Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on February 24th called for a reaction, both declarative and factual, from world leaders. China has long manoeuvred itself between not antagonising the West whilst also not officially supporting Russia. This approach results from several diplomatic, business, and strategic considerations, including the potential effect on Asian security and stability. As for Asia, Beijing’s greater concern lies in Central Asian post-Soviet states— China’s immediate neighbours which are pivotal for the Belt and Road Initiative.
This short article analyses China’s approach to the war through the lens of its interests in Central Asia. It enquires into China’s presence in the region, Central Asia’s potential instability due to the war, and the foreign policy implications these insecurities may imply for Beijing. This contribution argues that China is primarily concerned with two issues: Russia’s potentially diminishing power as a security guarantor in the region and the consequences of such change. Some of these ripple effects include a danger to enduring political instability in Central Asia and potential cracks in the Sino-Russian strategic partnership.
China’s rise in Central Asia was indeed possible thanks to its strategic cooperation with Moscow. In the early 1990s, China did not have the political power to establish itself in the region without Russian consent, nor were Central Asian countries willing to engage in such cooperation without Russia as a patron. Having overcome these issues, China has forged bilateral diplomatic relations with Central Asia, quickly followed by multilateralones, including the 2001 Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative (launched globally in Kazakhstan). These initiatives have allowed Beijing to develop broad business and political links across the region, strike major energy deals, and invest in regional infrastructure. Mutual and strategic respect between Beijing and Moscow over cooperation in Central Asia has resulted in the development of a so-called “division of work” in the region, with China dominating economic and financial cooperation and Russia remaining the primary security guarantor and political power.
However, the Russian war in Ukraine, advancing much slower than anticipated by the Kremlin and triggering severe sanctions from the West, has undermined Moscow’s position both globally and regionally in the post-Soviet space. Russia has emerged as a revisionist power, seeking aggressive competition against Western norms and order. This polarised view bears three main implications for China in Central Asia.
Russia’s potentially total or partial loss in Ukraine will redefine – either by strengthening or weakening — its role as the security guarantor in Central Asia. Either way, this will likely destabilise the region in a manner unfavourable to China. If the Kremlin strengthens its security and political grip, it will spur massive protests against Russian presence, which may further change the region’s leaderships—something that has already happened several times, particularly in Kyrgyzstan. Such political instability will make Central Asian countries less safe for Chinese businesses as well-sealed political ties between China and Central Asia are a precondition for China’s economic presence in the region. Central Asia’s potential instability might also affect trade routes along the flagship Silk Road Economic Belt, which have already been redirected to Belarus due to the war in Ukraine. Finally, the regional turmoil is likely to remove the existing political and business elites that are essential for providing a favourable business environment to Chinese entrepreneurs. This, in particular, might also be a result of the Kremlin’s potentially diminishing influence across Central Asia. Such a scenario seems already underway as both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – Central Asia’s major states – officially expressed their support for Ukrainian territorial integrity; both also announced that they had sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Russian political losses in the region would indeed pave the way for both the rise of radical political parties or, on the contrary, grass-root civil society and pro-democratic opposition. The US and EU — which have long developed and improved their Central Asian strategies— would seek such change, particularly as it would be in line with Central Asia’s ‘Eurasian’ foreign policy outlook, seeking greater engagement with multiple countries and international institutions. However, this would represent another challenge for China: in the case of leadership changes, Beijing would have to readjust its Central Asian strategy and cooperate with new political elites.
Finally, Russia’s new role in the region may also cause tension in the Sino-Russian power balance in Central Asia as well as outside the region. China and Russia have recently renewed their “limitless strategic partnership”and cooperated closely on a range of security, business, and normative issues. However, the West’s ousting of — and sanctions against — Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine weakened Moscow’s position in the Sino-Russian partnership. China will likely use this leverage to advance its own interests, though it will keep seeing the strategic partnership as necessary to balance against the West. To what extent Beijing manages — and wishes — to maintain it remains to be seen.
The work on this paper was supported by the SONATA14 research grant funded by the National Science Centre (Narodowe Centrum Nauki) in Poland, grant number 2018/31/D/HS5/03371.