Central Asia after NATO – the unreliable Russia-China alliance

by Kendra Jean von Eyben, J.D./M.A. Candidate at the University of Ottawa and Norman Patterson School of International Affairs

While the world is focused on the ongoing confrontation in Ukraine, a more peaceful power transition is happening between the West and Russia in Central Asia. The 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan means an end to US and allied presence in the region. The transit centre at Manas airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic symbolically closed on June 3rd, with the last troops to leave Kyrgyz soil in July. Although the OSCE signed an agreement to continue training locals in counterterrorism measures, and NATO opened a new office in Uzbekistan in May, the main security players in the region will be Russia and China.

There is one issue: Russia and China are primarily competitors in Central Asia, not partners. This tension will negatively impact the security situation in the “stans” as the two play for short-term economic influence without considering the long-term picture.

The Bear and the Dragon

Russia and China are more interested in competing over economic resources and influence in the region, than dealing with genuine and serious security issues.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 1996, is nominally the main organization for security issues in the region. Its membership includes the two powers along with four of the five Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. Although the SCO is compared to NATO, it is not exclusively a military alliance. The SCO focuses on broad security issues, and claims to be committed to fighting the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

The SCO should be the primary organization concerned with the NATO withdrawal – three of its member states share borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. Instead, the SCO delayed discussing the issues into late 2013, until adamantly rejecting the idea that it would play a role in ensuring security in Afghanistan itself. It prefers to see itself as an exclusively “regional body”, ignoring the porous borders that exists between Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The SCO’s ineffectiveness in addressing the issue can be linked back to fundamental disagreements between Russia and China regarding the future of the Central Asian region – Russia sees the Central Asian region as firmly within its own sphere of influence whereas China is increasingly viewing it as an area that it too may play a dominating role in. Besides long standing competition over energy resources, both countries have recently started large and competing economic integration projects: Russia’s Customs Union, which so far includes Belarus and Kazakhstan, has ambitions to “revive the Soviet Union” in the words of some commentators. Meanwhile, China is equally recalling history with its New Silk Road project, meant to link it with Europe through land routes in Central Asia.

Enduring holes in Central Asia’s security framework

Although economic competition is positive, the unwillingness to seriously engage with the consequences of the NATO withdrawal are worrying – even beyond 2014.

A moderate concern exists that violence will spill over from Afghanistan into Central Asia post US withdrawal. Several border guards have been killed in non-SCO member state Turkmenistan, reportedly by Afghan extremists. Central Asian governments themselves, in particular Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have stressed the danger of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – a radical group that has fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and which may resume activities again in Central Asia. The organization most recently claimed responsibility for the bombing at Karachi airport. Although it should be noted that analysts have expressed skepticism about the level of danger the IMU represents.

Russia and China’s current attitude is proving to be unhelpful not only regarding the 2014 withdrawal, but also regarding the critical security issues in the region as a whole. In January 2014 Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic engaged in minor border skirmishes in the Fergana valley – an area that lacks clear demarcations between the two countries. Notably and conspicuously absent from the negotiation table on the issue were China and Russia, who both could have stepped in as facilitators. Beyond neglect, analysts express worries that either power may exacerbate insecure situations to gain an advantage in the region.

A Security Framework by any other means

Russia and China’s sham partnership in the region is disappointing since either genuine concerted effort or competition would be more effective in managing the future stability of the region.

Genuine cooperation between Russia and China, although unlikely, would give the SCO a greater chance of becoming an organization that tackled genuine issues. The two countries would be able to mediate between the fractious Central Asian states, and make tough decisions on transnational issues such as borders, terrorism and international crime. Although China and Russia may still not be interested in “taking over” in Afghanistan from the West, a strong partnership would ease fears of a spill-over.

Meanwhile, even open competition between the China and Russia would allow for a more concrete, although potentially fragmented, security framework. Russia maintains the Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is almost a duplication of the SCO – only without China. The two organizations, essentially running in parallel and without obvious cooperation, are a waste of resources. Furthermore, the existence of these two similar security bodies has reduced the incentive for cooperation – Uzbekistan recently suspended CSTO membership. The cost for Uzbekistan, which remains an SCO member, are negligible – it still is at the least nominally an ally of Russia.

The current organizations to handle security are neither fully integrated, nor substantially differing options. This creates doubt and uncertainty as to their effectiveness. The region will be confronted with several difficult security situation in the future, in which case the institutional framework to handle them will prove to be as illusory as the China-Russia partnership.


Central Asia, although relatively quiet since the 2010 revolution in the Kyrgyz Republic, remains in a delicate security situation. The countries are poor, and lack the institutional history and knowledge to effectively deal with complex security issues. The Russia-China mentorship in the region has the potential of effectively dealing regional security, however their own economic interests is preventing the partnership from functioning effectively. Instead, stalemate and neglect on major security issues are the trend.

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