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China in Central Asia

May 27, 2023 | Expert Insights

Central Asia has always been at the crossroads of cultures and civilizations.

In ancient times the Silk Road passed through this area. Many rival empires sought control of this region. Trade, religion and knowledge passed through this land. China had close ties with Central Asia in ancient times. Central Asia rulers used to send tributes to Chinese emperors. But this relationship got sundered in modern times.


In the 19th century the ruling khanates and emirates of Central Asia began to weaken.

At the same time the Russian empire was expanding from the north. The Central Asian states were easy targets and no match for the more advanced Russian army. One by one they fell under Moscow’s rule. Following these annexations Muscovy Russia finally became an empire. Russia’s prestige rose in the Western world. It could now compete with the other global empires on an equal footing. It was no longer just a second-rate power anymore.

With the acquisition of Central Asia Russia became a part of the international power structure in a way that it was not before. It came into contact with other empires. The most notable in this regard was the British Empire. The British had by this time established their rule over the Indian subcontinent. Now they were concerned about the security of this Indian empire. The most likely threat came from the north-west direction in Afghanistan. So, the British decided to bring Afghanistan under their control. Russia was also moving on from Central Asia towards Afghanistan. As a result, a clash developed between these two great powers at the time in which Central Asia played a very significant role. This contest was known as the Great Game.

In the 19th century the Chinese Empire was a shadow of its former self. It was boxed in from all directions by the Western imperial powers along with Japan and Russia. The historical Sino-sphere in which China was the shining centre had disintegrated. Tributary states no longer send their dues to Beijing. And the Chinese Emperor could do nothing about this. He was too busy dealing with the Western powers. It was in this period that the ancient linkages between China and Central Asia established through the Silk Road was broken. Chinese merchant traffic to Central Asia virtually ended. Chinese goods were no longer traded in Central Asian markets. Beijing lost all its influence in Central Asia.

Russia continued to expand its domination in Central Asia. A policy of Russification was imposed from above. Under this policy the population of Central Asia were assimilated into Russian culture and language. Central Asia was incorporated within the wider concept of Russo-sphere. The Russians set about to modernize Central Asia. The first concepts of a modern nation state began to emerge in this region. Central Asians began to look at themselves as more than just a collection of tribes. Russian rule was harsh. But it brought in security and connected Central Asia to the wider world.

The Russian Empire was succeeded by the Soviet Union. It continued with the policy of Russification. To this was added the policies of communization and collectivization. Local culture was suppressed as bourgeois and backward. The Islamic religion was seen as a relic of the past. Wandering tribes were settled. Proper boundaries were drawn between the various Central Asian republics for the first time. Russian settlement in this region increased to a considerable extent. The security forces of these countries were trained on the Russian model. But the economies of these countries suffered due to the lack of opportunity under communism. All dissent was ruthlessly crushed. Even when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse the Central Asian countries were reluctant to give up their attachment to Moscow. However, the inevitable soon happened. With central authority in Moscow disappearing, they had to declare their independence and came out as free states.


As can be clearly seen in modern times the relationship between Central Asia and Russia has been a very close one. The Russian imprint on Central Asia can still be seen today. The Russian language is the international language with which Central Asians are most familiar with. Concepts of governance imported from Moscow are still being followed in these countries. They do not want Russian occupation to come back. But their neighbour to the north is the elder big brother on who they can rely at any time for their security whether internal or external. In this case Russia is no different from other great powers. The United States too considers Latin America to be within its sphere of influence and does not like other countries poking their noses in there. So, since the end of the Cold War the Central Asian nations have not taken any decision without informing Moscow. In return Russia has given them a special position in its own foreign policy. Such a relationship between an imperial power and its former colonies is unique. This arrangement continued throughout the 1990s and until quite recently. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed all previous calculations.

Today Russia is a much weaker power than it was before it invaded Ukraine. It is cut off from a large section of the global economy. Its citizens are feeling the pinch of the sanctions. The war economy is putting a huge strain on the country’s productive capacity and infrastructure. The military is facing constant attrition as the war in Ukraine grinds on. So, even if it wants to Russia cannot give the same attention to Central Asia that it used to before. The leaders of Central Asia are seeing this clearly. From their perspective a great power which has been their pillar of support for so long is slowly losing control. A power vacuum is being created in Central Asia. As international relations theory tells us a geo-political power vacuum does not last very long. Some other great power will eventually sense an opportunity. In Central Asia’s case it is obvious that the most likely candidate would be the nearest great power i.e., China. The Chinese have not forgotten about their historical linkages with Central Asia. They know that this region is highly important. No conceivable obstacle is standing in their way. As a consequence, they see no conceivable reason for not moving forward.

The relationship between Russia and China has also changed since the start of the war in Ukraine. It is no longer a relation between equals.

Instead, today Russia needs China more than the other way round.

The Chinese economy has suffered setbacks in recent times. But it is still a powerhouse in its own right. And war weary Russia needs this powerhouse behind it. It looks like that influence in Central Asia could be the price that Moscow has to pay for this. It is not something that the Russians like but it is something that they cannot stop.

The Central Asian countries also see China as their new hope for the time being. The West largely forgot about them since they lost their utility after the War on Terror. They know what they can offer the Chinese and are ready to do business with Beijing.

The Russians are of course not giving up. They are trying to play up their security partnership with Central Asia. Historical ties cannot be severed in a single day. Most of the Central Asian states have given their whole hearted support to Moscow in its war in Ukraine. They do not want to completely give up on the devil they know.

Moscow is also attempting to muddy the waters for Beijing in Central Asia. It is seeking to increase the level of competition. To do this Russia is seeking to encourage other countries to become more active in its near abroad. Among these are India and Iran. India is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which includes the Central Asian states, Russia and China. Iran is an observer at the SCO but shares a border with Central Asia.

Ultimately Central Asia is too important region to be without the involvement of a great power for a long period of time. The Chinese economy is seeking land connectivity with Europe and the Middle East. In this scheme of things Central Asia is crucial. Chinese money will bring its own set of problems to this region just as it has brought in other parts of the world. However, there will be an initial honeymoon period. It will be a tall order for Beijing to completely replace Moscow in its own backyard. In the interim though China will reap the economic benefits from this endeavour.


  • Chinese incursion into Central Asia is putting pressure on the supposed “unlimited friendship” between Moscow and Beijing following the start of the war in Ukraine.
  • Authoritarian China will find a lot in common with the dictatorial states of Central Asia.
  • The Chinese are not showing any particular military interest in Central Asia. They are looking at this region from a purely economic perspective.
  • The support that Russia has received in Central Asia over its war in Ukraine shows that the leaders here are still hedging their bets.