Special Forum Issue
“Russian Thinking on Sino-Russian Relations and the Ukraine War”
Central Asia over a Decade: The Shifting Balance in Central Asia between Russia and China
Over a decade, Central Asia has tested whether Sinocentrism pressed by Xi Jinping can coexist with Russocentrism espoused by Vladimir Putin. Each side has launched initiatives to forge a region to its advantage. Despite claims to be working harmoniously together, each has repeatedly sought an advantage over the other. Meanwhile, Central Asian states have maneuvered between the two for their own advantage. Kazakhstan, by virtue of its size, location, resources, and population, is the key state in the initiatives and maneuvering under way. The special focus below is on how it has managed the two powers, including multi-vector diplomacy within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). The energy dimension draws the closest attention in this triangular framework.
In the past decade, China’s economic presence in Central Asia expanded within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Xi Jinping introduced the BRI in Kazakhstan in 2013. Putin in 2014 announced the “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) as a means to prevent Central Asia being absorbed into a Chinese sphere. The fact that the EEU has not been as dynamic as the BRI in the region has shifted the balance of power in China’s favor due to extensive Chinese investment in hydrocarbons and infrastructure. In response, Russia created the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) to hedge Chinese influence. Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia is managed through a process of adaptation as both aim to create a stable Eurasian regional order. All of Central Asia is affected. Kazakhstan, with its resource abundance, is particularly important to the region-building projects of China and Russia. In the context of nervousness over Russia’s expansionism in the Ukraine war, in September 2022 Xi Jinping pledged support for territorial integrity in a stop in Kazakhstan, leaving no doubt of China’s support for it in this competition.
Russia’s “Turn to the East” rests on Central Asia as its base and the GEP as its framework that would extend from Europe to East Asia with Moscow as the leader. Russian analysts helped to construct this image, claiming China and Russia are leaders in the project to integrate Europe and Asia into one large Greater Eurasian region. Glenn Diesen and Alexander Lukin construct a usable past that supports returning to a previous Eurasian empire, rather than thinking of it as a new project that emerged out of Putin’s ambition.1 Diesen argues that Europe is merely the Western Peninsula of Greater Eurasia, integrating with Russia through economic connectivity.2 In fact, Europe has not indicated any interest in being part of a regional project led by Russia.
Putin had viewed Central Asia as an arena in which great powers would contend for influence, a revival of a nineteenth century Great Game especially in relation to China’s expanding influence in Central Asia. Putin’s Greater Eurasia vision assumes little agency for Central Asian countries even though these states have pursued multi-vector diplomacy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan, as the largest Central Asian state, has demonstrated the greatest agency in its diplomatic outreach to Europe, the US, the Middle East, and Turkey as well as to China.
Sino-Russian great power rivalry is managed by a concept China constructed, the Central Asian division of labor. The formula worked out by Beijing, to avoid major power competition, was that Russia assumed leadership in the region in security matters while China led in economic relations. For the past decade many analysts noted the avoidance of overt competition through this Sino-Russian division of labor.3 This was constructed to placate Moscow’s concerns that Beijing was encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia. Central Asian states were expected to compliantly adapt to it, not expected to have any meaningful agency. Beijing was confident that relying on BRI would further its influence because Chinese ideas of power rely on the concept of “comprehensive power” which combines military, diplomatic, discourse and economic power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese have assumed Russia’s lack of emphasis on economic power, and narrow focus on military power, made it a weak competitor.
To prevent Sino-Russian rivalry, the BRI and the EEU were officially linked during the May 8–9, 2015, visit by Xi Jinping to Moscow. The Chinese called this docking “对接” the two projects, and the new framework created by this docking was called “一带一盟” [one belt, one union]. The following month, in June 2015, the Moscow-based Valdai Discussion Club issued a report on how to link the BRI and EEU within a larger Eurasian framework. The purpose was to maintain stability in Central Asia and avoid Sino-Russian rivalries.4 Given that Russia and China were each creating spheres of influence within Central Asia, it was necessary for both countries to work out how their separate spheres would create a regional order. Since 2015, there have been numerous Sino-Russian dialogues discussing how that could be accomplished.
This seemingly harmonious division of labor presented opportunities for secondary states to pursue their wide array of strategies, even while Beijing and Moscow assume secondary states should have little agency in their diplomacy. Kazakhstan has taken the lead in Central Asia pursuing what it calls a multi-vector diplomacy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under conditions of great power rivalry, smaller secondary states have a wide array of tactical strategies including hard/soft balancing, blackmail, leash-slipping, neutrality, binding, and bandwagoning.5 Multi-vector diplomacy is a broad term that incorporates several of these tactical strategies, which are proving to be much more complex than is usually understood.
In Central Asia, Kazakhstan is the strongest advocate of multi-vector diplomacy, and Tajikistan is the weakest. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan joined and enmeshed itself in numerous international organizations, which have provided the space for multi-vectorism for the past 30 years. In 2022, it is still Kazakhstan’s strategy. According to a Kazakh researcher, “an exclusive foreign policy orientation towards only one country ultimately does not meet Kazakhstan’s national interests, critically limiting the freedom for strategic maneuvering.”6
Tajikistan has been more hesitant. The author spoke with a Tajik economist in August 2015, who mentioned that Tajikistan was divided over participation in China’s BRI. I suggested that Tajikistan draw up its own national plan, as Kazakhstan had done, and then determine where there are areas of complementarity with China’s BRI. That was preferable to letting Beijing determine Tajik priorities. In 2016, Tajikistan did create a National Development Strategy 2030 (NDS) with assistance from the World Bank. According to a World Bank study, Tajikistan has benefited from BRI in terms of infrastructure and development.7 Tajikistan is in fact practicing multi-vectorism, but in foreign policy discourse, it is not as overtly multi-vector as Kazakhstan.
By 2022, Tajikistan owed $3.3 billion to international creditors, 60% of which was owed to the Export-Import Bank of China. Buildings in the capitol were constructed with Chinese money and companies, posting signs that state “Assistance from China for a common future.” The Tajik government has given Chinese companies concessions in its gold and silver mines to help repay the debt. Tajik political scientist Parviz Mullojanov is concerned that the massive debt China “could serve as a pretext for political and geopolitical expansion” of the Chinese presence.8
Central Asian strategies are pursued bilaterally and within multilateral regimes. Because Beijing and Moscow continually compete in multilateral regimes and reconfigure them to their own advantage, secondary states are given many opportunities to maneuver. Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is said to be in constant rebalancing between traditional ties to Russia and economic opportunities of China, but some analysts argue its multi-vector strategy will eventually have diminishing returns because there are only two realistic vectors—either alignment with Moscow or Beijing. Other outside powers have less interest in being hegemonic in Central Asia.9 Additionally, analysts argue Moscow’s tense relations with the US and Europe narrow Astana’s options, assuming Astana could not slip out of Moscow’s leash, and thus it will end up more reactive to Russian and Chinese behavior and not as proactive as it would want to be.10 In any case, Kazakhstan must manage two larger neighboring countries, each of which is attempting to establish a sphere of influence in Central Asia, trying to incorporate Kazakhstan into regional integration projects it controls, and has questioned Kazakhstan sovereignty and statehood.11
Russian Sphere of Influence
In 2007, Putin declared Moscow’s right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space despite numerous agreements pledging to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the former Soviet republics. Putin’s project was to reclaim Russia’s identity as a great power within the post-Soviet space as a provider of security with cultural influence based on Russian as a common language and a belief in “Russkiy Mir” (the Russian World).12 Since Putin’s Munich speech, he has attempted to establish a Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. This included an invasion of Georgia in August 2008, recognition of Abkhazia and North Ossetia as “independent states,” closer integration with Belarus, peacekeeping in Kazakhstan, and a military buildup along the Russian border with Ukraine to discourage Ukraine from integrating with Europe and joining NATO., accompanied by invasions and annexations in 2014 and 2022.13 Of all these actions in the post-Soviet space, the only nonviolent one was the recent dispatch of Russian peacekeepers to Kazakhstan, but there too wariness of Russia has been growing.
Russia is challenged by the transformation of Central Asian countries as they develop ties with other major powers, and when their citizens study Chinese, English and use their own language rather than Russian.14 Russian analysis has worried that the “near abroad” would forget the Russian language and forget that it was ever a part of the Soviet Union and Russkiy Mir. In 2021, the Kazakh government stated it would shift away from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and would use a Latin-based alphabet for the written Kazakh language, confirming these fears.
Putin’s promotion of Russkiy Mir has led to denial of Kazakhstan statehood, given the Russian belief that Kazakhstan did not exist as a country in the past until the Soviet Union created it, and Kazakhstan did not form a coherent nation but rather was composed of separate territories and clans. Russian statements that northern Kazakhstan is really part of Russia are generating concern that Russia will seize it. In September 2014, Putin had described Kazakhstan as an artificial creation and noted that Kazakhs had a profound desire for closer ties with Russia.15 Following so closely on Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in February 2014, Kazakhstan worried that it would be next. After all, Putin’s pretext for annexing Crimea and defending the separatists in eastern Ukraine was to protect the rights of Russian speakers. In 2014, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, fearing a similar fate, stated on Kazakh TV that "Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union… Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence."16
The Eurasian Customs Union became the EEU on January 1, 2015, an integrated single market among Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Armenia joined the next day and Kyrgyzstan at the end of the year. The EEU was meant to be the foundation of a post-Soviet sphere of influence for Russia. Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia were offered EEU membership but chose instead to affiliate with the European Union. Each country has had separatist regions that sought membership in the EEU—Moldova’s Transnistria region, Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Ukraine’s refusal to join the EEU left a large hole.
In 2016, Putin redefined the Eurasian regional order when he introduced his vision of a broader Eurasian partnership, the GEP. Putin proposed this project prior to the SCO summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on June 23–24, 2016, when the SCO would expand to include India and Pakistan as members. He suggested that GEP economic relations and trade entail a network of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements between all the members and organizations. Putin could not block Chinese economic penetration of Central Asia, the original purpose of the EEU, as Beijing had treated the EEU as a corridor for the BRI. The GEP was meant to show Russia as taking the initiative in the Eurasian region, an effort to conceal the increasing asymmetry in Sino-Russian economic capacity.17 The GEP would help Putin reestablish Russian spheres of influence in the post-Soviet states and reconstruct the Soviet Union.18 Yet, China viewed it as a geopolitical strategy, concerned with how it would link with its own BRI. Putin needed the support of external economic partners such as China because the EEU had limited market size and little potential to expand. Russia both was wary of China’s project and feared being left out of this and other regional integration projects in Europe and Asia.19
In December 2020, Russian State Duma deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov declared that when the Soviet Union was established, Kazakhstan did not exist as a country, and Kazakhstan territory was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union. Another State Duma deputy, Yevgeny Fedorov, stated that Kazakhstan must return these territories to Russia.20 Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev responded in January 2021, that “Kazakhstan is a single state. Our country is not divided into southern, northern, western, and eastern… our sacred land inherited from our ancestors, is our main wealth. Nobody from the outside gave this vast territory to the Kazakhs.”21 Tokayev strongly defended the use of the Kazakh language as the state language.
Russia used its Russian TV networks in Kazakhstan in the summer of 2021 to carry out a series of informational strikes on Kazakh governmental policies for nationalism and nation-building, which Moscow views as Russophobic. TV programs claimed central and northern Kazakhstan were loyal to Russia.22 In August 2021, Russian media even carried out intensive informational attacks on Kazakhstan’s nation-building policies on language, using Kazakh instead of Russian, as incidents of Russophobia. Cultural soft power in Central Asia contributes to maintaining a sphere of influence, which, media argued, is being undermined by Russophobia—discrimination against ethnic Russians residing in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs were stunned since Moscow had not criticized Kazakhstan so intensely in 30 years, worrying that, under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians, it could expand territorially into Northern Kazakhstan where ethnic Russians are concentrated, employing the concept of “Russian World” to justify the expansion.23
Russia intended to keep post-Soviet states within a Russian sphere of influence, emphasizing Russia’s influence in security and culture. China had expected Central Asia to go through a process of de-Russification that would reduce Russian cultural influence and allow for a larger Chinese economic influence in the country.24 However, as a Kazakh analyst noted, “China cannot compete with Russia’s institutional, cultural, and legal legacy in the region.” Russian influence is deeply rooted.25 Nevertheless, Central Asians and Russians were concerned that China would expand its institutions and norms into Central Asia through the deepening of the BRI. Xi Jinping has explicitly promoted shared norms and policies within the BRI.
Zhao Huasheng noted in 2021 that although Russian officials have said that Moscow does not want to create spheres of influence in the “near abroad,” the presence of another great power there arouses a Russian reaction, indicating how sensitive an issue it is for Russia. Russian diplomacy is focused on restoring a special relationship in all dimensions—political, military, economic, and cultural—promoting regional integration through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the EEU. This goal faces continuous challenges with numerous hot spots, sovereign states’ resistant to political integration with Russia, and limitations on the EEU’s development.26
In September 2020, Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov, issued a joint statement declaring their commitment to promoting the BRI and GEP in “parallel and coordinated development,” i.e., the two projects would co-exist but not necessarily “dock.” Kazakhstan is in both projects as an indispensable partner for both China’s BRI and Russia’s EEU.
In 2021, Chinese were aware that Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia was declining. Zhao Huasheng’s assessment of Russia and its near abroad found that Central Asia had a significant role in influencing Russian foreign policy, determining its goals, and acting as a point of confrontation between Russia and the West. Zhao argued that although Russia continued to play an indispensable role in the post-Soviet space, Russia’s influence there was in decline and had lost its attractiveness as post-Soviet countries shifted towards the West. The younger generation in particular had lost its post-Soviet consciousness. Zhao noted that “cohesion around Moscow as a center is in relative decline, while the attractiveness of external centers of power, in particular Europe and the United States, is relatively increasing.”27 Zhao’s proposed remedy was for Russia to focus on its own development to make it more attractive, and to form an inclusive development community consisting of the “near abroad” with China in the BRI, allowing more diversified development linkages with neighboring countries, which could be construed as China’s links with the “near abroad” should be more welcomed by Moscow.
Such appeals suggest that Russia still has a sphere of influence in Central Asia, but the claim is misleading that it is balancing or hedging Chinese influence, leading to more cooperation than competition through a process of adaptation.28 Some suggest that this ongoing adaptation enables the two countries to create order between themselves and within the region through carefully managed interactions that are orderly despite being competitive, as each seeks to establish the concepts and norms that would define the Eurasian region.29 The prevailing view in Russia and China was that the two were adapting to each other in Central Asia.30 Indeed, each side appeared to be accommodating and coexisting with the other’s project. China does not criticize Russian military interventions in the post-Soviet space, and Russia appeared to accept China’s growing economic dominance in Central Asia.31 Yet Clarke and Rice argue that there is a lack of concrete Sino-Russian cooperation projects in Kazakhstan, which, they contend, demonstrates that Russia and China pursue hedging strategies against one another in Central Asia, even if Central Asian perceptions of Moscow as the guarantor of regional security still serve to buttress the image of a lingering Russian sphere of influence across the region.
Chinese Sphere of Influence
Although China has not overtly claimed a sphere of influence in Central Asia, in the late 1980s Chinese analysts discussed economic circles that stretched from China’s Xinjiang through Central Asia to the oil producing countries of the Middle East.32 By the 1990s this vision was referred to as a revival of the ancient Silk Road, constructing a Eurasian Landbridge through Central Asia. In 2010, an outspoken PLA general, Liu Yazhou, is said to have written that Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to Chinese by the heavens.”33 It is indicative of a Chinese view of Central Asia teeming with raw materials needed for China’s development.
In 2013, when the Belt and Road was introduced in Kazakhstan, many of these older visions were incorporated into a more explicit strategy. In March 2015, a Chinese blueprint was presented at the Boao Forum, when the Chinese foreign ministry issued an action plan for the BRI and Maritime Silk Road, the Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. Central Asia would link China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea through a China-Central Asia-West Asia corridor, the Eurasian Landbridge. Two months later Xi Jinping visited Moscow and suggested that the BRI and EEU could be docked (“对接”), thereby avoiding a competitive struggle over Central Asia.
Kazakhstan was always the center of Chinese interest in Central Asia due to its oil resources and its location as a transportation hub linking China to Europe. The Kazakh state that joined the BRI was a kleptocracy with the Nazarbayev family members benefiting from economic ties to China. The BRI attracted strong support from the Kazakh business elite, while alienating average Kazakh citizens. In 2014, Kazakhstan created a national plan, Bright Path (Nurly Zhol), to build domestic infrastructure in transportation, industry, and energy. It was created to be compatible with China’s BRI and became part of the BRI in 2016 with more than 50 projects that would transfer industrial capacity from China to Kazakhstan.
There was widespread public interest in BRI and how it would link to Nurly Zhol. However, according to an analyst in 2017, “there is no publicly available detailed information about the contents of the list, project descriptions, and financial arrangements.”34 Kazakh political and economic elites promote and benefit from cooperation with Beijing, but there is a gap between them and civil society’s enduring Sinophobia, which has continued for decades, exacerbated by a lack of transparency in China-Kazakh deal-making.
In December 2019, Kazakh experts on China met to discuss China in Central Asia, comparing China before Xi Jinping with contemporary China under Xi. They noted how China had changed its foreign policy behavior in the past decade becoming more assertive. The Kazakh analysis defined relations with China as evolving in stages. The 1990s had commodities trade. From 2000 to 2013, China invested in Kazakh oil and gas enterprises. From 2013 to the present under the BRI, focus was on transport and industrial infrastructure.35 The trend of increasing Sino-Kazakh economic integration was accompanied by increasing Chinese assertiveness.
Protests against Chinese companies, workers, and goods have continued since the 1990s. In 2009 and 2016, protests focused on the Kazakh government allowing China to lease land for agricultural purposes. The BRI triggered renewed Sinophobic protests. Concern continues over Chinese expansion. The Chinese treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang is also a trigger.
Since the 1990s, Kazakhstan has become more dependent on China. The government gives refugee status to ethnic Kazakhs who flee China, crossing the border from Xinjiang. China has retaliated by blocking exports from Kazakh entrepreneurs. In March 2021, thousands of Kazakh railcars sat idle, and trucks lined up at the border. From January to September 2021, Kazakh food exports to China dropped 78%.36 When Beijing blocks exports, exporters lose money as freight cars loaded with grain, non-ferrous metals, fertilizers, construction materials sit idle. The grain rots, leaving exporters losing hundreds of millions of dollars. The Chinese did not explicitly link the two issues of Kazakh refugees and Kazakh exports in 2021, but the timing was clear.
After the power transition from Nazarbaev to Tokayev in March 2019, external powers had requested clarification of Kazakhstan’s direction. In March 2020, the Concept of Foreign Policy of Kazakhstan for 2020-2030 outlined foreign policy principles, goals, and priorities. It reaffirmed a multi-vector and well-balanced foreign policy, committed to protecting the rights of Kazakh citizens and ethnic Kazakhs living abroad, declared that Kazakhstan would promote its status to be the leading country of Central Asia, and clarified the country’s foreign policy to the general public. To 2014, the Kazakh foreign policy concept had not been publicly available.
Since 2013, Beijing has expressed expectations that it would have an exclusive relationship with Kazakhstan under the BRI. In 2021, Beijing appeared to pressure Astana even harder. In May 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for Kazakhstan and China to work towards strategic coordination of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) and Kazakhstan’s 2025 Development Plan to deepen and diversify their joint cooperation under the framework of the BRI. Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi expressed hope the two countries would sign their proposed trade and economic cooperation plan but did not seem as enthusiastic as Wang Yi.37 The Kazakh government is concerned with China infiltrating the government. In 2019, it leaked information that a senior government advisor had been spying for China and was subsequently arrested.38
It was clear something had blocked implementation of Sino-Kazakh cooperation in the BRI, but it was not Sinophobia among the Kazakh political elite. Tokayev speaks Mandarin and is said to be a Sinophile. He was a diplomat in China in the late 1980s to early 90s. He had studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in the early 1970s, and at the Beijing Language Institute in 1983 (now called the Beijing Language and Culture University). Tokayev has cultivated China relations, but also relations with India, Turkey, the EU, and the US, which demonstrates his multi-vector approach to foreign relations.
In November 2021, at a meeting of the Kazakh foreign ministry, Tokayev reaffirmed his commitment to a balanced foreign policy based on pragmatism, but also indicated that balancing external powers and multi-vectorism had undermined Kazakh foreign policy coherence. Tokayev noted that Kazakhstan foreign relations lacked a “truly unified national strategy,” and that this was a systemic problem requiring different government departments to better coordinate.39 This implied that some government agencies leaned toward Russia while others leaned towards China and other countries.
On November 26, 2021, at the 10th meeting of the China-Kazakhstan Cooperation Committee, Han Zheng, vice premier and Chinese head of the committee, called for better outcomes in China-Kazakh cooperation. Han stated that the cooperation plan needed implementation. The committee has 12 subcommittees in security, customs, transport, railway, trade and economic, water management, energy, scientific and technical, financial, cultural, humanitarian, environmental and geological cooperation. Alikhan Smailov, first deputy prime minister and Kazakh president of the committee, replied that Kazakhstan was ready to cooperate in security, economy and trade, and energy to achieve more fruitful outcomes.40
Approximately 10 days after the China-Kazakh meeting, Kazakhstan held its fourth Kazakhstan Global Investment Roundtable (KGIR), an investment forum to attract a diversity of multinational corporations. Over $2 billion worth of deals were signed with European, Qatari, Turkish, Chinese, and Indian corporations. The meeting celebrated Kazakhstan’s 30 years of independence, which was mentioned several times in the meeting.41 It appeared that Astana would not agree to an exclusive relationship with Beijing.
Kazakhs claim Kazakhstan seeks economic benefits from neighboring countries while it safeguards its independence and protects its sovereignty from Russian and Chinese dominance. To the extent Kazakh-China economic cooperation contributes to the Kazakh government’s political legitimacy, it receives support. However, the Chinese request to coordinate Kazakh domestic planning with China’s policies, in accord with Xi Jinping’s call, under BRI, for other countries to align their policies with China’s, is seen as slowly chipping away at sovereignty and multi-vector diplomacy.
Additionally, Chinese publications and internet often refer to other countries as actually being a part of China. This has happened with the Russian Far East, Bhutan, Nepal, and then in 2020, Kazakhstan. A Chinese website, sohu.com, published an article titled, “Why Kazakhstan is eager to return to China,” which claimed Kazakhstan had not minded being invaded by Chinese and had historically been part of China’s territory. It claimed the majority of Kazakhs wanted to rejoin China. Although the Chinese government tries to distance itself from these claims, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry felt compelled to summon the Chinese ambassador to protest this article.42 This incident was viewed as an assault on Kazakh sovereignty. Kazakh state media publicized this pushback against Chinese claims to territory, which fueled Sinophobia among the people.
In March 2021, Kazakh protests held in several large cities demanded the government abolish the construction of 55 Chinese factories, referring to the plan to transfer Chinese factories to Kazakhstan. This transfer was part of the coordination of the BRI and Kazakhstan’s “Bright Path” development plan.43 Protests over foreign ownership of land led to legal clarification. In May 2021, Tokayev signed a bill which bans the sale or lease of Kazakh land to foreigners, stating “Land is a foundation and a sacred symbol of Kazakhstan’s statehood. I have repeatedly said that Kazakh land cannot be sold to foreigners.”44
Despite outbursts of Sinophobia, Beijing has a campaign to increase Chinese soft power in Kazakhstan. Some analysts view China’s campaign as an effort at Sinification, to “socialize” Central Asia into gradually accepting Chinese practices as normal and China as benevolent, increasing Chinese influence.45 Analysts accused the Kazakh government of forming an alliance with the Chinese Embassy and the Kazakh media in order to shape public opinion in a more positive direction, encouraging a more accommodating view of the Chinese presence in the country. It is claimed that this alliance was highly successful in socializing Kazakh elites to acceptance of BRI.46 China has invested over $22 billion in Kazakhstan in the past 15 years.
China behaves differently in each Central Asian country depending on the host country’s capacity to manage its own development plans. While Kazakhstan successfully implemented BRI projects and had its own “Nurly Zhol” strategy, Kyrgyzstan in 2019 had not yet conceived of its own design for BRI cooperation. A Kyrgyz analyst declared that the BRI caused concern and anxiety in his country, and up to that point Kyrgyz had not implemented any project within the BRI due to corruption and lack of transparency. Nevertheless, China accounted for 40% of Kyrgyzstan’s total foreign debt, leaving some worrying Kyrgyzstan was in a debt trap causing strong anti-China sentiment in Kyrgyz society.47
Critics of Beijing’s approach to the Central Asian region argue it is becoming increasingly geopolitical, encroaching on Russia’s sphere, and had become less concerned with Russian sensitivity regarding its sphere of influence being displaced in Central Asia. If both countries could agree they should build a Central Asian exclusion zone that blocks the West from the region,48 the problem remains of managing rising tides of Russocentrism and Sinocentrism.
The Energy Dimension
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has maintained its sphere of influence through control of Central Asian oil export infrastructure, pipelines and ports, which weigh most heavily on Central Asian hydrocarbon exporters, especially Kazakhstan. Dependence on Russian energy infrastructure has been a major driver in Kazakhstan’s multi-vector diplomacy. It was the China-Kazakh oil pipeline that allowed Astana to break free of Moscow’s domination of Kazakh export pipelines for the first time. The first section of the pipeline was completed in 2003, and by 2006 began commercial operation. The pipeline is developed and owned by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Kazakh oil company KazMunayGas.
As Kazakhstan has sought ways to escape Russian dominance over its exports, Russia has sought ways to reassert its control over Kazakh and Central Asian energy. A recent Russian proposal is to create a unified EEU common electricity market that would span Central Asia and be under Moscow’s control.49 The Eurasian Intergovernmental Council met in Yerevan on October 21, 2022. Belarus politician Mikhail Myasnikovich, chairman of the board of the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), announced that the SCO was interested in closer ties with the EEU as part of Eurasian integration. Myasnikovich revealed that decisions had been made regarding a common market for gas, oil, and petroleum products. Creating a common hydrocarbon market might give Moscow greater control over Central Asian hydrocarbons and discourage these countries from multi-vector energy relations with outside powers.
Kazakhstan’s foreign energy relations impact its domestic energy conditions. In January 2022, for the purpose of exporting more liquified petroleum gas (LPG), the government ended domestic price controls for LPG, a widely used, affordable fuel, which doubled the price. In effect, Kazakh citizens lost the subsidies that had made it affordable. It is a global phenomenon as governments remove subsidies, which then triggers societal unrest. It is often international oil companies working in an energy exporting country that lobby for raising domestic prices or shifting greater oil and gas production to export, where prices are higher on the world market. In contrast, the Chinese government, a much stronger state, has hesitated to remove domestic hydrocarbon subsidies and has moved cautiously, fearing it would undermine social stability.
Kazakhstan civil society protests started as peaceful protests objecting to the LPG price hike but then escalated into a battle among oligarchs, which drew in outside actors. The protestors were angry about Kazakh elites’ corruption in general and wanted former president Nazarbayev to give up behind-the-scenes political power. When protests turned into riots, and government officials failed or refused to manage the riots, Tokayev asked the Kremlin for assistance from the CSTO. Russian troops were dispatched within days. On January 19, 2022, the CSTO announced that the peacekeeping operation was over, and it was said that all Russian troops had left Kazakhstan although it was later revealed that one thousand still remained.
Russian analysts after the peacekeeping intervention noted that they expected Kazakhstan’s multi-vector diplomacy would change to a more pro-Russian position and away from closer relations with China, the EU, and the US. Moscow would no longer tolerate Central Asian states’ multi-vector diplomacy and planned to reestablish itself as the leading great power in the post-Soviet space.50 These Russian views reflect an overemphasis on military interventions and an underappreciation of economic ties.
After the January 2022 Kazakhstan crisis, the Kazakh government asked the international oil companies to supply its domestic market so that Kazakh refineries could expand output of petroleum products and thereby decrease prices for products such as LPG. The international oil companies operating the Tengiz, Kashagan and Karachaganak oilfields had been exporting all of their crude oil output. Since export prices are 2-3 times more than domestic prices, it was uncertain whether oil companies would comply.51 The Kazakh energy ministry plan to divert some of the oil companies output to domestic refineries was part of the new social contract promised by Tokayev, addressing the issue that set off the Kazakh people’s protests.52 In response to the protests, the government reversed its decision to end energy price controls.
Protestors had focused on Kazakh oligarchs who had become wealthy through economic dealings with China. The protestors demanded "Nazarbayev leave the country." Tokayev moved quickly to divest the Nazarbayev family of their positions that had allowed them to accumulate immense wealth. Tokayev promised a new type of state-society relationship, a new social contract than that which had existed under Nazarbayev, and an end to the kleptocracy controlled by the oligarchs and the Nazarbayev family. There would be greater distribution of the hydrocarbon wealth. The anti-corruption campaign would impact BRI relations with Kazakhstan as the family was involved in numerous Chinese projects riddled with corruption. Rampant smuggling in the six border ports on the Sino-Kazakh border had deprived the Kazakh state of billions of dollars of taxes and fees. Many companies involved in smuggling were connected to the Nazarbayev family. Tokayev’s directives to clean up the smuggling were in line with his plan for a less corrupt economy. 53
Learning from the crisis in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan decided not to raise fuel prices domestically, and to stop all gas exports to China. For several years, Uzbek society resented domestic gas shortages while exporting to China. The original plan was to end gas exports in 2025, but the Kazakh crisis motivated Uzbekistan to abruptly halt exports to China.54
At the June 2022, St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin publicly pressed Tokayev to show support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, declaring that the entire former Soviet Union was part of “historical Russia,” his effort at legitimizing the invasion of Ukraine. However, Tokayev, one of the few leaders who attended the event, stated unequivocally that Kazakhstan does not recognize the Russian annexation of Luhansk and Donetsk. It was an unexpected pushback for Putin as he had thought he had greater control over Kazakhstan after sending peacekeepers to assist in riot control. On live Russian TV, Tokayev noted that Kazakhstan would not help Russia evade sanctions. Putin was reported to be visibly shaken and stumbled in his response to Tokayev, who seemed to have discarded Kazakhstan’s client state identity.55
Tokayev’s statement was viewed as a snub of Putin, who retaliated by halting Kazakh oil exports from the Caspian Pipeline Consortium that ship through the Russian port of Novorossiysk destined for European markets. On July 6, there was an explosion at Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field which may not have been an accident. Astana began considering alternative oil export routes such as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, or TTITR, created through an agreement among Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan, and coordinated with China, Turkey, and Ukraine, all of whom needed a route that circumvented Russia.56 In August 2022, Kazakh oil exports through Novorossiysk were again halted, the fourth time in 2022. Oil revenues accounted for approximately 44 percent of Kazakhstan’s budget in 2021, leaving the country vulnerable to Moscow’s manipulations.57
In June 2022, Astana changed the name of the oil it exports that traverse Russian ports to avoid sanctions risks. About 20% of Kazakh oil exports go through Russian ports and are sometimes mistaken for Russian oil which makes it difficult to open letters of credit for the shipment. Kazakh oil is now called Kazakhstan Export Blend Crude Oil (KEBCO) to distinguish it from Russian oil exported out of the same port (REBCO). Because of Western sanctions and European companies cutting back on Russian oil, Moscow is thought to have tried to disguise Russian oil as Kazakh thereby evading sanctions.
The EU will ban Russian crude oil imports in December 2022, and will ban Russian petroleum product imports in February 2023, giving Kazakhstan new market opportunities in Europe. In October 2022, the EU met with leaders of the five Central Asian countries to discuss economic cooperation, the transfer of European manufacturing companies to Central Asia, and especially increasing energy exports to Europe. Europe has developed an investment strategy called Global Gateway for investment in infrastructure in Central Asia that will rival China’s BRI.58
At the 2022 meeting of CICA, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi decided to resume oil swaps between Kazakhstan and Iran, which gives Kazakhstan an alternative route for oil exports not controlled by Moscow. The two countries had oil swaps since the late 1990s, but this was halted by Iran in 2010 because it felt it was not benefiting proportionately to oil price increases. Iran also has crude oil swaps with Russia, and in November 2022 agreed to start oil product swaps. Both Iran and Russia are under sanctions but have managed to find markets for oil exports. In 2022, sanctions impacted 2-3 million barrels per day of Russian crude oil and product. China, India, and other markets imported the discounted Russian oil. At the end of 2022, strengthened sanctions could lead to Russia’s oil trade going dark with shadowy, illicit transactions.59
By the end of 2022, Russia had less control over Kazakhstan’s multi-vector oil exports than before and was more dependent on the Chinese market to buy its oil exports than it had planned to be. Russia’s grip over Central Asia, notably Kazakhstan, was also slipping faster than most had expected, as control over energy exports was diminishing in response to the new war.
Central Asian Regional Organizations
Central Asian regional organizations provide an arena for Moscow and Beijing to assert their leadership of the region as they pursue their spheres of influence. These multilateral organizations also provide space for Central Asian states to engage in their repertoire of multi-vector diplomacy using various strategies of balancing, blackmail, neutrality, binding, and bandwagoning, some of which were demonstrated in the 2022 meetings of the SCO and CICA.
The SCO, a forum for Eurasian political, economic, and security issues, was founded in 2001, emerging from the Shanghai Five (1996–2000). Its original purpose was to combat terrorism, separatism, extremism, and organized crime that transcended Eurasia’s borders. It rapidly expanded. Member states are China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Iran plans to join. Observer states are Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia. Dialogue partners include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Expansion is meant to form a new Eurasian regional order but overlooks a fundamental rule of regime formation—rapid widening of a regime before it has deepened its integration will undermine its viability.
The SCO balances Russian and Chinese interests. The two regional powers consider it an arena for joint leadership, but it is contested terrain as they seek different functions for the organization, and Central Asian states resist both hegemons’ efforts. Since the formation of the SCO, Russia has tried to merge the SCO with the CSTO to form a security alliance that functioned as a counterpart to NATO. All other member states resisted. In July 2015, Moscow had hosted the 7th BRICS summit, combining it with the 15th SCO summit, and the EEU. It was a maneuver to incorporate the BRICS and the SCO into the EEU, promoting Eurasian integration under an organization where Russia had a clear leadership role.
For Putin, the SCO is the core of his GEP, and offers an alternative model of world order and regional governance, anti-Western in its outlook. However, the Central Asian states are not as anti-Western, and they seek greater foreign policy independence from Putin’s directives. These smaller states have supported widening the geographic scope of SCO since this would increase opportunities for them to balance Russian and Chinese influence with multi-vector diplomacy as they reach out to India, Iran, and Turkey.
In 2022, the SCO was divided over the Ukraine war. Central Asian leaders refused to support Putin’s invasion, and worried about whether their country would be next in Putin’s effort to create a Russian sphere of influence. China’s position was carefully balanced. Zhao Huasheng explained that China’s position was not neutrality, which would support neither side, but rather one of “constructive involvement,” which meant China supports both Ukraine’s struggle to protect its territorial integrity and Russia’s struggle against NATO eastward expansion.60
Putin and Xi, in their June 15, 2022 phone conversation, had pledged to coordinate their positions at the SCO to be held in September 2022. This would present to the SCO members a unified Sino-Russian leadership of the organization, making it more difficult for secondary states to maneuver between them or to act more autonomously.
Central Asians’ agenda for SCO was to promote economic cooperation that will benefit their development. At the 22nd Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the SCO, hosted by Uzbekistan in Samarkand, Central Asians worked on transforming the SCO into an organization promoting economic and infrastructure projects such as new transportation routes. Their agenda was to change the SCO’s identity to an organization that promoted economic development.61 Their concerns were energy, food, and climate security. This goal fit better with China’s role in the BRI rather than the Russian focus on security. However, in 2022 both China and Russia suffered domestic economic challenges and thus failed to commit the financing Central Asians sought.
Visiting Kazakhstan, the key state in China’s BRI in Central Asia and a transit corridor for BRI to Europe, prior to attending the SCO meeting. Xi issued a statement supporting Kazakhstan’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and opposed interference by any forces in the internal affairs of the country. The statement was a warning to Putin not to intervene in Central Asian countries. It also presented China as a protector of Central Asian sovereignty.62
Putin’s attendance at the 2022 SCO summit was meant to demonstrate that Russia was not isolated despite the West’s sanctions on the country. Putin had hoped the SCO meeting would enhance Russia’s leadership image in its yearned for sphere of influence. However, Central Asia had no sympathy for his failing invasion of Ukraine, concerned as they were that Russia might invade them.63 Russia’s diminished stature in Central Asia was apparent. Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev personally greeted Xi Jinping at the airport, while Putin was met by his second in command. A former Russian lawmaker, Igor Yakovenko, noted “What we’ve seen in Samarkand was Putin’s nullification and self-destruction…Putin arrived having lost [in Ukraine], and losers are disliked.”64 All Central Asian leaders are concerned about the precedent set by Moscow’s attack on Ukraine in order to extend Moscow’s sphere of influence.
During several bilateral side meetings, Putin was left waiting awkwardly in front of cameras for an unusually long time by leaders from Turkey, Azerbaijan, India, and Kyrgyzstan. In the past, it was Putin who kept other leaders waiting. A Bishkek researcher, Emil Dzhuraev, noted that “Putin is no longer the great invincible leader that everyone wants to meet.” Asel Doolotkeldieva, commented that the previous Sino-Russian division of labor in Central Asia with Russian leadership in security and Chinese leadership in economics had faded away, “Russia is not doing its job anymore. It has shown that it is unable, or unwilling, to protect the region.”65 Prime Minister Modi of India, scolded Putin, stating that “today’s era is not of war.”66 Putin acknowledged in his meeting with Xi Jinping that there were Chinese questions and concerns over the military invasion of Ukraine. Turkey’s President Erdogan urged Putin to return Ukraine territory his military was occupying.
Russian media portrayed the SCO meeting as a venue for Putin to meet with SCO member states, and to assume a leadership role in the organization. The Russian account claimed Putin met with “like-minded” individuals, implying that SCO states supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.67
Xi Jinping at the SCO urged the organization to expand security cooperation and build a security architecture. He indicated his intent to increase China’s security involvement in Central Asia with a greater security leadership role for China in the region while maintaining a Sino-Russian partnership in the region. He stated, "China is willing to work with Russia, display the responsibilities of the major powers, and play a leading role to inject stability and positive energy to a world in chaos.”68 Xi promoted China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) and linked it to the concept of “indivisible security,” i.e., one country’s pursuit of its own security should not come at the cost of others’ security. Putin had previously said that Russia supported Xi’s GSI because it overlapped with Russia’s version of “indivisible security.” The concept of indivisible security did not originate with Putin or Xi Jinping. It was first established by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Russia uses the concept of indivisible security when it assigns blame for the Ukraine war to NATO expansion, i.e., NATO’s interactions with Ukraine had created a security dilemma for Russia. Xi’s mention of indivisible security appeared to demonstrate close Xi-Putin coordination at the SCO. However, the extent to which Xi promoted China’s security leadership in Central Asia challenged the old Central Asian division of labor that assigned security leadership to Moscow.
In April 2022, Xi introduced his GSI at the Boao Forum, meant to be a counterpart to NATO, in the eyes of many. Xi also called for “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable” security, borrowing from the ASEAN Regional Forum’s promotion of “common, comprehensive and cooperative security.” Xi had added “sustainable” to make it his own. Xi announced China would promote capacity-building for SCO member states to counter security threats and called for SCO collaboration on non-traditional security issues. He planned to create a China-SCO base for training counter-terrorism personnel, and train 2,000 police in five years.69
The month before on August 24, 2022, during the 19th meeting of SCO defense ministers in Tashkent, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe had also encouraged SCO member states to deepen security partnerships and develop a SCO security community using Xi’s GSI.70 Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, at the meeting, suggested that the SCO hold a joint meeting of defense ministers with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member states in December 2022.71 Neither China nor Central Asia has agreed to Russia’s long-standing position that the SCO should be folded into the CIS and CSTO on security issues, which would give Moscow a stronger security leadership role in Central Asia.
The Samarkand Declaration, issued at the end of the SCO meeting, stated that member states considered Central Asia the core of the SCO, challenging the presumed dominant role of China and Russia. It contained clauses that sounded like a rebuke of Putin as it noted that member states affirm “the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity of States, equality, mutual benefit, non- interference in internal affairs, and non-use or threat of use of force are the basis for sustainable development of international relations.”72 The 2022 SCO meeting revealed growing friction between Moscow and Central Asian elites, a loss of Russian influence in the region, and a reduced role in maintaining security. Central Asian leaders were left uneasy by Xi’s failure to criticize Putin for the Ukraine invasion. Central Asia left the SCO with the sense that China and Russia as leaders in the organization had failed.
Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA)
In October 1992, Nazarbayev first proposed CICA at the 47th session of the UN General Assembly as a Eurasian collective security structure, a counterpart to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). When he initiated CICA, it was intended for the Central Asian states to interact with Russia as a united front rather than Moscow’s preferred bilateral interactions with individual states. CICA would also allow Central Asian states to carry out multi-vector diplomacy with outside powers and to balance these powers so that no one country, such as Russia or China, could dominate the region. In the early 1990s sixteen states joined, and by 2022, twenty-seven states had joined. Tokayev, as Kazakh deputy foreign minister, had helped in 1992 to envision a Central Asian collective security regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as foreign minister in 2002 organized the first CICA summit.
In 2014 when Xi Jinping hosted CICA in Shanghai, he placed it as an equal to APEC, a more established and respected multilateral organization. Xi called for a “new regional security cooperation architecture” for Asian countries that would replace US-led military alliances. Xi planned defense consultations with member states, capacity building, and institutionalizing a security regime. Xi’s theme was “Asia for Asians” which would have Asian problems “solved by Asians themselves.” This would distinguish CICA from APEC which had Western members. Putin was made an honored guest at this CICA meeting which did not fit with the theme. Although appearing to be an honor, it served to emphasize that Putin was an outside guest visiting Asia. It appeared that Xi had taken an organization that originated with Kazakhstan and tried to turn it into a China-led organization. In October 2021, Wang Yi furthered this strategy, claiming that China had always been both “participant and propellent of the CICA process” and implying that China was not an outside power in CICA. Wang called for CICA members to join and actively support the China-led Global Development Initiative and develop the BRI in the region.73
In 2022, there were multiple issues for CICA to manage, e.g., ongoing threats to security between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both in need of confidence building measures. Central Asian states were critical of Moscow’s mobilization for the Ukraine war that disproportionately recruited Central Asian minorities in Russia. Putin had threatened to revoke the Russian passports of Central Asian naturalized citizens in Russia if they tried to evade his mobilization of recruits for the war.74 Kazakhstan hosted the sixth meeting of CICA on October 13, 2022, where Tokayev intended to elevate the stature of CICA as a viable international organization capable of promoting Asian security, an Asian OSCE. Twenty-seven member states attended. Side meetings were numerous, especially in the 5+1 format where five Central Asian countries meet with outside powers.
Putin’s address to the CICA tried to hijack the summit in several ways. He presented his three-decade old “Golden Billion” conspiracy theory regarding the United States, stating CICA should avoid the Western dominated global financial system, which exploits the global system at the expense of others.75 Putin warned that energy market instability undermines food security in many CICA member countries, making oil sanctions the source of food insecurity rather than the Ukraine war. He asked countries to ignore sanctions placed on Russian oil exports, stating "We call to eliminate all the artificial, illegitimate barriers preventing the restoration of the normal functioning of global chains of supplies, to resolve urgent tasks in the field of food security."76 Putin claimed that CICA was part of integration processes that would join CICA with the SCO, EEU, and ASEAN, implying it was a part of the GEP. He promoted formation of a regional security system, implying Russian leadership. Putin also mentioned that Russia with China had drafted a statement on security, which they expected CICA members to approve.77
It is unclear what happened to Putin’s statement on security that China supported and other CICA members were expected to sign. Putin was attempting to establish a Russian leadership position in CICA and discourage Central Asian countries from their multi-vector foreign policies, but this effort seemed irrelevant to the summit. He found little evidence that CICA member states were within Russia’s sphere of influence.
Tokayev focused on CBMs and celebrated Kazakhstan’s leadership of CICA. A Kazakh newspaper claimed the eyes of the world were on Astana as the leader of Central Asian collective security.78 CICA adopted the Astana Statement with priority areas promoted by Tokayev: transform CICA from a conference into a full-fledged international organization; transform the CICA Financial Summit, originally initiated by China, into a permanent platform for financial cooperation; decarbonize the region’s economy; create a mechanism for ensuring food security; and form a partnership network of universities in CICA member states.79 The Astana Statement reflected Tokayev’s focus on economic development.
The Russia-Central Asia 5+1 meeting was held on October 14, 2022, the first time this format had been used. Putin offered Russian assistance, and greater Russian control, in restoring a unified energy system in Central Asia, which included oil transportation routes for export to Asia and joint development of Caspian Sea energy resources. Kazakhstan had recently discussed supplying oil to European buyers to replace disruption of Russian oil exports to Europe.
Outside of multilateral meetings, Tokayev had no bilateral meeting with Putin. Tokayev preferred the 5+1 format. However, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov met with Putin and discussed their border security issues. At the Russia-Central Asia meeting, Rahmon appeared to be trying to humiliate Putin, scolding him for not being respectful enough to Tajikistan and for not personally attending meetings in Rahmon’s country. Rahmon demanded that Putin not treat Central Asia as if it were still part of the former Soviet Union.80 A seven-minute video recorded Rahmon’s rant, which could be interpreted as an attack, while Putin sat there stone-faced.81 However, numerous alternative interpretations viewed Rahmon as blackmailing Putin, demanding more resources from Moscow, more investment, and more Russian language schools rather than asserting Tajikistan’s autonomy from Russia. Rahmon was, in fact, demonstrating his political loyalty to Putin and Russia as the only “viable strategic partner” for Central Asia in contrast to other Central Asian countries holding 5+1 meetings with the US, South Korea, China, India, and Japan. Rahmon did not support this strategy of multi-vector diplomacy to achieve greater autonomy as Kazakhstan had. Instead, he called for greater patronage from Russia for Tajikistan as a Russian client state. Tajikistan is more dependent on Russia with millions of Tajiks working and studying in Russia, sending back remittances vital to the Tajik economy. Rahmon appeared to be demanding that Putin reward him for his political loyalty.82
The 2022 SCO and CICA meetings revealed that most Central Asian states sought greater agency over Central Asia’s relations with the world and rejected the Sino-Russian joint hegemony over the region. Kazakhstan had pursued multi-vector diplomacy since 1992. CICA has been a vehicle to achieve greater autonomy from the Sino-Russian partnership. Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of CICA (2020–2024) is intended to revitalize and institutionalize the organization, making it a viable actor in regional and global politics.83
As Russia and China each discursively construct a Eurasian regional order inclusive of Central Asia, expanding its boundaries and shaping its identity, they are also redefining the nature of their respective states. Putin constructs Russia as a Eurasian state at the center of a Eurasian regional bloc. Xi Jinping constructs China as a rejuvenated, rising power whose sphere of influence has boundaries that stretch across Central Asia. All of Central Asia is affected, and in particular the largest Central Asian state, Kazakhstan, due to its geographic location and resource abundance, is particularly important to the region-building projects of both powers.
In the past decade, China’s economic presence in Central Asia expanded under BRI. Russia responded defensively, organizing the former Soviet Union Central Asian states into the EEU and the GEP to hedge Chinese influence and establish Russia’s identity as a great power with geopolitical influence. Beijing and Moscow have held a continuous dialogue since 2015 on how to connect these different projects, but that has proven difficult because the essence of each is single-country centrality, either Sinocentrism or Russocentrism. At every stage through the ten years of Russia’s “Turn to the East,” the effort to find common ground has barely obscured the fundamental divide over spheres of influence and national identity and the irreconcilable gap with the states of Central Asia, most poignantly with Kazakhstan, over regional architecture.
Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia is managed through an agreed upon division of labor as they aim to create a stable Eurasian regional order, but in 2022 this arrangement became more at risk. In January 2022, Moscow assumed that its security role was expanding due to the Russian-led CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan, which it expected would reduce Beijing’s influence in the country and quash Kazakhstan’s multi-vector diplomacy. However, Putin was surprised by the Central Asian states’ assertion of their autonomy in February 2022 when all Central Asian states practiced leash slipping as they rejected his efforts to pull them into the Ukraine war.
The energy dimension of Central Asian relations also shifted after sanctions were imposed on Russia. Moscow expected Astana’s help to bypass the sanctions on its oil and gas exports, but Tokayev refused. Meeting domestic energy demand became a priority in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, reducing the amount of oil and gas available for export to China. Russia began losing its identity as an energy superpower.
The Sino-Russian division of labor was further changed in 2022 by Beijing expanding its security role in the Central Asian region while Moscow was distracted with the Ukraine invasion. Beijing offered security capacity building to the region and encouraged the formation of a security community using Xi Jinping’s GSI.
Regional multilateral organizations have provided the arena for an array of Central Asian strategies. Kazakhstan had initiated CICA, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to create space for multi-vector diplomacy. This affects how Central Asian states interact with Moscow. In bilateral negotiations with Russia, they appear to choose compliance. But when meeting with Russia in the SCO and CICA, these states are more likely to push back on Russian leadership and policy preferences. The 5+1 format of CICA was created for that purpose, to confront Russia collectively. However, individual states have their own unique approach. Tajikistan’s president used blackmail on Putin at the CICA summit but also appeared to bandwagon with him while requesting that a traditional relationship of patron-client ties be maintained.
Kazakhstan’s multi-vector diplomacy has practiced leash slipping to avoid Russian domination, but it is not an anti-Russian position, and when assistance from Moscow was needed, as in January 2022, Tokayev contacted Putin. The dispatch of CSTO peacekeepers, primarily Russian, to Kazakhstan caught many outside observers by surprise as Moscow seemingly violated Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. However, we need to recognize that smaller secondary states such as Kazakhstan have a wide array of tactical strategies and are not always in opposition to Moscow when they need to call on it for assistance.
Multi-vector diplomacy is tricky amid a transition in the power balance between the power long dominant in the area and the rising power intent on establishing its own dominance. Russia’s loss of influence in the region does not simply equate to Beijing’s progress towards a Chinese sphere of influence there. The year 2022 proved most interesting for exposing Russian hubris in failed efforts to rally support, but it also demonstrated deepening challenges for Moscow and Beijing to find common ground. If Beijing still anticipates that its position in the region should strengthen, Moscow must acknowledge that its failed plans in Central Asia, particularly in the shadow of the Ukraine war, are seriously jeopardizing its agenda for the Turn to the East.”
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