In March 2019, Dmitry Zhelobov, a specialist on China at Russia’s Urals Federal University, warned that Beijing was shifting from relying on soft power in Central Asia to using hard power. If Russia did not take this threat seriously, he added, China might have its own military bases in that region within five years, seriously undermining the Russian position there (Regnum, March 28, 2019; see EDM, April 4, 2019). At that time, he appeared to be a voice crying in the wilderness. Indeed, for the previous two decades, Moscow had defined its challenge in Central Asia as preventing any expansion of Western (mainly United States) influence in the five countries of this region as well as blocking the spread of Islamist instability from Afghanistan and the greater Middle East into post-Soviet Eurasia; it has viewed China as an ally on both counts. Yet, more recently, that assumption of Chinese activities in Central Asia being compatible with Russian goals is coming under increasing strain.
In his commentary last year, Zhelobov suggested that Moscow’s view was based on the fact that China, up to that point, had viewed the Central Asian republics “above all as transit countries” rather than as ends in themselves and believed that using soft power, involving the promotion of trade and educational institutions, was sufficient to that end. But Beijing’s soft power and economic moves, while reducing the amount of criticism Central Asian governments have directed at the Chinese treatment of its Muslim populations, have not solved all of its problems in the region. Backlash has been growing among Central Asians to China’s heavy-handed approach not only in Xinjiang but in its relations with the Central Asian populations themselves. And because China is simultaneously seeking to develop trans-Eurasian transportation corridors that bypass the Russian Federation (see EDM, June 10, 2019, December 3, 2019, April 23, 2020) Beijing wants to ensure that Moscow will think twice before interfering with its activities in Central Asia (see EDM, September 10, 2019; Carnegie.ru, March 25, 2020; CAAN, December 17, 2018). As a result, China has begun to make certain hard power moves; and these are making some in Moscow nervous about the East Asian giant’s intentions.
Perhaps the most dramatic Chinese move in that direction came in April of this year, when China opened an airport in its Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous District, near the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. This is the first such airport in the Badakhshan (Pamir Mountains) area and one that gives Beijing new access to the peoples and natural resources of this much contested region. Moreover, Beijing has said that it will build more than 25 such airfields in the next few years, adding that they will promote tourism. Yet, that claim seems especially specious given China’s involvement in building military facilities for Tajikistan and the fact that few Chinese are traveling to Tajikistan, let alone to that Central Asian republic’s troubled Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, near the Afghan border (CAAN, May 7, 2020; see EDM, July 27, 2012, July 25, 2019, April 30, 2020).
Such Chinese actions have now prompted some in the Russian military to reconsider their views of Beijing’s role not only in Tajikistan but across Central Asia. As such, they are seemingly taking Zhelobov’s warning more seriously, concluding that China, Russia’s supposed ally, is in fact acting to challenge Russia in ways Moscow cannot afford to ignore and must seek to counter.
Writing in Vzglyad last week (June 9), security specialist Yevgeny Pogrebnyak argues that the actions of China in Central Asia have not only “attracted the attention of Russian commanders” but led Moscow to take steps intended to counter what they see as unwarranted and unwanted Chinese military expansion in the region (Vzglyad, June 9). Moscow is still justifying its own moves as part of the creation of a defense in depth against Islamist forces; but, the commentator suggests, they are increasingly being taken in response to what China is doing as well.
The Russian military’s expansion of its footprint at the Kant Air Base, in Kyrgyzstan, is a case in point, Pogrebnyak says. Judging by the equipment it has installed there, he argues, it has more to do with ensuring that country stays in Russia’s orbit—and does not pass into China’s—than in fighting Islamist terrorists. Indeed, a negative reaction of some Kyrgyzstanis regarding the activities occurring at the airbase recently compelled the Russian embassy in Bishkek to release a statement denying that Moscow’s moves represented an attack on the Kyrgyz Republic’s sovereignty (24.kg, June 2; Vzglyad, June 9).
The same pattern holds in Tajikistan, the security expert continues. Russia has also provided new equipment to this country that is more obviously designed to counter a geopolitical opponent, like China, than to fight incursions by Islamists, which, he suggests, Dushanbe is already capable of combatting on its own. That inevitably raises a question: “Why then is Russia seeking to strengthen its military presence in Central Asia?” According to the analyst, the answer lies in what China has been doing and how the Russian military presently views Beijing’s actions. China, of course, shares Russia’s concerns about the spread of Islamist violence in Central Asia; but even if that is the primary justification for its military expansion into the region, it is far from the only reason (Vzglyad, June 9).
Pogrebnyak approvingly cites the conclusions of Tajikistani security specialist Muslim Buriyev who says that, “until recently, there existed a balance between Russia and China in the region. Moscow was “responsible” for security, while Beijing spearheaded regional investment. Now, however, the Chinese have shown that Central Asia has ceased to be only a zone of economic interests for them, “and they are gradually building up their military cooperation there.” Besides an expansion in arms deals, China has been increasing joint military exercises with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, talking about a Chinese base in the latter, and already building military posts along the Tajikistani-Afghan border (Vzglyad, June 9).
The balance between Russia and China in the region is shifting, Buriyev contends; and Moscow is responding. What the Tajikistani analyst does not say, but what may be the most important aspect of this, is that such Russian security concerns may make it far more difficult for President Vladimir Putin to develop his alliance with China. At the very least, there will be siloviki (security services personnel) in his capital ever more worried about what Beijing is doing (Vzglyad, June 9).