Global Governance
Do Russia and China Have Coordinated Strategies Towards Central Asia?

The atmosphere of trust and the lack of competition and rivalry between China and Russia in Central Asia are the most important factors driving security and regional stability, writes Djoomart Otorbaev, Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic in 2014–2015.

Over the course of three months, that is, almost simultaneously, the foreign ministers of Russia and China held very similar meetings with their counterparts from the five Central Asian countries. All of them were held in a 5 + 1 format. Does this mean that the region has come to be seen by the major powers as a single bloc? Does such consistency mean the coordination of these countries in determining their general policy towards the countries of Central Asia?

Russia

On October 16, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a 5 + 1 meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries. In fact, this means that from now on, Moscow intends to develop not only bilateral relations with the countries of the region, but also formally considers Central Asia as a single region.

The 5 + 1 format, within which the Central Asian states hold regular meetings with influential countries, is not new. Japan became the first country to offer such a format for cooperation with the region back in 2004. It was followed by South Korea (2007), the European Union (2007), the United States (2015), and India (2019). And on July 16 of this year, for the first time, China also held a meeting in a similar format.

The statement of the six ministers “On strategic directions of cooperation” can be viewed as a programme document consolidating Russia’s somewhat modified approach to the region. As follows from the joint statement of the six ministers, from now on, such meetings will become regular.

Until now, the majority of primarily Western political scientists have argued that Moscow deliberately did not want to recognise Central Asia as a special region, that Russia preferred cooperation with each of the countries in the region separately. There were both direct hints and speculations that Russia adheres to the good old colonialist principle of “divide and rule”.

I categorically do not share the assumptions that someone wants to deliberately see our region as a group of divided entities, unfriendly towards each other. This approach is a simplistic, outdated and erroneous “colonial” myth. I am sure that everyone is interested in the Central Asian region being predictable, safe, prosperous and friendly, especially towards its neighbours. It should not be a source of poverty, instability or conflict.

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The text of the statement issued by Russia’s 5 + 1 group reflects the position of participants on regional cooperation issues, practically without touching on the international agenda. This sets it apart from similar statements by the US or the European Union on Central Asia. For example, the text of the statement does not contain calls regarding the importance of promoting democracy, human rights and other similar values. If in the American strategy the word “democracy” is mentioned five times, and “human rights” — four times, then in the joint Russia-Central Asia document, there are no such references at all. On the other hand, the statement especially noted many other promising areas of current and future interaction between the countries participating in this format.

The document emphasises mutual respect for the security and territorial integrity of the participating countries. If necessary, the states will provide each other with essential assistance and support. There were also direct specifics. For example, the parties agreed not to provide their territory, air or sea space to countries outside the region for military needs. It’s known that the American administration is discussing the possibility of its military and reconnaissance aircraft flying over the territory of Central Asia, meaning, first of all, flights to Afghanistan through the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Countries will continue to work closely together in the fight against terrorism, narcotics and arms smuggling, and will cooperate more actively in the joint fight against cyber-warfare in an era of diverse “hybrid” campaigns.

Particular attention in the document is paid to programmes for economic cooperation and the development of transport links, which are currently seriously undermined by the restrictions associated with the spread of the pandemic. The statement outlines many other areas in which Russia would like to cooperate more actively with the countries of the region. In recent years, without taking 2020 into account, there has been another significant increase in trade turnover between the countries of the region: in 2018 it showed 35 percent annual growth, and amounted to 12.2 billion USD, and in 2019 increased again by more than 30 percent from a year earlier. Naturally, the pandemic had a negative impact on the volume and quality of mutual trade.

It’s well-known that Russia and China are the largest investors in Central Asia. Accumulated assets, without capital investments, from third-country jurisdictions amount to about 20 billion USD, of which 47 percent was invested in the energy sector, 22 percent in non-ferrous metallurgy and 15 percent in telecommunications. More than 17,000 enterprises with Russian capital operate in the region.

Russia provides technical assistance for the sustainable development of Central Asia. Between 2008 and 2019, its assistance totalled over 6 billion USD.

As of the end of 2019, 172,000 students from Central Asia were studying at Russian universities; 59,000 of them received funds for their education from Russia’s federal budget.

In 2019, the number of labour migrants from Central Asia to Russia reached 6 million, which is 4 percent of the total population of Russia. According to the World Bank, total remittances from Russia to the Central Asian countries totalled an impressive 9.4 billion USD in the same year.

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Migrant remittances account for about 30 percent of the GDP of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, one of the highest rates for this metric in the world.

The authorities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities recently announced a catastrophic shortage of labour resources associated with the pandemic and the massive outflow of migrants to their countries. The net inflow of foreigners to Russia fell by more than 58% in January-August, and there were by 40% fewer migrants in Moscow. Many predict an additional “slowdown” in the Russian economy due to the colossal labour shortage. According to some experts, migrants create up to 10 percent of Russia’s GDP, which indicates the mutually beneficial nature of such interaction.

China

On July 16 of this year, China held its first 5 + 1 format meeting with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries. From now on, Beijing, like Moscow, will develop not only bilateral ties, but also formally regard Central Asia as a single region.

Given the existing interdependence of the economies, the Chinese side announced its readiness to create “green corridors” for its Central Asian partners to ensure uninterrupted cross-border trade flows. The foreign ministers particularly elaborated on new opportunities for cooperation on such drivers of the new industrial revolution as digitalisation, e-commerce, financial services, smart cities, and the application of modern technology in industry. They noted their readiness to strengthen and deepen cooperation in the field of high technology and the pharmaceutical industry.

Among the innovations, it should be noted that the ministers decided to strengthen the multilateral political dialogue. The existing economic relations under the Belt and Road Initiative and mutual security commitments within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will now be reinforced by closer political relations.

The creation of a new format is an expansion of the traditional role of China and a signal of its readiness, when necessary, to influence events in the region.

In recent years, China has continued its fruitful economic cooperation with all of the countries in the region. The dynamics of its trade with the Central Asian countries testifies that trade is no longer a “one-way street”. From 2001 to 2019, trade between China and the countries of the region increased 30-fold, from 1.5 billion USD in 2001 to 46.5 billion USD in 2019. The growing Chinese market is becoming increasingly important for the economies of Central Asia. Exports from Central Asian countries to China increased from $14.64 billion in 2013 to $18.83 billion in 2019. Accordingly, China’s share in total exports from Central Asia rose from 17% to an impressive 23%. At the same time, over the past few years, Central Asia’s Chinese imports have slightly decreased — from 15.42 billion USD in 2013 to 14.35 billion USD in 2019. China’s share in the region’s imports also fell slightly, from 28% to 21%. This may be due to higher prices for Chinese imports, new tariffs and duties introduced in the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as the economic transformation of the region.

According to the Ministry of Commerce of China, in 2018 the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) from the country amounted to 3.8 billion USD to Kazakhstan, 1.98 billion USD to Turkmenistan, 412 million USD to Uzbekistan, 316 million USD to Tajikistan and 47 million USD to Kyrgyzstan. It is critically important that the structure of investment in the region has shifted for the better. Chinese businesses began investing not only in the energy sector and its logistics, but also in manufacturing, technology and processing. As of July 2019, China has invested 2.16 billion USD in the industrial sector in Kazakhstan; this figure was practically zero in 2013. Uzbekistan also prioritises Chinese investment in its processing and industry. Most of the 46 projects agreed upon in 2018 between the two countries worth about 6.8 billion USD are focused mainly on these industries.

Even without ministerial meetings, new initiatives are regularly born. For example, on June 5, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan opened a new multimodal transport corridor consisting of rail and road sections. The first 25 containers of electrical products were transported by train from Lanzhou to Kashgar, where they were loaded onto trucks to cross the border with Kyrgyzstan at the Irkeshtam checkpoint. In Osh, they were again loaded onto trains and transported to Uzbekistan. According to Chinese customs, the journey took seven days — five days faster than through Kazakhstan — and was 295 kilometres shorter. It is possible that some kind of logistic “testing” is taking place to create a direct railway corridor between China and Uzbekistan, with access to Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey. It is known that China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have discussed the construction of a railway line through Kyrgyzstan since the late 1990s. In all likelihood, the extremely successful Eurasian rail corridor between China and Europe could push China to develop a more southern rail route.

What does it mean that the statements of China and Russia on Central Asia have appeared almost simultaneously, and that the content of the statements was quite similar? In my opinion, none of this happened by accident. Perhaps there was a coordination of the positions of Central Asia’s two most important neighbours. This circumstance, in my opinion, is a very positive fact. The atmosphere of trust and the lack of competition and rivalry between China and Russia in Central Asia are the most important factors driving security and regional stability.

The main task for the countries of the region themselves should be to pursue real and deeper cooperation in both the economic and political spheres. Then, additional opportunities will open for the transition of our countries to an even higher level of interaction and friendship.

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