Will China Crowd Russia out of Eurasia?

Bogged down in Ukraine, Russia struggles to preserve its influence in Central Asia – a strategically important region that has traditionally been in Moscow’s geopolitical orbit. Although most, if not all, regional countries seek to develop closer ties with the West, it is China, rather than Washington and Brussels, that can potentially replace Russia as the major foreign power operating in Eurasia. 

Ever since Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many of its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have been attempting to distance themselves from the Kremlin. Armenia went that far to freeze its participation in the Russian-led military bloc, while Kazakhstan – Moscow’s most important ally in Central Asia – actively promotes its “multi-vector” foreign policy. As part of its strategy, Astana aims to increase economic and political relations with the West.

But the former Soviet republic’s room for political maneuvers seems to be limited by geography. Sandwiched between two giant neighbors – Russia in the north, and China in the southeast – it does not have much choice but to seek to preserve good ties with both Moscow and Beijing. 

Last week, Kazakhstan hosted the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where Russian, Chinese, as well as leaders of other SCO members such as India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, as well as Belarus – the entrant at the summit in Astana on July 3-4 – came to discuss a wide range of topics. The event served as a platform where some actors spread anti-Western rhetoric.

Iranian Acting President Mohammad Mokhber and Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif spoke out against Israeli actions in Gaza, while Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused the West of exploiting all other countries over the centuries. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, said that Ukraine, under the guidance of the UK and the United States, refused peace talks with Moscow.

It remains unclear if an anti-Western sentiment was the major reason why the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who seeks to preserve good ties with Washington – decided to skip the Eurasian grouping meet, and sent its External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Astana instead. But such a move is unlikely to have a negative impact on relations between Russia and India, given that Modi will soon travel to Moscow to meet with Putin. Still, without him at the summit, India did not achieve one of its major goals within the SCO – to get support to make English the 3rd official language of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Presently, all SCO documents are prepared in only two languages: Mandarin and Russian. Paradoxical or not, India’s archenemy Pakistan supports New Delhi’s proposal. But given disparate interests at play in the SCO, it will not be very easy for its members to reach consensus not only over that matter, but also over the very structure of the organization.

As Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev repeatedly emphasized, over the past 20 years not a single major economic project was implemented under the auspices of the SCO. More importantly, the creation of a development bank and a free trade zone is not the horizon yet. But in spite of that, last year the energy-rich state increased its trade volume with SCO members. Also, Kazakhstan’s SCO chairmanship undoubtedly gave Astana an opportunity to strengthen its positions in Eurasia.

“Kazakhstan has always prioritized the development and success of this organization as part of our balanced foreign policy,” the Central Asian nation’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko said, pointing out that his country has become a hub for international diplomacy, frequently visited by world leaders seeking closer ties.

Indeed, the world’s ninth largest country is also chairing several other organizations this year, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Organization of Turkic States, among others. All that allows Astana to position itself as a “middle power” in the global arena, and to, unlike most major powers, pursue the policy of peace.

Between 2017 and 2023 the Central Asian state hosted the Astana Process where representatives of Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran tried to find ways to resolve the Syrian, while on 10-11 May 2024 in the Kazakh city of Almaty Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministers Jeyhun Bayramov and Ararat Mirzoyan discussed normalization of relations between their countries. Most recently, the Kazakh Ambassador to Russia Dauren Abaev proposed the former Soviet republic as a venue for talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Thus, as every other SCO member, Kazakhstan uses the world’s largest multilateral group to promote its own foreign policy priorities. China seems to be doing the same, although Beijing also uses other instruments to increase its influence in the strategically important region of Central Asia. Besides the SCO, China develops economic links with the region under the Belt and Road Initiative, bilateral agreements, as well as through the China-plus-Central Asia format.

Finally, the fact that last year China overtook Russia to become Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade topping $41 billion, clearly indicates that Beijing sees the Central Asian state as a hub for its economic activities in the region. Kazakhstan will almost certainly use such a position to benefit and achieve its own geoeconomics interests.

[Photo by akorda.kz]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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