Russia and China in Central Asia: Competition or Coordination?

Central Asia is at the very core of what Sir Halford Mackinder – the founding father of modern geopolitics – defined the “pivotal area” of Eurasia, that is the Heartland.

By means of his theory, supported by historical evidence and far-sighted intuition, he understood why the Russian and British empires fought to extend their dominions over the modern-day –stans: the entire destiny of Eurafrasia, – or Afro-Eurasia – depends on their hegemonization.

‘Who Rules the Heartland Commands the World-Island’

“Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; [and] who rules the World-Island commands the world”; in this assertion Mackinder managed to illustrate to his contemporaries and to us – the posterity – the truth about Central Asia. It’s a region that, in the light of its geostrategic relevance, can impact deeply and incisively change the global balance of power.

Eurasia is the lung of the Earth, and Central Asia is its heart, that’s why, in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, every regional hegemony-driven power has been attempting to plant its own flag in one or more –stans, giving rise over time to the New Great Game.

Contrary to the past, this time is no longer a Russo-British issue, it is a multipolar competition that is being fought by a number of players: the Gulf monarchies against Iran, Turkey in pursuit of its pan-Turkic and Turanist dreams, the United States to counter Russia and China, and many others might be added to the list.

Russia and China have historical reasons to justify their claims over Central Asian steppes and some facts seem to suggest that the commonly perceived threat of the ever-increasing Western dynamism is encouraging them to develop a coordinated agenda.

Russia vs. China: Conflict or Coordinated Agenda?

Russia is a security provider, China is an unmatched investor and energy-hungry power; together they can contribute to foster peace and prosperity across the –stans as only few others could. Both countries are present in the region through 5+1 formats and they have developed their own integration projects, the Kremlin-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Beijing-promoted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but no significant collision is being recorded nor seems visible beyond the horizon.

The question arises spontaneously: are China and Russia rivals, competitors or truly-brotherly partners? The answer may be the following: they are rivals whose need to face a shared and powerful threat – a West committed to expanding its influence over Central Asia – made them understand the importance of turning differences into opportunities via the amalgamation of their agendas.

Both countries are increasingly treating the post-Soviet –stans as if they were a single unity and they seem to act in such a way not to compete but to carry out different and complementary functions. For instance, Russia is focused on technical assistance and security (fight against terrorism, drug trade and arms smuggling) and on the training of tomorrow’s elites: more than six billion dollars in technical assistance between 2008 and 2019, and 172,000 students enrolled in Russian universities as of the end of 2019.

China, instead, is mainly devoted to investments in infrastructures, exploitation of natural resources and trade. According to the Valdai Club, “from 2001 to 2019, trade between China and the countries of the region increased 30-fold, from $1.5 billion USD in 2001 to $46.5 billion USD in 2019″. Equally impressive numbers characterize the flow of foreign direct investments; in 2018 alone Beijing’s exposition was of “$3.8 billion USD to Kazakhstan, $1.98 billion USD to Turkmenistan, $412 million USD to Uzbekistan, $316 million USD to Tajikistan and $47 million USD to Kyrgyzstan […] and as of July 2019, [China] has invested $2.16 billion USD in the industrial sector in Kazakhstan; this figure was practically zero in 2013”.

Complementarity Over Competition

Strategic coordination is the only way Russia and China have to prevent the West from gaining a game-changing ground in Central Asia. Theoretically, the EAEU and the BRI are natural-born competitors, but in practice they can be perfectly melted in such a way to meet the regional interests of Moscow and Beijing and their common continental ambition: a non-Western-dominated Eurasia.

In the end, the growing pressure over the –stans, a redline for both Russia and China, has been playing the same effect of the Ukraine-related sanctions regime and of Trump’s trade and tech war against the Celestial Empire reborn: to give impetus and stimulus to the 21st century’s Entente Cordiale, whose very existence – far from being merely tied to the ambition of quickening the multipolar transition – is due to the evergreen leitmotiv of reigning over the Heartland.

If the strategic partnership survives Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, it may well pass the test of history by finding its own way to resist and flourish even in the case of a Western disengagement. Indeed, not only the West but the destructive power of historic recurrence is the real challenge that lies beyond the horizon.