Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Posted: March 18, 2021 in Straits Times
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Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

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