Sino-Russian alignment in reality: The case of Central Asia

Sino-Russian alignment in reality: The case of Central Asia

This article presents an assessment of what the Sino-Russian relationship means for Central Asia and the United States. 

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on January 29, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, warned that “Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is closer than it has been in many decades.” The statement and Worldwide Threat Assessment report has spurred heated debate over the nature of Sino-Russian relations. President Trump’s disdain of the Intelligence Community and its implications for U.S. national security has become a cause of uncertainty. This article presents a macro perspective evaluation of what the Assessment means for a renewed 21st Century world-order.

Sino-Russian relations

When it comes to China and Russia’s foreign policy, there are multiple factors to consider. A Beijing-Moscow axis in practice is a complex reality, marred with competition in each state’s traditional spheres of influence. Central Asia exemplifies this intricate Sino-Russian relationship. It illustrates that while there are significant short-term opportunities for cooperation and shared goals in attacking an American-led world order, a long-term alignment is hindered by fundamentally different strategic objectives. In short, on the ground, the explanation cannot be simplified as Russia and China in complete lockstep against the United States.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – remained to varying degrees within Russia’s close sphere of influence. Russia has historically viewed Central Asia as its backyard since the lengthy military conquests of the 19th century. Today, it remains heavily invested as the regional security guarantor, with Russian bases located in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meant to target terrorist groups and project Russian power. In fact, reports suggest that in August 2018, Russian aircraft based in Tajikistan conducted a cross-border airstrike in northeastern Afghanistan against suspected Taliban militants. Given Russia’s recent history of terrorist attacks, Moscow has focused efforts on preventing terrorist safe havens in Central Asia. The July 2018 killing of two American tourists in Tajikistan was a high-profile example of the mixed success that Russian efforts have had in preventing violence.

Security and Stability

Since the collapse of the USSR, Sino-Central Asian relations have been characterized by a mutual desire for security and stability. China views the Central Asian states as pivotal in the fight against the ‘three evils’ – terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. It fears that any instability in Central Asia could destabilize China’s west, which would not only threaten the “One China” dream, but also China’s gateway to Eurasia and energy security. Rolling out the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia serves these Chinese interests and provides an economic incentive for the Central Asian States to crack down on China’s ‘three evils’. While the success of BRI hinges on Beijing furthering its political and economic interests in landlocked Central Asia, China’s growing influence in the region threatens Russia’s long-established sphere of influence.

For now, Moscow and Beijing have opted for a marriage of convenience in Central Asia: Beijing foots the majority of the bill for economic development, while Russia dominates the security sphere. Indeed, this arrangement stems from a mutual desire to exclude the West. For Moscow, Chinese influence in Russia’s perceived backyard is the lesser of two evils—better Beijing than Washington.

Still, the marriage is not without its looming troubles: Chinese-funded natural gas pipelines through Central Asia provide the former Soviet Republics with a market and transportation network that cuts out Russia. Just as Moscow laments the loss of influence in Eastern Europe, growing Chinese economic and diplomatic clout threaten to displace Russia’s role in Central Asia. For a country that evidently cares for its perception as a great power, losing influence in its ‘near abroad’ is yet another sign of its diminished stature.

Future in Central Asia

The areas of competition in Central Asia between Beijing and Moscow are only likely to increase in the coming years, especially as China will start to infringe on Russia’s security sphere. BRI not only brings benefits, but also serious security risks to China’s interests: threats to infrastructure and Chinese personnel from non-state actors and terrorist organizations, growing anti-Chinese sentiment, corruption, and organized crime to name a few. Central Asia is a hotbed for all of these security challenges. A failure on Beijing’s part to protect Chinese interests abroad will be viewed as a failure of President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to assert influence on the international stage.

In light of this, Beijing is increasingly privatizing its security efforts in Central Asia and along the BRI. Most recently, Eric Prince’s private security contractor, FRG, has agreed to open a training camp in Tumxuk, a town in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, 100 miles from the Kyrgyz border as the crow flies. Beijing has also taken a more aggressive leadership role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), by pledging to train 2,000 SCO-member states’ forces in counterterrorism tactics. For Moscow, and its regional Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), this is a worrying sign of shifting allegiances.

Historically, Russia and China have been competitors, with territorial disputes ranging back hundreds of years. The Soviet Union treated China as the lesser communist power for much of the 20th century. Today, Russian and Chinese foreign policy strategies starkly diverge: the former using increased aggression abroad to gain political favour at home, while the latter is ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’—patiently and methodically trying to build an image as a peaceful and responsible global player.

In Conclusion

Indeed, the case of a Sino-Russian entente, as outlined by Coats, will be in terms of countering what is perceived as U.S. unilateralism, interventionism and attempts by Washington to constrain Beijing and Moscow’s aspirations. Like the report points out, such alignment will especially take place in the sphere of Science and Technology — democratization of space, cyber threats, emerging technologies, and big data—and military modernization. When opportunities arise to counter U.S. influence, the Sino-Russian marriage of convenience will flourish. A recent example is Syria: as the U.S. prepares to withdraw, China is ready to step in to help Assad, Russia, and Iran with post-conflict reconstruction.

However, when the U.S. does not serve as a common foil to unite China and Russia, the durability of cooperation is harder to envision. In Central Asia, as America’s presence in Afghanistan and Syria begin to wind down, counter-terrorism and security are left as the remaining confluences of interest for China and Russia. Yet, with approaches to countering violent extremism that infringes on each other’s spheres of influence, their different foreign policy objectives make long-term cooperation difficult to envision.


Paul Wasserman is a Presidential Management Fellow and is currently on rotation at the U.S. African Development Foundation as a Francophone Program Analyst. He is also the co-founder of Nodal Point, a geopolitical consultancy focused on Russia, China and Central Asia. Previously, Mr. Wasserman worked on great power politics as the Research Associate for Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. 

Mr. Wasserman has written and spoken extensively on a number of issues related to Russo-Sino-American relations. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times and he has served as an analyst for the BBC World Business Report to provide commentary on Russia-Saudi Arabia ties, the impact of President Trump’s visit to Asia, and the future of the G7. He most recently spoke at the 2018 Laeken Dialogue, where he discussed the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the changing world order.

Mr. Wasserman is a Schwarzman Scholar with a Master’s in Global Affairs and a concentration in International Business and Economics from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. In 2014, Wasserman graduated from Yale University with a B.A. with honors in History and a focus on Russian and East European Studies. He speaks English, French, and Russian and has previously lived in both China and Russia.


Mollie Saltskog is an Intelligence Analyst at The Soufan Group, where she works directly with the company’s founder, Ali Soufan, on providing research and analysis on special projects relating to security matters around the globe, ranging from conflict analysis to geopolitics and counterterrorism. 

Her portfolio of experiences includes work on projects related to terrorism trends in China, MENA, South and Central Asia, Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs), counter-terrorism financing (CFI), the Syrian Civil War, the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese foreign policy. In her work, Ms. Saltskog is also client facing, briefing both private sector and government actors. She has presented on Salafi-Jihadist strategy at security conferences and in a private event for members of the diplomatic community. By invitation, Ms. Saltskog conducted a closed briefing for the European Defense Attachés in Beijing, China. 

Ms. Saltskog is a Schwarzman Scholar with a Master of Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Global Affairs from Yale-NUS College in Singapore. She speaks English, Swedish, and Mandarin.

Originally published on Small Wars Journal on February 26, 2018

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