China, the United States, Russia, and Europe, the Central Asian countries have formed strategic partnerships or strategic cooperation with each of them. The most recent expanded Kazakhstan-US Strategic Partnership Council meeting was held in December 2022, and the United States and Uzbekistan launched a strategic partnership dialogue in December 2021. The most recent expanded Strategic Partnership Council meeting between Kazakhstan and the United States took place in December 2022, and Uzbekistan and the United States launched a Strategic Partnership Dialogue in December 2021.

The EU is one of the most important trade partners and sources of investment in Central Asia. More than 30% of Kazakhstan’s foreign trade and foreign investments come from the EU, and in 2022 Kazakh-European trade is $39.9 billion and investments from the EU countries total $12.5 billion. During the visit of Uzbek President Mirziyoyev to Germany in May 2023, the two countries reached commercial agreements totalling $9 billion. In the last 10 years, the EU has invested about $120 billion in Central Asia, accounting for 40% of foreign direct investment in the region.

The US holds a pivotal position in Kazakhstan’s energy sector, but is less important in general economic and trade relations. US trade with Kazakhstan accounts for 86 percent of US trade with the region on the whole, 7 percent with Uzbekistan, and 7 percent with the three other Central Asian countries. The trade volume between the United States and Kazakhstan was only $3.8 billion in 2022. Recently, however, US investment in Central Asia has been on the rise. In the first three quarters of 2022, US direct investment in Kazakhstan reached US $5 billion, the highest ever for the same period of time.

Parallel to the concept of multifaceted diplomacy, some Central Asian countries have also put forward the concept of “balanced diplomacy”, particularly Kazakhstan, which expressed this notion in its Concept of Foreign Policy 2014-2020 and continues to pursue it. In terms of the meaning of the words, balanced diplomacy is different from multifaceted diplomacy, which is not necessarily equidistant or balanced. Balanced diplomacy, although not necessarily equidistant, takes into account the balance in structure and status of the major powers.

Pragmatism is also an important feature of the diplomacy of Central Asian states, which is based on the principle of bringing real benefits to the country. There is nothing unusual about pragmatism, but in the context of Central Asian states, it can also be seen as an explanation for developing relations with all major powers, that is, developing relations with them only on the basis of whether or not they can bring practical benefits, and only for practical benefits, without political intentions and not subject to ideological factors.

The main manifestation of pragmatism is in the economic field, or economic interests are the core of pragmatism, so economic diplomacy is especially popular. The big economies, especially the developed ones, are key cooperation targets for Central Asian countries, including China, Russia, the US, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and India. In view of this, economic possibility carries the most weight in the major powers’ diplomacy in Central Asia. Whoever can bring more economic benefits to the Central Asian countries will be more welcome in in the region.

The sudden outbreak of conflict between Russia and Ukraine left Central Asia in a fissure in great power relations, which caused great pressure to the Central Asian countries, but also produced unexpected effects. The fierce rivalry between the United States and Russia has given them both pressing needs in Central Asia, albeit for very different purposes. The political, economic and security cooperation between Central Asia and the major powers is accelerating, and its status in the relations of the major powers is rising accordingly. Leaders or senior officials of major countries such as China, Russia, the United States and Europe have visited the region one after another. India, the EU and Russia took the lead in holding the 5+1 summit with Central Asia, and the China-Central Asia 5+1 Summit was also held on May 19, 2023.

Amid the severe sanctions imposed against Russia by the West, the Central Asian countries, which have close economic ties with Russia, have unexpectedly benefited. Central Asian countries’ trade with both Europe and Russia had skyrocketed, with large imports from Europe on one side and large exports to Russia on the other. Of course, this has caused resentment in the United States and Europe. Some Western companies have resettled in Central Asia after withdrawing from Russia. The influx of hundreds of thousands of wealthy Russians into Central Asia due to mobilization has also brought additional money to the Central Asian countries. In 2022, remittances from abroad to Uzbekistan were $16.9 billion, up 2.1-fold year-on-year, of which 85 percent or about $14.5 billion came from Russia, compared to the previous annual remittances from Russia of just about $4 billion. Kazakhstan’s remittances of $775 million are more than six times higher than in 2021. According to the EBRD’s forecast, the Central Asian economies will grow by 5.2% in 2023 and 5.4% in 2024.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has also had an impact on relations between the major powers and Central Asia, which is most evident in Russian relations with the region.

In June 2022, at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Kazakhstan president Tokayev stated in the presence of Putin that Kazakhstan would not recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Before and after that, top Kazakh officials also repeatedly stated that they would not allow Kazakhstan to become a gateway to bypass Western sanctions against Russia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have also made moves which have been unpleasant for Russia. Kyrgyzstan cancelled the CSTO “Strong Brotherhood-2022” joint military exercises scheduled for October 2022 in its territory, while the US “Regional Cooperation-2022” exercise was successfully conducted in neighbouring Tajikistan, with all four Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan participating. Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov was also absent from the informal CIS summit held the same month. In addition, President Putin’s proposal to establish a Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan gas union was not positively received by either country.

This has led to speculation about Central Asia’s relations with Russia. In any case, these are bad signs for Russia, but in the grand scheme of things, they are not yet fatal to relations between Central Asia and Russia. For example, Kyrgyzstan’s discontent is because of its problem with Tajikistan, not problems with Russia.

Relations between Russia and Kazakhstan are more complicated. Unlike the other four countries, Kazakhstan shares a direct border with Russia which extends more than 7,500 kilometres, the longest land border in the world. During the Soviet times, the “Five Central Asian States” were called “Central Asia and Kazakhstan”, because a considerable part of Kazakhstan’s territory is in the south of West Siberia and the geographical region of Europe. Kazakhstan considers itself a Eurasian country rather than an Asian country, which is one of the reasons why it is particularly keen on Eurasian integration.

There is no legal territorial dispute between Kazakhstan and Russia, but there is often an undercurrent of discord among the people, and it often causes a hotspot of public opinion in both countries. Despite all the harsh rhetoric, this has not entailed a major change in Kazakhstan’s policy towards Russia. After his re-inauguration in November 2022, President Tokayev paid his first foreign visit to Russia. Some Central Asian scholars believe that it is precisely because of the inextricable relations between Russia and Kazakhstan that the Kazakhs have the confidence to say something serious.

Russia is also paying much more attention to Central Asia after the Ukraine crisis, with President Putin visiting all five Central Asian countries in 2022 for the first time in recent years. A 5+1 summit between Russia and Central Asia was held for the first time, while a steady stream of senior Russian officials and businessmen travelled to Central Asia. Russia’s demand for Central Asia is higher than ever before.

Common sense says that with Russia maintaining a friendly policy toward Central Asia, there is no reason for Central Asian countries to take the initiative to damage their relations with Russia. The political, economic, security and humanitarian relations between Russia and Central Asia are not only closely intertwined, but also extremely important for the Central Asian countries, which is the long-term, stable foundation that determines the relationship between the two sides. That is why, despite pressure from the West, the presidents of all five Central Asian countries participated in the Red Square parade in Moscow on May 9, 2023.

It is probably safe to say that the situation created by the Russia-Ukraine crisis has increased self-confidence, independence, agency and ability to shape relations with major powers for Central Asian states, but their relationship with Russia has not fundamentally changed. Russia’s position may have declined somewhat and its ability to manipulate regional affairs has diminished somewhat, but its foundations in Central Asia remain deep and its position remains strong.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has brought a new content to America’s Central Asia policy, which is to require and urge Central Asian countries to comply with the sanctions regime against Russia. A flurry of visits to Central Asia by US and European officials, including US Secretary of State Blinken and EU Sanctions Commissioner David O’Sullivan, is part of that effort.

Of course, America’s Central Asian diplomacy has more ambitious long-term plans and objectives, which are fully reflected in the US Central Asia Strategy 2019-2025, although the situation has changed considerably since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the eruption of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. From a geopolitical perspective, pulling Central Asian states out of Russia’s orbit remains one of the major aims of US Central Asian diplomacy. But, unlike in the past, China is being included among the main targets of the United States gradually as strategic tensions between the two countries deepen and as China’s presence in Central Asia expands rapidly.

In the past the US had launched or promoted a series of big construction projects in Central Asia. Although these projects were designed to steer the region away from Russia and China, the projects are not necessarily bad in themselves. For example, the Central Asia-South Asia 1000 power project (CASA-1000) and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project (TAPI) were both priorities of the US New Silk Road strategy, proposed by the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011, but neither has been completed. Now, the US has basically withdrawn from these projects, while China and Russia have started to enter them. Russia has expressed its willingness to participate in the construction of TAPI, and China also stated that these projects can help improve regional connectivity and revitalize the region’s economy. This means that China is not excluded from participating in the future.

It can be said with certainty that there is no possibility of realizing the American idea of taking Central Asia out of the “orbit” of Russia and China, because the Central Asian countries have such deep interests and close ties with Russia and China that the United States cannot find a substitute for them. From China’s point of view, there is no “Chinese track” in Central Asia. However, China’s relations with Central Asia will certainly continue to grow rapidly. This is not because of the situation with the Russia-Ukrainian crisis, but because of the natural rise of China’s political, economic and diplomatic influence. More importantly, it is due to the fact that China’s Central Asian policy is welcomed by Central Asian countries, and China’s importance to the region and its role in achieving their economic and social development goals are becoming more and more prominent.

Some say that China lacks soft power, but from another point of view, China has unique “soft power” in Central Asia. China does not interfere in the internal affairs of Central Asian countries, does not impose its will on them, does not ask them to choose sides between China and other countries, and does not seek to establish a sphere of influence in Central Asia. Moreover, many developing countries remember that in China, the basic conditions of life were not good, and appreciate that it has stood out and achieved a rapid economic rise, becoming the second largest economy in the world in just a few decades. China does not export its model, but Central Asian countries are inspired by the success of the Chinese model and want to learn from China’s successful experience, which can also be described as China’s unique “soft power”.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.