China’s and Russia’s Interests in Central Asia: Connecting the Dots in Kazakhstan

Visiting Astana, the modernistic capital of Kazakhstan, last week, I couldn’t help feeling that I was at, or at least close to, the center of the universe. 

Consider this:  On September 7, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, having just returned from attending the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg at the invitation of President Putin of Russia, welcomed President Xi Jinping of China for an official visit in Astana. President Xi gave a speech that day at Nazarbayev University, in which he unabashedly borrowed a turn of phrase from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  by proposing a “New Silk Road” to serve as an “economic belt” of Eurasia, connecting “3 million people from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea” with Kazakhstan as a key partner along the way. 

On September 10, President Nazarbayev opened the Eurasian Emerging Markets Forum in Astana, at which he addressed some 800 participants, including high-level dignitaries and representatives from 87 countries.  In his keynote speech, he laid out his plans to catapult Kazakhstan into the ranks of the top 30 developed countries in the world by 2050.  The rest of the forum was devoted to exploring the ways in which this ambitious vision could be achieved and how economic integration of the Eurasian supercontinent—i.e., Europe plus Asia, with Kazakhstan at its center—would be a driver of regional and global prosperity. 

Finally, on September 13, President Nazarbayev joined the leaders of China, Russia and the five Central Asian republics in Bishkek for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was also attended by a number of other regional leaders with observer status, including from Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan.  Besides the usual pledges of good neighborly relations within the group, the leaders weighed in with a chorus of statements about current geopolitical trouble spots, including Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, many of them directed critically at the United States.

While the president and people of Kazakhstan might have felt at the center of global action this week, there is little doubt that China and Russia are the key external actors on the Central Asian stage.  Europe and the United States are far away and hardly visible, and everybody expects that, with the imminent end of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan, their attention to Central Asia will slip even further.  In contrast, the leaders of China and Russia are clearly focused on this region.  

Central Asian leaders, while perhaps privately worried about the long-term consequences of too tight an embrace by China, welcome the low-key approach of their big neighbor…

If there had been any doubt, President Xi’s speech in Astana showed that China is now concerned with Central Asia at the highest level.  While China faces its neighbors in the Pacific region in an assertive pose designed to counter what it sees as encirclement by unfriendly countries led by the U.S., it evidently feels no threat in Central Asia and projects an image of itself as benevolent and modest senior partner.  No doubt sensing opportunities to create a stable backyard, to secure access to energy resources and to build a land bridge to European and Middle Eastern markets while also gently wresting influence away from Russia, China has a strong incentive to push westward.  The substantial energy supply deals  that President Xi signed in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan this past week and the stress Xi placed in his Astana speech on measures to open up transport links throughout Eurasia reflect China’s growing engagement in this region.  Central Asian leaders, while perhaps privately worried about the long-term consequences of too tight an embrace by China, welcome the low-key approach of their big neighbor, which promises to strengthen their own hand economically and politically at least in the short term.

At the same time, there is also a new dynamic between Central Asia and Russia.  Since Mr. Putin resumed the Russian presidency in 2012, Russia has breathed new life into a long-dormant regional grouping, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), by pushing hard to create a customs union  (and eventually an economic union) that, in Russia’s view, would encompass most of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Although only a fraction of the geographic space of continental Eurasia (Europe + Asia), the reference to “Eurasia” harks back to a long-standing Russian ideological vision.  Under this vision, Russia and its former Soviet neighbors are endowed with a unique combination of European and Asian values and, led by Russia, with a mission to dominate the land bridge between Europe and Asia. 

In the pursuit of establishing a unified economic “Eurasian” space, Russia has not only successfully pushed for the full implementation of the current customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belorussia, but is also vigorously pursuing the expansion of the union in Ukraine, Central Asia (specifically targeting the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan) and Armenia in the South Caucasus.  In the case of Armenia and Ukraine, this pursuit has taken on a decidedly anti-European Union tone, as Russia seems to spare no effort to ensure that these countries will join its own economic orbit, rather than associating with the EU.  In Central Asia, the Russian campaign of expanding the customs union has been more low key, but nonetheless persistent with the quiet support of Kazakhstan.  Interestingly, this effort to create a unified economic space has not been cast by Russia as a move to counteract the growing influence of China in Central Asia, even though it is undoubtedly one of the underlying long-term motives for Russian diplomacy in the region.  

Much more important for China will be whether the “Eurasian” economic union can create safe, low-cost and high-speed transit routes to China’s key trading partners in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.

Indeed, for Central Asia in general and for Kazakhstan in particular, the important questions for the future will be how China and Russia shape their mutual relations overall and how they will seek to accommodate their overlapping interests in the region.  For the moment, a common geopolitical front vis-à-vis the U.S., evident in their joint positions at the U.N. Security Council and at the SCO summit last week, is an overarching priority for China and Russia.  Moreover, they share the common interest of establishing a stable and prosperous political and economic sphere in Central Asia.  For now and the foreseeable future, China’s thirst for energy is large enough to allow both Russia and Central Asian countries to pursue opportunities for major oil and gas supply deals with China without undue competition. Finally, whatever protectionist effects an expansion of the Russian-led customs union may have in limiting trade between China and Central Asia will likely be temporary and will hardly be noticed in China’s huge overall trade account.  Much more important for China will be whether the “Eurasian” economic union can create safe, low-cost and high-speed transit routes to China’s key trading partners in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East. This priority strongly resonated in President Xi’s speech, in which he not only staked out an interest in Eurasian economic integration, but also promised greater cooperation between the SCO and EurAsEC.

What does all of this mean in practical terms for Central Asia and for Kazakhstan?  As President Nazarbayev indicated in his speech at the Eurasian Emerging Markets Forum, he sees Kazakhstan as playing a key role in supporting the economic integration of larger Eurasia.  This presumably should mean: investing in regional infrastructure, such as the major East-West Highway through Kazakhstan as a link from China to Europe; assuring that the customs union pursues open, rather than protectionist, policies; and convincing the other Central Asian countries, including Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to participate in an effort to increase the region’s connectivity both internally and with the rest of the world. 

In addition, there are a number of institutional options for promoting these goals and for turning China’s and Russia’s engagement in Central Asia into a pragmatic partnership.  One option would be to have China join the Eurasian Development Bank (EADB), the financial arm of EurAsEC.  Another would be for Russia to join the Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation Program (CAREC), in which China has teamed up with Central Asian countries (now also including Afghanistan, Mongolia and Pakistan) and with six international financial organizations (including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank) with the goal of improving regional cooperation and investment in trade, transport and energy.  Either or both of these two options could then offer SCO a financial and technical institutional platform to pursue economic integration between China, Russia and Central Asia (and, ultimately, even South Asia), a goal that has eluded SCO up until now. 

Kazakhstan is a member of EurAsEc, EADB, CAREC and SCO, and is therefore in a unique position to promote institutional changes along some or all of these lines.  One place to start would be the next ministerial conference of CAREC, to be held in Astana on October 24-25.  Of course, it is by no means clear that China and Russia will see it in their interest to dilute their lead roles in EADB and CAREC, the regional organizations that they now respectively dominate.  However, establishing a strong and meaningful institutional capacity that would support the economic integration process in Central Asia and in the larger Eurasia would be of great benefit for Kazakhstan, since it would help turn the country from being “land-locked” to being “land-linked” with the world’s largest and most dynamic economies.