Is China ready to replace Russian influence in Central Asia?

China's president Xi Jinping and Russia's president Vladimir Putin walking side by side.
China's president Xi Jinping and Russia's president Vladimir Putin walking side by side.   -  Copyright  Sergei Karpukhin/Sputnik
By Valeriy Nozhin

The focus of the upcoming China-Central Asia Summit summit in Xi'an is the promotion of Beijing's 'Belt and Road Initiative'. But according to analysts, the summit is less about the transit of goods and more about Russia's loss of influence in the region and whether China is ready to take over.

A summit involving the leaders of China and the heads of the five Central Asian states – all former Soviet republics – has been called by Beijing "a milestone on the way to building a RingCentral (China in the centre) Asian community with a common destiny". It is the first-ever face-to-face meeting between leaders in this format.

The summit's venue is highly significant: the city of Xi'an, one of the oldest in the world, and where one of the stages of the Great Silk Road once started. Promoting China's modern take on the ancient trade route - the Belt and Road project - is the official theme of the meeting.

However, for Swedish academic and Russia expert, Stefan Hedlund, it is less about product transit routes than about Russia's dwindling influence in the region, with China ready to take its place: "It's the first time that Russia, which for decades, if not a couple of centuries, has been the hegemon in Central Asia, is excluded. And this follows in the wake of Russia losing friendships across the region and China pouncing on the opportunity to become the new hegemon."

What is the "Belt and Road Initiative"?

The project was launched in 2013 as an amalgamation of strategic concepts that already existed at that time.

The Chinese economy had been declining for years, saturated - like Western markets - with Chinese goods. It needed to look elsewhere to stimulate development.

Formally, the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) was a mechanism for China to partner with countries around the world, to create reliable strategic routes for Chinese exports and strengthen the economies of partner countries.

The so-called New Silk Road has several routes to the West. Some through Russia, some through Kazakhstan and others through Mongolia. But, in the face of Western sanctions on Russia, these routes were virtually frozen.

One option to the south was via Central Asian countries to the Caspian Sea, and then either by sea or southwards via Iran. This became the main route. Before the summit, the media were talking about the possible expansion of the ports of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

"There is supposed to be a northern spur, going through Russia. But after the war in Ukraine, that is now dead. So the BRI is totally focused on the middle road, which is good news for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and it's good news for Azerbaijan and Turkey, and it's very bad news for Russia," believes Hedlund.

Collision between China and Russia?

The Central Asian states in question - all former Soviet republics - have been considered a zone of Russian influence. However, Beijing stresses that the region is also of crucial importance to China. Beijing has declared Central Asia to be "the only strategic partnership zone around China", with its ties with Kazakhstan officially designated "perpetual".

Russia (and the CSTO mechanism) was to some extent a guarantor of security in the region, where traditional economic ties also played a major role. But after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this role has been called into question. And the Russian economy, which has been subjected to unprecedented sanctions, no longer looks so attractive.

In addition, China is likely to act prospectively, seeking to influence not only the current leadership of the Central Asian nations but also those who will replace them:

"There is a generational issue as well, in the sense that most of the old guard of leaders in central Asia have gone to universities in Russia. They have Russian networks. They speak Russian. I mean, they're heavily invested in that network economically," explains Hedlund. "Whereas the younger generation don't have that link to Russia. I mean, they're very nationalistic in many cases. They speak their own native languages and they're probably more interested in listening to pan-Turkic ambitions of Turkey and President Erdogan than they are in maintaining any form of relations with Russia."

The competition for influence in Central Asia is no longer with Russia, but quite possibly with Turkey. Turkey has far more cultural and religious clout than China, which has been accused of persecuting Muslims, particularly the Uighurs. China, on the other hand, has incomparably greater financial and economic leverage. 

"You can construct a scenario where the Central Asian countries, the big ones, in particular Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, really try to play their own game and do so skilfully,” says Hedlund. “And I mean the fact that four of the five regional leaders did go to the victory parade in Moscow. So they're playing a little bit of all sides here, probably sensing to what extent they can become a player in their own right and play with China and with Turkey without antagonising either side."

Impact of sanctions

For Moscow, Central Asia has become one of the ways of circumnavigating sanctions. In 2022, countries in the region dramatically increased their imports of Western goods and their trade with Russia. Both have almost doubled, according to reports. 

Now a new 11th EU package is expected to include measures against third countries that help Russia circumvent sanctions, in particular those which re-export banned goods. The list includes companies from countries whose leaders are meeting in Xi'an - including China itself.

There is no doubt that the parties will discuss the issue during the summit. 

Beijing is ambivalent about Western sanctions against Russia. At the political level, at the level of statements from the top leadership, there may be an impression that China actually supports Russia.

But in practice, Chinese entrepreneurs are choosing the West. China is heavily dependent on the US in terms of technology. And experts are highly sceptical that Beijing would opt to aggravate relations already tense relations with Washington for the sake of Moscow. 

Can Russia maintain its influence in the region?

According to Stefan Hedlund, Russia is now being to forced to watch the situation develop from the sidelines: "To my mind, it’s the end of Russia's pivot to Asia that was launched by Vladimir Putin at the APEC meeting in Vladivostok in 2012 when he said that the purpose of this is for the Russian economy to catch Chinese winds in the sails of the Russian economy. Now, I would say that the Russian economy is a dismasted and drifting wreck in the sea. And the Chinese don't give favours. If Russia ever believed that China was going to do something for them without getting more in return, they have now learned that it was wrong. They hadn't done their homework on China the way China had done their homework on Russia."

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