AuthorMirza, Muhammad Nadeem
  1. Introduction

    Central Asia, through most part of its history, has remained a theatre of geo-strategic and geo-economic competition between great powers of the time. Demise of the Soviet Union in 1990s accelerated this competition for the control of energy resources of Central Asia and the adjacent Caspian Sea region as an alternative to diversify global oil's supply and demand equation vis-a-vis the North Sea and the Persian Gulf (Blank 1995). Moreover, part of the contestation was over the pipeline politics. The routes which were supposed to be taken out of the region determined, in large parts, the competition between Russia and the West over getting Central Asia's oil and gas. However, over the last few decades there is a new player in the town. China is now extracting most of the resources which were previously going to the West are now heading towards the East. Traditionally, most of the natural resources in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea remained under Russia's control which meant that Moscow was in the driving seat. Most of the pipelines were developed by the Soviet Union, to meet the demands of the industrialised states of Western Europe (Hart 2016).

    As China entered the region with substantial economic incentives, many Russian observers started feeling perturbed about the gradual loss of its sphere of influence. This is evident from the fact that immediately after unveiling of 'One Belt One Road' (OBOR) by China in 2013, Russia announced its own regional economic organisation known as the 'Eurasian Economic Union' (EAEU) in 2014 (EAEU 2014). The union incorporates Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Belarus. It has been interpreted as a Russian attempt to thwart outsiders' influence and to bring itself closer to the region. This fact is further reinforced by Russia's proposal to forge a free-trade agreement between Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and India by the end of 2020; this seems to be a calculated Russian move to balance China's ambitions designs in the region (Jiang 2020).

    For China, Central Asia stands out as a strategic bridge between Europe and itself especially in the light of 'Belt and Road Initiative' (BRI) which has become a vital springboard for 'Go West' (Harper 2019: 100) initiative, unveiled by President Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan back in 2013 (Jinping 2013). Besides having economic ambitions, China, due to its close geographical proximity, also considers Central Asia as a region of utmost concern particularly for its domestic security considerations. Beijing fears that any kind of instability in the region would not only undermine its admission ticket to Eurasia, let alone energy security, but could also undermine its struggle against what China calls the 'three evils'--a deadly combination of religious extremism, separatism, and above all, terrorism (Zhao Lei 2019). Russia, on the other hand, views Central Asia as part of its 'Near-Abroad' (Sahai 2019: 2). Russian leaders remain wary of the growing asymmetry in their relationship with China's increasing influence in the region--with whom is attached its normative prestige as a great power, and a long border. The leaders in Kremlin fear that massive Chinese investments will bring it closer to the Central Asian republics, at the expense of Russia's predominant position therein.

    The study is inspired by the contributions of Susanna Hast's theory of Sphere of Influence in her seminal work titled as 'Sphere of Influence in International Relations: History, Theory and Politics' published in 2014 (Hast 2014). A sphere of influence is a particular region dominated by a state, at the expense of its rival's influence. The dominant state continues to deny the rival state any opportunity to expand its influence. However, the rival state, in response, undertakes different strategies ranging from economic incentives to supporting dissenting voices and movements to undermine the dominant state's influence in that region (Mirza et al. 2021). This study, to a large extent, revolves around the conceptual understanding of the sphere of influence which in this case is Central Asia where China and Russia are competing yet collaborating with each other. Moreover, the study is mostly qualitative in nature with reliance on secondary data.

  2. Sino-Russian convergence of interests in Central Asia

    Central Asia is where the convergence of Sino-Russian interests can be seen through the regional multilateral organizations. SCO is the most notable example where Moscow and Beijing agree to tackle common threats and utilise common opportunities. The strategic partnership on a bilateral level between Russia and China in Central Asia and beyond creates scepticism making their partnership essentially "hostage to fortune" (Lo 2008: 6). However, events in the last few decades show that substantial efforts have been made in the direction of finding common grounds for cooperation as well as identifying areas where problems and issues related to cooperation are mitigated. This has further been augmented by the seeming arrangement where Beijing is carrying out economic and commercial activities while Moscow is trying to perform the role of regional policeman.

  3. Regional security: win-win cooperation

    The animosity between China and Russia lasted for almost three decades until 1990s. Since then, they are seen as drawing closer from being fierce belligerents to good neighbors. Menon considers this Sino-Russian rapprochement to be a "strategic convergence" (Menon 1997: 101). One example of this convergence can be viewed in Central Asia. China has consistently been reiterating its stance on stabilising the Central Asian region, both politically and socially, through development initiatives. Russia, along the line, has been supporting these initiatives since it serves Moscow's interest to develop the region in order to counter fundamentalist groups located in Central Asia (Menon 2003). China has also been largely preoccupied with domestic tensions in its Xinjiang province which is home to the non-Han Chinese Uighur population of Turkic Muslims--descendent from the neighboring Central Asian republics. Officials in Beijing are concerned about this minority and suspect them of having links to the separatist and extremist groups (Stronski and Nicole 2018: 10). Thus, both Moscow and Beijing are drawn closer to cooperate in areas of common interests on the Central Asia theatre.

  4. The formation of Shanghai Cooperation Organization

    The issues in Xinjiang led China to interpret domestic political stability as deeply interlinked with external threats emanating from Central Asia. This was one of the primary reasons behind the establishment of Shanghai Five (S-5) in 1996 which was later transmuted into Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2002 (Clarke 2010). Its founding members included China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. This was initially set as a mechanism to create confidence building measures in order to address issues attached with the 7000 km long border between all the member states (Garnett 2001: 41).

    From 1996-2000, the S-5 regional platform substantially aligned Russia's geopolitical threats in the region particularly emanating from the post-Soviet Afghanistan. In 1992 communist government was overthrown, and in 1996 Afghan Taliban captured Kabul. Through most of this era massive flow of weapons and drugs continued across Afghan borders. Russia had the fears of jihadists' resurgence in the newly born Central Asian republics emanating from Afghanistan which may spill over and create instability in Chechnya and other regions within the Russian Federation. Beijing too got worried of the rise of fundamentalism and the possible connection between Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) whose ultimate aim remained to overthrow the regimes in their respective states (Rashid 2002: 137-156). Besides it feared that Taliban might support the Uyghur separatist movement in its Xinjiang province. The 1998 summit in Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, via a joint declaration obliged all the member states to make sure that their respective territories are not used for activities related to undermining national sovereignty, jeopardizing national security, and eroding the socio-politico fabric of any of the five founding member states (Shanghai-5, 1998). This in turn manifested itself into a new framework of regional security also vital for domestic security of the states. Accordingly, this new regional security paradigm would ensure that common interests, security, and dialogue are pursued with a formal...

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