China’s Central Asian Plans Are Unnerving Moscow
On the Kazakh border, a new city grows.
KHORGOS, Kazakhstan—On the China-Kazakhstan border, flanked by snowcapped peaks, a highway cuts through a barren landscape to reach this terminal at Khorgos. Here, amid a collection of cranes, rail tracks, and warehouses, a growing town is poised to become a bustling inland transport hub and a vital link in China’s vast and battered Belt and Road Initiative.
Khorgos is roughly 1,550 miles from the nearest coastline, but developers have dubbed the site a “dry port,” a terminal designed to process overland cargo. It began operating in 2015 and has seen steady growth. But it is also a launching pad for Beijing’s ambitions to connect Europe to Asia through new trade and transport routes under what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called “the project of the century.”
A nearby special economic zone is already home to a few factories and boasts lofty ambitions for future investment and industry. On the Chinese side of the border, the scope and scale of the project is already visible, with a sister city of high-rises and shopping malls, also called Khorgos, home to a population of more than 100,000 people after the town was officially opened in 2014.
Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest economy, has fully embraced its partnership with China, branding itself as the “buckle” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and looking to profit from the new economic opportunities provided by Beijing.
“Four or five years ago, there was nothing here,” said Nurlan Toganbayev, the director of the commercial department at the Khorgos Gateway, motioning toward railway tracks and cargo containers behind his office. “Right now, we are a terminal, but in the future we will grow into something far larger.”
China’s push into Central Asia through Belt and Road-linked investment projects has made Central Asia into a geopolitical laboratory—and a new frontier for global trade. Russia has traditionally seen the former Soviet Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as its own sphere of influence, but Beijing’s rise as the dominant economic force has changed the dynamics in the region, opening up a new era of recalibration. Beijing and Moscow aren’t the only players, either. In addition to advances from India, Japan, and the European Union, the Trump administration plans to publish a new strategy for Central Asia ahead of an expected trip by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the region in January.
American interest and involvement in Central Asia have waxed and waned since the collapse of the Soviet Union, intensifying in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan and ensuing anti-terrorism military campaigns. The new strategy comes after an increase of diplomatic outreach from Washington to local governments and is expected to focus on Afghanistan, as well as how to handle a rising China and revanchist Russia in Central Asia, which Washington views as its two main adversaries on the global stage.
“Central Asia is an interesting case where China is moving carefully in a hostile environment,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “[Beijing] has taken a pragmatic, and at times accommodating, approach to Russia in order to leverage its position into becoming the region’s major economic power.”
The renewed U.S. interest is in part motivated by Beijing’s desire to secure a share of the region’s rich natural resources and create new markets for Chinese goods, especially for such industries as steel and cement that are struggling with overcapacity as the domestic Chinese economy has slowed. Central Asia is also linked to China through security cooperation, with Beijing viewing the region as a potential bulwark against Islamist extremism in its western Xinjiang province, where the Chinese government has imprisoned over a million members of the Uighur Muslim minority in internment camps.
In 2013, Xi chose the Kazakh capital Astana (renamed Nur-Sultan this spring) as the setting for him to unveil the Silk Road Economic Belt, the overland component of what would later coalesce into the expansive Belt and Road Initiative. Since then, the Chinese project has become the cornerstone of Xi’s foreign policy, with Beijing issuing hundreds of billions of dollars in loans under its auspices as it has pushed west across Central Asia, making it Central Asia’s top investor. Kazakhstan has been the focal point, with the Kazakh government opening a gas pipeline to China and signing $30 billion worth of trade and investment deals. At the same time, Beijing’s economic footprint has deepened across the entire region.
China’s expanded presence in the region has been met with uncertainty and suspicion by the Kremlin, despite broad sympathies between Russia and China, which share a sense of being mistreated in the global order. Moscow initially responded to Beijing’s growing influence with competition, trying to maintain its mantle as the region’s main economic force through new energy projects, watering down Chinese-led initiatives, and the creation of its own economic bloc: the Eurasian Economic Union. But sanctions and fallout with the West from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 hampered the Eurasian Economic Union and left Moscow in need of a new, more pragmatic relationship with Beijing.
In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi signed an agreement to discuss harmonizing the Eurasian Economic Union with China’s Belt and Road, an important acknowledgement of respect for the Russian-led project, and the partnership between the two countries has continued to grow. Chinese troops participated in massive Russian military exercises in 2018, and the two countries conducted their first-ever joint air patrol over the Asia-Pacific in July. In Central Asia, the Kremlin has come to accept China’s economic supremacy, but it has pushed for a division of labor in the region. China will be the leading economic force, and Russia will continue to shape the region through its political and military ties, such as through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led military bloc.
“So far, Beijing is respecting this agreement, but the question is whether this can last in the future,” Gabuev said. “Russia is smart enough to know that Chinese moves into security in Central Asia are inevitable and that this doesn’t need to be a zero sum game. Moscow now needs to figure out what its red lines really are for China in the region.”
In Tajikistan, which shares an 843-mile southern border with Afghanistan and a 296-mile eastern border with China, Beijing has a small but growing security presence. A February report from the Washington Post found a small collection of Chinese military compounds, along with Chinese personnel, in Tajikistan. Similarly, a June report from the Wall Street Journal cited sources who referenced a secret agreement between China and Tajikistan where Beijing was granted rights “to refurbish or build up to 30 to 40 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan,” the report said.
The development represents an expanded Chinese security footprint as Beijing looks to safeguard its investments in the region, but analysts are quick to caution that the move should be viewed more as a sign of growing cooperation between China and Russia, rather than Chinese encroachment. Both countries are worried about the security situation in Tajikistan. Russia has spoken frequently about the potential for violence in Afghanistan to destabilize its Central Asian neighbors and already has more than 7,000 of its own troops stationed in the country at a military base. China, meanwhile, views the security situation in the region as intricately linked to neighboring Xinjiang and wants it to function as a buffer for Western China.
“There are lots of unresolved issues for China and Russia, but stability in Central Asia isn’t one of them,” said Daniyar Kosnazarov, a Central Asia analyst based in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. “China mostly cares about Xinjiang, and it doesn’t want a large military presence. Beijing is more than happy to free ride off Russian security.”
Despite their growing partnership and cooperation, Moscow is still anxious about China’s ambitions and is concerned about being relegated as the junior partner as the two countries deepen their ties.
This has led to a two-track approach, where Moscow has sought to selectively support and impede China in Central Asia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been one of the main vehicles for Beijing’s expanded influence with the countries of Central Asia. Founded in 1996 under a different title with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as members, the organization expanded and was renamed in 2001 when Uzbekistan joined. The SCO is meant to tackle terrorism—as conveniently defined by its largely authoritarian members—and other political and security issues, with the organization’s institute in Shanghai training the next generation of Central Asian military leaders. Moscow has long viewed Chinese motives for the SCO with suspicion and at times used its position in the organization to hamper it, such as when Russia brought in India and Pakistan as members in 2017. Many observers saw the move as a way to dilute the SCO and check Chinese influence over the Central Asian countries by bringing in two nations with their own dysfunctional history.
“Russia knows that China is part of the future,” Kosnazarov said, “but it wants Beijing’s presence in Central Asia to be on its own terms.”
At Khorgos, China’s hold on the future of Central Asia is evident, but Beijing’s meteoric rise has also created its own obstacles.
The Kazakh side is still a promise for the future rather than a realized project. Apart from a few factories, the special economic zone is mostly empty desert, and the dry port is an unassuming operation consisting of a pair of railway lines and warehouses. Nurkent, a nearby village that is home to the area’s workers and their families, is planned to one day expand into a city of 100,000 but is currently less than 2,000 people.
But Kazakhstan is still leery about becoming too entangled with China, engaging in the same balancing act between major powers that it has since it gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For instance, COSCO, the state-owned Chinese shipping giant, bought a 49 percent stake in Khorgos’ dry port last year from Kazakhstan’s national railway company, but the company still holds a controlling stake, and officials have stressed that all loans for the project will come from Kazakhstan.
China’s rise has also unnerved many ordinary Kazakhs, who remain suspicious of its intentions for their country and the region as a whole. A government proposal to change the land code sparked countrywide protests in 2016 over fears that Chinese companies would buy up and control parts of Kazakhstan. The authorities eventually suspended the law, but it highlights the local pushback that Beijing faces as it becomes more involved in the region.
“Infrastructure as a tool for influence can be limited,” said Jonathan Hillman, the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “Even when Chinese projects go well, it doesn’t necessarily translate into soft power gains.”
China’s domestic policies have also hurt its credibility in Central Asia. In recent years, Beijing has created a comprehensive surveillance state in Xinjiang, which shares a border with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and begun a brutal crackdown on the Turkic Muslim minorities in the region. The brunt of these efforts have focused on China’s Uighur population, but Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have also found their way into the so-called reeducation camps, which has damaged China’s image in both countries. While local governments have kept officially silent, using backdoor channels to pressure Beijing into releasing their citizens when possible but fearful of damaging relations with Beijing, the United States has been increasingly vocal on the issue. This has coincided with a wave of concerns about Belt and Road projects around the world, including talk of debt-trap diplomacy and corruption scandals that have hurt its brand in the last year or so.
This may give room for Moscow to reassert its hold on the region. The Kremlin is keen to keep playing a role in role in Central Asian politics. The annexation of Crimea has created mistrust, with many local governments seeing it as evidence that Moscow has little respect for the sovereignty of former Soviet countries. But the Kremlin still has influence, with linguistic and cultural ties that go back to tsarist times and many Central Asians still living and working in Russia as labor migrants.
This leaves limited space for the United States to occupy as it returns its attention to Central Asia. Washington will not be able to outcompete Beijing’s deep pockets in the region and is unlikely to match Russia’s commitment to engagement. Instead, Washington’s likely role is functioning as an alternative for local governments as they face “pressure from these other larger neighbors and a desire to have a counterweight—other alternatives—as they seek to pursue their international relations going forward,” said a senior State Department official.
What’s less clear are China’s future ambitions for Central Asia as Russia continues with its political and security dominance and the United States looks to balance Beijing and Moscow amid growing competition.
“Beijing knows that Moscow is sensitive about its status, and the government is willing to let Russia keep its mantle over Central Asia,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research. “They are playing the long game. That’s what China does.”
Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan