Central Asia’s Geopolitical Crossroads: The Dynamics of ‘Coopetition’ between Russia and China

In the contemporary geopolitical landscape, there is a unique phenomenon whereby certain regions become arenas for both cooperation and competition among major states, exerting significant influence on their development and stability. In recent years, Central Asia has witnessed a complex balance between cooperation and competition between Russia and China. This process not only shapes the dynamics within the region but also influences the global political landscape. The intensive interaction between Russia and China with the countries of Central Asia in the 21st century may indeed be a determining factor in shaping and developing the political and economic contours of this region. Leveraging geographical proximity, cultural ties, historical background, and growing economic interdependence, these two major powers continue to exert comprehensive influence on regional processes in Central Asia.

For over two decades, Chinese-Russian relations have developed without significant tension, and both countries have successfully maintained a positive balance in their relations with Central Asia. This is because there existed a so-called division of labor between the two regional leaders. Russia fulfilled the role of security guarantor in Central Asia, while China focused on economic cooperation with the region. By doing so, they minimized the potential for tensions between the two states. For a long time, it was believed that China aimed to stabilize the region primarily through economic means rather than military instruments or political measures. However, there are indications that China is growing its presence in the region, thereby altering the status quo.

The underlying cause for this phenomenon stems from the considerable geopolitical and geo-economic significance that Central Asia holds for both Russia and China. The presence of vast energy resources, geographical location, and potential as a transit corridor are key factors driving the strategic significance of Central Asia in the 21st century. Russia views Central Asia as a crucial buffer zone and endeavors to maintain its dominant role in the region. To this end, it engages with regional countries in security cooperation on a bilateral basis and through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Additionally, Russia maintains a significant military presence in Central Asia through its operational military bases in the region, underscoring the importance of regional security for Russia. Beyond security considerations, Russia also aims to uphold its economic influence in Central Asia. This is manifested through the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), led by Russia, which represents an economic integration bloc. It is noteworthy that the objectives of the EAEU align with Russia’s broader goal of sustaining economic and political integration within its traditional sphere of influence. 

In turn, economically, China seeks to provide itself with energy resources to support its growing economy. In doing so, China reduces its dependence on vulnerable maritime routes and diversifies its sources of energy. While China’s interests in Central Asia are most apparent in the economic sphere, they are not confined solely to trade, investments, and energy flows. China views stability in Xinjiang as a crucial agenda for its internal security and seeks cooperation with Central Asian states to ensure regional security and to prevent the spread of potential instability from the region to its own territory. As Beijing strengthens its economic ties with Central Asian countries, it gains influence in the region, potentially altering existing power dynamics. This raises concerns for Russia regarding its own influence and strategic interests in Central Asia. 

China and Russia share overlapping interests in Central Asia, including regional stability, economic cooperation, and counterterrorism efforts. Moreover, both countries view the region as a gateway to access energy resources and expand trade routes. It is evident that these mutual interests create both new platforms and avenues for cooperation between the two countries in the region, as well as potential tensions and competition. Consequently, it is crucial to assess the simultaneous process of cooperation and competition between the two powers at this moment, as this balance of power will shape the future of the entire region. ‘Coopetition’ refers to the cooperation between business competitors in the hope of achieving mutually beneficial outcomes. This is precisely what we are currently witnessing in the geopolitical arena of Central Asia.

The volumes of trade and the scales of economic cooperation between the countries of Central Asia and China have demonstrated significant growth year after year. For instance, over the past two years, China has managed to surpass Russia and become the primary trading partner for most countries in the region, as evidenced by reports from the official statistical agencies of these countries. According to data from the Bureau of National Statistics of Kazakhstan for January-September 2023, China occupies the first place with a share of 21.3% in the trade turnover of Kazakhstan, displacing Russia to second place with a share of 18.6%. Similarly, data from the Agency of Statistics under the President of Uzbekistan for January-November 2023 shows the largest volume of foreign trade turnover with China (21.3%). This trend is also evident in Kyrgyzstan, where according to the National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2022, China (4 billion 130.3 million dollars) tops the list of the country’s largest trading partners. From the report of the statistical agency under the President of Tajikistan for January-July 2023, it can be seen that China ($824.7 million) occupies the second place among the country’s largest trading partners, pushing Kazakhstan to the third place in this list. Russia is wary of the growing economic and political influence of China in Central Asia, which it perceives as a potential challenge to its own dominance. At the same time, both countries seek to balance their economic interests with each other’s strategic interests in order to avoid direct confrontation. Central Asian countries often navigate this ‘coopetition’, seeking to maximize benefits from both China and Russia. 

These two countries actively utilize the regional platforms created with their involvement to foster cooperation, strengthen their initiatives, and advance their influence in the region. Central Asian countries, in their pursuit of ensuring sustainable economic development, enhancing security cooperation, and regional integration, often engage in partnerships and actively support various initiatives involving either Russia or China, if not both simultaneously. China’s interaction with the Central Asian states typically occurs through the establishment of bilateral agreements; however, they also have access to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), through which they can coordinate their actions and collaborate across a wide spectrum of areas. Russia engages with the states of the region through various international mechanisms, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), facilitating cooperation across different spheres. Moreover, the absence of significant regional initiatives or organizations in Central Asia without the participation of Russia or China further underscores the pivotal role of these countries in shaping the political landscape of the region. 

Initially, Russia perceived China’s presence in the region as an opportunity to balance Western influence, alongside the economic opportunities presented by China. However, as China’s presence and active involvement in bilateral and multilateral relations with Central Asian countries grew, Russia began to perceive China’s actions in this direction as a challenge. Therefore, it is not surprising that Russia’s retaliatory actions did not take long to materialize. Russia has established the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) initiative in the region, aimed at strengthening economic integration and maintaining political ties with the Central Asian states. It is clear that Russia sees the EAEU as a tool to preserve its influence in the region and to balance China’s expanding economic presence. 

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has brought significant investments in infrastructure projects, trade, and energy cooperation in the region. It is evident that the ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” serves as the primary catalyst for China’s expanding presence in Central Asia. This has provided much-needed economic opportunities for the Central Asian states, but it has also increased their dependence on China. Indeed, the growth of China’s influence is paralleled by an expansion of its interests in the region. However, it is important to understand that participation on China’s terms may have devastating consequences for the poorest economies in the region.

The “Belt and Road” and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) represent two distinct approaches to regional integration in Central Asia. Both initiatives offer economic opportunities and pose potential risks for participating countries. China’s investments in BRI often compete with Russia’s economic interests in the region. The increasing energy needs of China have prompted significant investments in the energy resources of Central Asia, particularly in natural gas and oil. This creates competition with Russia, which historically has been a dominant player in the region’s energy sector. While instances of cooperation have occurred, such as joint ventures and pipeline projects, such ‘coopetition’ can sometimes lead to increased tension, especially when conflicting projects or interests arise. Despite all attempts to align the two initiatives in Central Asia, it is important to understand that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) are somewhat competing economic projects. The coordination between the EAEU and BRI is a complex process, as the Chinese BRI project places particular emphasis on infrastructure development, aiming to connect diverse markets, while the Russian-led EAEU focuses more on protecting the internal regional market from external influences. Additionally, a certain complexity is added by the fact that not all countries of the region are represented in the EAEU, but only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Competition between these countries for influence in the region, which encompasses nearly all spheres of life, can also be viewed through the lens of cultural diplomacy and soft power. The common historical past of the region’s countries with Russia, initially as part of the Russian Empire and later during the Soviet era, has left an indelible imprint in the form of the growing importance of the Russian language as a lingua franca and cultural affinity. It is not surprising that in the early years of independence, the region was under the influence of Russian media. Russian television, newspapers, and mass media have long played a noticeable role in Central Asia; these mass media outlets continue to operate steadily to this day. Publications such as “Izvestiya”, “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, “Kommersant”, and “Moskovsky Komsomolets”, as well as Russian TV channels like REN TV, NTV, and Russia24, compete with local media outlets for effective promotion of their position as the main political and news reference point for the entire regional society. Additionally, branches of leading Russian universities operate in the region, thereby contributing to the promotion of Russia’s positive image in the region. These instruments of soft power, employed by Russia to promote its political image, contribute to the solid position of the Russian language and culture in Central Asia. Furthermore, the representations of Rossotrudnichestvo, aimed at strengthening Russia’s humanitarian role worldwide, support a stable trend of integration and actively promote language and media culture in the region.

By employing strategies of soft power, China has succeeded in expanding and strengthening its cooperation with various regions and developing countries, including the Central Asian region. Through the application of soft power strategies, China simultaneously addresses numerous foreign policy objectives, including shaping the image of a reliable partner in the region, reducing sinophobia, and balancing the influence of third parties in the region. We can observe how China endeavors to effectively combine the promotion of its culture and cultural elements with the simultaneous achievement of its foreign policy and economic goals in the region. Actively promoting regional-scale financing, China thereby seeks to align its soft power with its economic potential. Among the mechanisms and instruments of Chinese soft power are both global and regional initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as more targeted investments in various sectors, such as Confucius Institutes, financing initiatives in public diplomacy, and media in developing countries. In recent years, it is becoming increasingly “trendy” to learn the Chinese language in Central Asian countries, offering significant career opportunities for those proficient in Chinese. As of today, there are 13 Confucius Institutes operating in four countries of Central Asia, offering interested individuals the opportunity to study the Chinese language and become acquainted with Chinese culture.

The unfolding ‘coopetition’ between China and Russia in Central Asia presents new challenges and opportunities for the young republics of the region, demanding flexibility and strategic thinking from them. ‘Coopetition’ between the two states increases the risk of dependency for the countries of Central Asia, as the presence of both powers intensifies, rendering the region more susceptible to external influences.  On one hand, this situation appears advantageous for the countries of Central Asia, as it provides them with a wide choice between the offerings of the two states; however, the risk is growing that they may find themselves in a situation where they must accept less advantageous terms and agreements to balance the interests of both states, inevitably leading to increased dependency on China and Russia. 

However, the Central Asian countries are not passive recipients of Chinese or Russian influence. The Central Asian republics are actively engaged in negotiations with both powers and interact with them at all levels to advance and protect their national interests. Each Central Asian country has clear priorities and goals when interacting with regional or global players. Therefore, the countries of Central Asia pursue a multi-vector foreign policy, engaging bilaterally and multilaterally with all regional and global powers. It is important to highlight initiatives such as Central Asia plus Japan, the C5+1 with the United States, and the Germany-Central Asia summit. These initiatives demonstrate how the countries of Central Asia are striving to diversify their foreign policy to minimize the risks of growing dependency on China and Russia.

In conclusion, the current relationship between China and Russia in Central Asia is a delicate balancing act, as both powers seek to leverage the benefits of cooperation while addressing potential challenges in their own interests. It is difficult not to notice the increasing influence of China in recent years, especially given that the imposition of sanctions against Russia has allowed China to become the primary trading partner for most Central Asian countries; however, Russia also demonstrates its unwillingness to relinquish Central Asia easily. China’s growing presence in the region and increasing volumes of Chinese investments suggest that Russian influence in the region is diminishing. On the other hand, Russia still maintains extensive cultural influence in Central Asia. However, it is important not to forget that despite the existing level of competition between the two powers, there also remains a high level of cooperation between them in Central Asia, and both countries strive to avoid open confrontation with each other.

Despite convergent interests and divergent strategies, both states consistently seek ways to reconcile their differences and maintain pragmatic relations. Indeed, preserving this delicate balance is crucial for both powers. Consequently, ensuring regional stability and security will demand careful management of these intricate relationships and safeguarding the sovereignty of Central Asian states.