Russia’s Historical Defense Ties and China’s Rising Military Presence in Central Asia
Author: Major General U.S. Army (Ret.) Michael S. Repass, Nicole Wolkov, Ambassador (Ret.) Richard E. Hoagland
Apr 1, 2021
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics went from forming part of one of the largest and most powerful militaries in the world to creating independent defense forces with resources limited by new national borders. At the same time, Central Asian countries maintained a close military relationship with Russia, allowing it the continued use of former Soviet military bases on their territories. The Russian military presence in the former Soviet Socialist Republics is largely maintained through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO, comprised of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, was founded after the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States signed the Collective Security Treaty in 1992. Through the CSTO, Russia maintains military bases in Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Due to the close relations in the CSTO, Moscow remains Central Asia’s main arms supplier and continues to train Central Asian military personnel in Russia.
Russia’s main security goal in Central Asia is to preserve Russian dominance in the defense sector through maintaining a Russian military presence, promoting security cooperation, and remaining the main materiel supplier to Central Asian countries. Russia usually achieves these objectives under the auspices of the CSTO. The Kremlin also sees security threats such as narcotics trafficking and Islamic extremism arising beyond its southern border, and Moscow attempts to mitigate these threats through continued security cooperation and information sharing with Central Asian governments. The continued close security relations between Russia and Central Asia also helps prevent the erosion of Russian influence in Central Asia in favor of China.
In 2001, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan announced the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). India and Pakistan became its newest members in 2017. The SCO’s purpose is to foster regional cooperation and communication, and it has conducted multilateral military drills. Although the SCO remains a form of multilateral cooperation between China and Central Asia, China has used the global infrastructural development project known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in Kazakhstan in September 2013, to increase Chinese presence in the region. China also seeks to increase its military presence to counter “the three evils” – terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. In recent years, China has conducted joint military exercises, expanded into Central Asian defense markets, helped train police and special forces in the region, and promoted and secured economic and energy interests.
Through the BRI, China has invested in natural resources, industries, and infrastructure across the region and has given Central Asian countries low-interest loans through what some have described as “predatory lending.” This practice targets poorer countries which, after failing to pay back loans, must hand over key infrastructure and other resources to China. One example of this practice was in 2014 after Tajikistan failed to pay back loans for a new powerplant outside of Dushanbe built by TBEA, a Chinese company. TBEA then received the mining rights to the Upper Kumarg and Eastern Duoba gold mines in northern Tajikistan.3 Chinese-controlled sources of national wealth are becoming increasingly common: Tajikistan also gave China mining rights to a silver mine, and Kyrgyzstan gave a Chinese company rights to develop a gold mine.
With a reported Chinese military presence in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of Tajikistan near Afghanistan’s Wakan Corridor, an increased Chinese military presence to protect Chinese-owned businesses and natural resources elsewhere in the region is likely.
Under the BRI, Chinese state-run banks have invested beyond Central Asia in new infrastructure in Djibouti, including a railway to Ethiopia, a new port, and undersea Internet cables to connect the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. Now Djibouti owes 70 percent of its GDP to China, which has built a military base near the new port.6 Djibouti is not alone in experiencing Chinese military expansion through the BRI. Pakistan has also entered into military agreements with China, and China continues to expand its economic and military influence in the Indian Ocean through the BRI. As hard power almost inevitably follows soft power through the BRI, growing Chinese investment and resource acquisition in Central Asia likely foreshadows an increased Chinese military presence in Central Asia.