The metaphor of the Great Game has been regularly invoked with regard to Central Asia, most recently relating to the competition for the region’s energy resources and geostrategic location. Beijing’s growing economic and political clout has been perceived as a challenge to Moscow’s aspirations and interests in the region. As a consequence, Central Asia has been identified as the most plausible trigger, should a breakdown in Russo-Chinese cooperation occur. Surprisingly, however, both Eurasian powers have managed to steer their relations in Central Asia off a collision course so far. Neither have the series of Chinese inroads, ranging from building oil and gas pipelines to multi-billion dollar investments and loans, nor Russia’s half-baked counteraction in the form of the Customs Union/Common Economic Space led to outright competition.
Since the mid-2000s, relations in Central Asia had undergone deep transformation which, towards the beginning of the current decade, has resulted in the emergence of a new status quo. This power transition has been far from optimal for both Russia and China but satisfactory enough to remove Central Asia from the list of pressing concerns of the Russo-Chinese relationship.
The realm of energy – the most delicate and prone to fierce competition – is an illuminative example of this new status quo. China broke the Russian near-monopoly on the import of resources from the region, having constructed an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan (via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan). Chinese upstream investments have trumped those of Russian energy giants, in Kazakhstan in particular (24% of oil and gas exploration belongs to China, about 12% to Russia). Meanwhile, Russia has managed to maintain its presence in energy sectors of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as well as to retain the dominant position in those of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Other aspects of the new status quo include stagnation with regard to multilateral structures in the
region (with the exception of the Eurasian Union, discussed below). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization seems to have exhausted its potential by the mid-2000s, since then becoming little more than a forum for discussions, photo-ops and regularly conducted military exercises. Neither Russian nor Chinese ideas for substantial cooperation have received support from other SCO members. The energy club, promoted by Moscow, was denied as it would tie China’s hands in the realm of energy. The free trade zone, put forward by Beijing, was dismissed as it would ensure Chinese economic domination. The growing number of observers (the most recent being Afghanistan) and ‘partners in dialogue’ (Turkey) disguises the absence of consensus between Moscow and Beijing whether, if at all, to enlarge the SCO. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) provides symbolic reassurance of Moscow’s primacy in the field of regional security.
The moves undertaken by Russia and China in recent years have not challenged the new status quo. China has been increasing its presence in the energy sector, further investing in Kazakhstani oil fields and enlarging the capacity of the gas pipelines. The China National Petroleum Corporation has recently concluded a new agreement on the exploration of Tajik natural gas resources, but China has tacitly withdrawn from supporting hydro-energy projects in this state. Russia’s Gazprom has taken over Kyrgyzgaz. None of the other undertaken steps constitutes a qualitative breakthrough. China’s generous loan- offer for Central Asian states, which was to reach 10 billion USD, has not been taken up. Only two projects are underway in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which value is estimated at 150 million USD – a fraction of the promised amount).
What are the reasons behind the surprising absence of rivalry between Russia and China in Central Asia? Are we witnessing a ‘new type of great powers relationship’ emerging in the region? It has become the Chinese ‘keyword’ for having a greater say in relations with the U.S. At this stage, it looks more like a return to policy prescriptions of classical realism. Following the emergence of the new status quo in the region, both Russia and, to a larger extent, China have demonstrated self-restraint. Particularly Beijing’s material capabilities would allow for gaining a much more robust position in Central Asia, to the detriment of Russia’s political preponderance, but China seems to be unwilling to project its power.
What are the potential game changers? The most recent Russia’s move – the attempt to establish the Eurasian Union – has a latent potential to tip the existing status quo off the balance. It assumes the creation of a closed economic bloc in the post-Soviet space, with Kazakhstan already being a member and Kyrgyzstan negotiating its accession. Nevertheless, as long as the Russian-led integration does not endanger key aspects of the Chinese presence - such as the energy assets and infrastructure - one should expect neither harsh reactions from Beijing nor increased rivalry with Russia. The predominantly (geo)political nature of the Russian project implies that much of the integration is going to remain on paper, thus perpetuating the new status quo based on informal division of economic and political influence.