Thursday, 20 June 2024

China’s Free Riding in Central Asia’s Security Arrangements Featured

Published in Analytical Articles

By Vali Kaleji

June 20, 2024

Contrary to the economic, financial, and commercial domains where China has supplanted Russia in the five Central Asian states, Beijing is reluctant to assume a similar role in defense and security. China’s strategy, characterized by “free riding” at the expense of Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), has significantly influenced the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) passive and conservative stance. Indeed, this aspect of China’s “soft power” has been instrumental in mitigating the escalation of anti-Chinese sentiments and “Sinophobia” within the region. By adopting a free riding approach and refraining from direct intervention in Central Asia’s security arrangements, China has been able to concentrate on economic, trade, and transit relations, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative. This strategy has facilitated China’s ability to address competition and strategic threats in other regions, notably Asia-Pacific and the Indian subcontinent.

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BACKGROUND: Despite facing significant challenges and threats, China has refrained from independently and directly engaging in the security arrangements of Central Asia over the past three decades. Unlike the economic, financial, and commercial sectors where China has supplanted Russia in the five Central Asian states, Beijing is disinclined to assume a similar role in defense and security. China’s strategy leverages the efforts of Russia, the Central Asian states, and regional organizations at their expense.

China addressed its border threats in the region through the formation of the Shanghai Five Group in 1996. The subsequent establishment of the SCO in 2001 enabled China to foster joint and regional cooperation to counteract terrorism, extremism, and separatism (the three evils defined by the SCO), as well as to conduct joint military exercises in Central Asia.

In this context, China avoided intervention in Tajikistan’s Civil War, which was ultimately resolved in 1997 through the intervention of the CSTO and mediation efforts of Russia and Iran. China also refrained from intervening in Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in March 2005, the Andijan crisis in Uzbekistan in May 2005, the Second Kyrgyz Revolution in April 2010, the border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the political crisis and protests in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020, and the mass protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022.

In all the aforementioned instances, China limited its response to verbal condemnation. The crises and conflicts were managed and contained through the intervention of Russia and the CSTO. This pattern of behavior underscores China’s strategic preference for non-intervention and reliance on regional organizations in managing security issues in Central Asia.

The SCO, where China plays a pivotal role and wields considerable influence, also adheres to a policy of non-intervention in the military and security crises and conflicts of Central Asia. Although the SCO’s Regional Anti-terrorism Structure is located in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, there has been no record of intervention or force deployment.

The protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022 illustrate this approach. During this extensive crisis, both China and the SCO were absent. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested military assistance from the CSTO on January 5, 2022, to help Kazakhstan overcome the threat. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry stated on January 7, 2022, that “China and other SCO members … are willing to play a positive role in stabilizing the situation,” underscoring the SCO’s commitment to stability, albeit without direct military intervention.

In the context of defense and military cooperation between China and Tajikistan, China has funded the construction of a Tajik outpost, not a military base. Importantly, this outpost will not be manned by members of China’s army or military police, but by Tajik police. This contrasts with the presence of Russian military forces, which have been stationed at Base 201 in Tajikistan for three decades.

This case further exemplifies China’s strategic preference for non-intervention in the military and security arrangements of Central Asia. It underscores China’s approach of indirect engagement, focusing on infrastructure support rather than direct military involvement. This strategy aligns with China’s broader policy of maintaining regional stability through non-military means.

IMPLICATIONS: The most significant implications of this conservative approach and China’s strategy of “free riding” are the emergence of two distinct trends in the economic and security arrangements of Central Asia. Firstly, China’s dominant position in the region’s economic and trade relations, and secondly, Russia’s preeminence in the security and defense relations of Central Asia.

It is plausible that an unwritten agreement has been established between Russia and China in this regard, suggesting a division of responsibilities between Beijing and Moscow. With minimal military and security expenditures in Central Asia, China is capitalizing on the economic, commercial, and transit benefits in the region. Through a strategic and calculated approach, Beijing has delegated or imposed the cost of providing security and resolving challenges and conflicts in Central Asia to Russia.

These circumstances highlight China’s “soft power” in contrast to Russia’s “hard power” in Central Asia. Crucially, anti-Chinese sentiments or “Sinophobia” is on the rise in Central Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This sentiment underscores the complexities of regional dynamics and the delicate balance of power in Central Asia.

Undoubtedly, China’s direct military and security intervention in the internal crises of Central Asia, including the political crisis and protests in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and the January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan, would have amplified anti-Chinese sentiments in the region. This is particularly true among the middle class of Central Asian countries, who frequently oppose or criticize authoritarian governments.

Through the development of Confucian schools and Chinese media in Central Asia, Beijing has been engaging in “image building” and “branding” efforts to portray China as a non-interventionist and non-hegemonic country. As such, China prefers to abstain from direct military and security intervention in the crises and conflicts of this region to prevent tarnishing this image and further intensifying anti-Chinese sentiments in Central Asia. China has delegated this role to Russia and the CSTO.

China’s policy has also significantly influenced the passive and conservative approach of the SCO. Unlike the CSTO, the Warsaw Pact, and NATO, which have been active in regional and international conflicts and crises even outside Europe and North America, the SCO has remained inactive in this regard, especially in Central Asia and Afghanistan, as well as during the wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria.

During all three wars fought by the Russian Federation, a founding and primary member of the SCO, the organization’s approach was characterized by passivity or silence.

CONCLUSIONS: China’s strategy of non-intervention and free riding in the security arrangements of Central Asia clearly differs from Beijing’s behavior in other regions along its borders. In the Korean Peninsula, Asia-Pacific, Taiwan, and the Indian subcontinent, China finds itself in competition and tension with rival powers, particularly the U.S. and India. However, in Central Asia, China has a close ally – Russia – and can delegate security and defense responsibilities to Moscow. China and Russia take similar positions on the threats of religious extremism, terrorism, separatism, and the expansion of NATO and U.S. influence in Central Asia. Consequently, China is confident in transferring the responsibility of addressing these threats and challenges to Russia.

This approach has allowed China to concentrate on economic, trade, and transit relations, especially the Belt and Road initiative, while ameliorating the portrayal of China as a repressive country among the Central Asian public during political crises and conflicts, amid intensifying anti-Chinese sentiments and Sinophobia. Instead, China has increased its focus on dealing with competition and strategic threats in other regions.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Vali Kaleji, based in Tehran, Iran, holds a Ph.D. in Regional Studies, Central Asia and Caucasian Studies. He has published numerous analytical articles on Eurasian issues for the Eurasia Daily Monitor, the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, The Middle East Institute and the Valdai Club. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Read 9053 times Last modified on Wednesday, 03 July 2024

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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