Written by Peter Krasnopolsky.

There is a common view that while China has developed a strong economic position in the post-Soviet Central Asia, Russia is still the main political player there. Recent developments, though, suggest the roles of the two major powers may have changed.

China’s image in Central Asia is not favorable. A Kyrgyz saying goes: “When the dark haired Chinese arrives, even a red-bearded Russian will be dearer than your own father.” Elites in the region voice concerns about the mythical instrument of Chinese “expansion”. These range from a sincere belief that China has 30 million unrecorded “passport-less” individuals who may be resettled in bordering countries, to a hypothetical scenario where the Chinese government could cause unrest in Xingjiang and send Uyghur “refugees” across the border to affect the political systems of its neighbours, to a conspiracy that the real reason for building energy transporting  network is to provide Beijing with the pretence under international law to deploy troops to “protect” the pipelines.

China is well aware of its image problem. “Common civilization” and “Silk Road” rhetoric is being advocated at the official level. Confucius Institutes carefully promote Chinese culture; Beijing issues numerous scholarships to students from Central Asia; CCTV transmits programs from the heart of the region, and the International Department of the CPC Standing Committee have gathered mainstream political commentators from the Central Asian states for a group tour of China.

Cultural and social ties with Russia remain strong. Despite another regional saying – “when befriending a Russian, always keep an axe under your coat” – Russia is often viewed as a protector against “Chinese expansion”. However, Russia’s recent spat with Turkey, which had invested heavily in business and education in Central Asia, has placed most fellow Turkic states in an uncomfortable position. Additionally, Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis is criticized by elites, even in the more “pro-Russian” states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The weakened Russian economy has raised questions about the prospects for the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Moscow has also failed to deliver on some key infrastructure projects. At the beginning of 2016, Kyrgyzstan unilaterally denounced intergovernmental agreements under which Russia was supposed to fund and build two crucial hydropower plants. Reportedly, Russia’s financial difficulties caused stagnation of the project. Another issue is Russia’s recently improved bilateral relations with Uzbekistan, a downstream country, critical of the dams just across the border.

Russia is still a major destination for Central Asian migrant workers and Gazprom is still a key player in the regional energy network, but a weakened economy has undermined Russia’s political position in the region. Earlier in the year, after having been unable to impose its price point, Russia stopped importing gas from its traditional supplier Turkmenistan. Since China has become the main importer of Turkmen gas, Russia’s was no longer in the position to run a hard bargain. Increasingly diverse strategies towards Central Asian states highlights the situational nature of Russia’s engagement – economic multilateralism with EEU members, enhanced bilateral ties with Uzbekistan and jettisoning Turkmenistan.

Russia’s lack of political power and ambivalence are the two characteristics that  have been associated with China’s engagement in Central Asia. It is too early to conclude that the two major powers are swapping roles in Central Asia, but China has been finding its way into the traditional Russian prerogatives of political influence and functional multilateralism, sometimes without Russia participation.

China does not have a history of backing down on projects. Just a few months before Kyrgyzstan had given up on a Russian built dam, China financed and built a Datka-Kemin electricity transmission line which contributed greatly towards Kyrgyzstan’s energy security. Furthermore China-built oil refineries in northern Kyrgyzstan that would provide Kyrgyzstan with access to Kazakhstan-produced oil. More importantly, the nature of the projects financed and promoted by China has changed. In the recent past infrastructure, energy and telecommunication projects aimed to enhance China’s position in particular states. However, these often allowed rival neighbours to bypass each others’ territories, facilitating further isolation from each other.

Recent projects are of regional significance and require the coordinated efforts of multiple states. China has started building a southern branch of Central Asia – a Chinese gas pipeline that would run from Turkmenistan to China through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, three countries with longstanding feuds. It would be essential for these states to cooperate in order to manage the pipeline. Transnational management of the existing branches of the China–Central Asia pipeline is already in place through the Coordination Committee, which brings together representatives of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China. China has also made major concessions in a projected Kashgar-Osh-Andijan railroad, agreeing to a lengthier and costlier route to meet its neighbours’ demands. If the parties finally agree on the point where to change the tracks from standard to “Russian” gauge, the railroad would be a serious step towards regional cohesion.

China’s ambivalence and opportunism in Central Asia appear to have given way to focused multilateralism and steady development of political influence. Russia’s dominant political position, weakened by economic troubles, inconsistency and strained international relations elsewhere, may have to give way.

Peter Krasnopolsky is a PhD candidate at the UNNC, School of International Studies. His dissertation is focussed on how Russia and China affect regional cooperation among Central Asian states. Image Credit: CC by openDemocracy/Flickr.