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Central Asia caught in a geopolitical tug of war

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Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the China-Central Asia Summit in Xian in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi on 19 May 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo).

In Brief

Central Asian countries have become increasingly entangled by Russia's coercive diplomacy and China's growing economic presence in the region. The region is navigating a delicate balance between aligning with Russia's interests on Ukraine while also seeking to connect with the West. Yet despite Russia’s coercion, Central Asian countries are still benefiting from economic growth fuelled by increased Russian trade, migration and remittances, demonstrating the region's delicate relationships with global powers.


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Since invading Ukraine, Russia has used a combination of incentives and threats to align Central Asian countries with its interests. Russia has also converged with China as an adamant opponent to Western development cooperation programs that they perceive as masked initiatives aimed at infiltrating Central Asia and steering the region to support Ukraine.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are reorienting their multi-vector foreign policy with varying degrees of urgency to strike a balance, distancing themselves from Russia’s aggression while avoiding the Kremlin’s wrath.

Meanwhile, often overlooked Afghanistan is poised to demonstrate its influence in the region due to an impending water assess crisis, large-scale migration and increased assertiveness from the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).

Central Asian countries have observed the Taliban’s efforts to solidify its grip on power and Iran’s proxy conflict with Israel with anxiety, revealing escalating tensions across Western and Central Asia. The alleged ISKP bombing in Iran’s Kerman, claiming over 80 lives, serves as a poignant example of these simmering tensions.

The confluence of climate change and the persistent food crisis has intensified water insecurity, extending its impact from Afghanistan to neighbouring countries. In May 2023, water-related tension escalated along the border with Iran, leading to gunfire between the Taliban and Iranian border guards. The root cause of these escalating tensions can be traced back to the Taliban’s enhancement of the Kamal Khan and Kajaki dams on the Helmand river. The Qosh Tepa canal that the Taliban are building to harness the Amu Darya river will also severely limit Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s access to water.

In 2024, Central Asian countries will likely maintain a more tolerant stance on Afghanistan than the Iranians as Ashgabat and Tashkent are looking to find common ground. The recent disruptions in water and energy supply may also finally prompt improved resource management and long-awaited infrastructural project updates.

Central Asia increasingly grapples with an intricate web of challenges, yearning to connect with the West but wary of being caught in the sway of more powerful regional players. The Ukrainian war serves as a stark reminder, amplifying this enduring and complex dynamic.

As sanctions against Russia took hold, the region has become a pathway for Russia to navigate around Western restrictions. Money and companies flowing from Russia into the region have increased. Conversely, there has been a rise in the migration of blue-collar Central Asian workers to Russia over the past year, accompanied by a significant increase in remittances sent back to the region. This has escalated tensions with the West, prompting the US and European governments to push for crackdowns on sanction-evading activity within the region.

But according to a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development report, a resumption of international trade and tourism, as well as high levels of migration and remittances from Russia, bolstered Central Asian economies’ strong growth in the first half of 2023. GDP growth in the region is likely to remain robust at an estimated 5.9 per cent in 2024. The current surge in growth, fuelled by government spending, China’s reopening, intermediated trade with Russia and Russian remittances, tourism and business relocation, is poised to persist.

Diverging from Russia’s approach, China — albeit an economic juggernaut in the region — aims to maintain a low profile compared to its previous stance during the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. Beijing is acknowledging the challenges that unwanted scrutiny and heightened visibility can bring. While Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, becomes more vocal, Chinese diplomats are scaling back their assertive ‘wolf warrior’ rhetoric.

Following the May 2023 inaugural China–Central Asia Summit in Xi’an, which convened the five Central Asian leaders with Chinese President Xi Jinping, progress seems tangible regarding the long-awaited construction of the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway. Advancements are also underway along Line D of the Central Asia–China gas pipeline, intended to transport more Turkmen gas through Tajikistan to China.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is expanding with growing interest from the Middle East. It welcomed Iran as a full member in 2023, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in line. The potential to attract investments from the Gulf, particularly in renewable energy projects, heightens expectations for an improved economic outlook in the region.

Looming over Central Asia’s agency is growing apprehension about Beijing and Moscow forging a tighter alliance. The joint statement following President Xi’s March 2023 Moscow visit, which explicitly references a ‘no-limits’ friendship and their coordination in Central Asia, did not escape the region’s notice. It signifies one of the region’s greatest fears — the potential scenario where its two primary partners collaborate beyond its control. Such an alignment would inevitably disrupt their ability to navigate between these major powers, adding layers of complexity to their strategic positioning.

The ongoing predicament is not novel for landlocked Central Asia. While the evolving global security landscape solidifies Beijing and Moscow’s alignment, the significance of the West, Turkey, Iran, and recently the Gulf, should also not be underestimated in the region.

Alessandro Arduino is Affiliate Lecturer at the Lau China Institute, King’s College London.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.

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