- Sino-Russian Coordination in Central Asia and Implications for U.S. and Japanese Policies
The decline of U.S. power, often noted on the global stage in recent years, has been evident in Central Asia for over a decade. U.S. diplomacy toward this region has not been especially successful, even in earlier years. The United States has not been able to turn Central Asian countries’ multi-vector diplomacy and initial admiration of the West into favorable relationships with these countries, whereas Russia and China have maintained and expanded their influence. The initiation of construction on non-Russian routes for Caspian oil and gas pipelines in the late 1990s and the opening of U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2001 were seen as U.S. successes, but these victories proved illusory and short-lived. The Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments decided to close the bases in 2005 and 2014, respectively. At the same time, China increasingly began to import Central Asian oil and gas, while Russia continues to wield political influence over the region. As Gallup and other opinion polls show, Central Asia is the most pro-Russian and one of the least pro-Western regions in the world.1 It is also moderately pro-Chinese. A large number of Central Asians share many Russians’ view of the West as morally corrupt and conspiring to rule the world,2 and the unilateral actions by the United States and NATO to topple the regimes of some countries in the Middle East made this view even more plausible.
It is evident that the aggressive behavior of Russia and China, including in Crimea, the Donbas, and the South and East China Seas, poses threats to their neighbors in particular and the world order in general. Neighboring Russia and China, Central Asia is a target of their expanding influence, and some people in the region are worried about the potential threat to the [End Page 26] sovereignty of the Central Asian countries. On the other hand, in the eyes of countries not aligned with the United States, unilateral U.S. behavior could pose an equal or even heightened threat, as it can target any part of the world. U.S. unilateralism is so unpopular that Russia and China are often considered to be relatively benign great powers.
This essay will examine Russia’s and China’s activities in Central Asia and assess the implications for U.S. and Japanese interests. The first section will assess Russia’s and China’s respective roles in the region. The second section will then discuss U.S. and Japanese relations with the Central Asian states and consider options for dealing with Russian and Chinese influence, even possibly by cooperating with those countries on economic and security initiatives.
Central Asia as a Showcase of Russian and Chinese Soft Power
Russia and Central Asia are connected with each other by the Russian language and the common history of the tsarist and Soviet periods. Russian media is popular in Central Asia and conveys Russia’s worldview to the region. In poorer countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, a large number of migrant workers are drawn to Russia, reinforcing economic ties. In short, Russia has tremendous soft power in Central Asia. When the Ukrainian crisis occurred, some Central Asians sympathized with Ukraine, regarding Russian imperialism as a common enemy, but even more people sympathized with Russia, thinking that both Russia and Central Asia are victims of Western dominance of the world.3
China is less familiar to Central Asians and perceptions of the country are more ambivalent, but its economic power is very attractive. Moreover, China has acquired a reputation for extensively engaging in economic cooperation in a quick and flexible manner without meddling in political affairs. Projects related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are seen as opportunities for Central Asian countries to improve infrastructure and expand their external economic activities.
One of the “merits” of Russia and China for Central Asian political leaders is authoritarianism. Not only can organizations such as the Shanghai [End Page 27] Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) function as clubs of authoritarian states,4...