Is China Ready to Replace Russian Influence in Central Asia?

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 8 Min Read
origin 1Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk side by side. ©Sergei Karpukhin/Sputnik

A summit involving China’s leaders and the heads of five Central Asian states – all former Soviet republics – was described by Beijing as “a milestone on the road to building a RingCentral Asian community with a common destiny ” . It is the first face-to-face meeting between leaders in this format.

The venue for the summit is very 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 began. Promoting China’s modern interpretation of 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’s less about the transit routes of products than about Russia’s diminishing influence in the region, with China poised 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 seizing the I fly the opportunity to become the new hegemon”.

What is the “Belt and Road Initiative”?

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

The Chinese economy had been in decline for years, saturated – like Western markets – with Chinese goods. We had to look elsewhere to stimulate development.

Formally, the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) was a mechanism for China to work together with countries around the world, to establish 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 some through Mongolia. But, in the face of Western sanctions on Russia, these routes were practically frozen.

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

“There should be a northern spur, which runs through Russia. But after the war in Ukraine, it is now dead. So BRI is totally focused on the middle ground, which is good news for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and it is a good news for Azerbaijan and Turkey, and bad news for Russia,” Hedlund believes.

Clash 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 for China. Beijing has declared Central Asia to be “the only strategic partnership zone around China”, with its ties with Kazakhstan officially described as “perpetual”.

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

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

“There’s also a generational issue in the sense that most of the old guard of Central Asian leaders went to universities in Russia. They have Russian networks. They speak Russian. I mean, they’re heavily invested in that network economically,” explains Hedlund. “While the younger generation doesn’t have that connection to Russia. I mean, in many cases they are very nationalistic. They speak their native language and are probably more interested in hearing about the pan-Turkish ambitions of Turkey and President Erdogan than they are be they in maintaining any form of relationship with Russia”.

The competition for influence in Central Asia is no longer with Russia, but most likely with Turkey. Turkey carries far greater cultural and religious clout than China, which has been accused of persecuting Muslims, especially Uyghurs. China, on the other hand, has incomparably greater financial and economic leverage.

“You can build a scenario where the Central Asian countries, the bigger ones, especially Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, really try to play their game and they do it skillfully,” says Hedlund. “And I mean the fact that four of the five regional country leaders went to the victory parade in Moscow. So they’re playing a little bit with all the teams here, probably sensing to what extent they can become a player in their own right and play with China and with Turkey without antagonizing either side”.

Impact of sanctions

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

A new 11th EU package is now expected to include measures against third countries that help Russia evade sanctions, especially those that 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 at the summit.

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

But in practice, Chinese entrepreneurs choose the West. China is heavily dependent on the US in terms of technology. And experts are very skeptical that Beijing will choose to aggravate already tense relations with Washington for the good of Moscow.

Can Russia maintain its influence in the region?

According to Stefan Hedlund, Russia is now forced to watch the situation unfold from the sidelines: “In my view, it is the end of Russia’s pivot to Asia which 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 the Chinese winds in the sails of the Russian economy. Now, I would argue that the Russian economy is a wreck dismasted and adrift in the sea. And the Chinese give no favors If Russia ever believed that China would do something for them without getting more in return, now they’ve learned that was wrong. They didn’t do their homework with China the way China did their homework with Russia “.

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