Security Perceptions of Central Asian Countries
--- From the Perspective of China Studies ---

Shin Kawashima
Professor, the University of Tokyo


This article will discuss the environment surrounding security in Central Asian countries, often regarded as a geopolitical focus, and these countries' views of security. The present author specializes in Chinese politics and diplomacy but understands none of the Central Asian vernacular languages. Therefore, the discussion that follows will principally describe Chinese perspectives on Central Asia.

Since the latter half of the 2010s, the US-China confrontation has remained an overriding global focus. Its features vary from region to region where it is unfolding. But in Central Asia, even the composition of the "US-China confrontation" is not necessarily visible. This is partly due to the overwhelming presence of Russia and also partly due to China's expansion chiefly in the economic sphere. However, it is due principally to a modest US presence or to its decline in the region. Understanding these characteristics of Central Asia will help us to relativize recent discourses that are inclined to view the world in the light of the US-China confrontation and to direct attention to the diversity of specific regional circumstances.

In writing this article, the present author owes the following insights about the trends inside Central Asian countries to prior research such as Tomohiko Uyama, "US-China Relations as Seen from Central Asia: The US Remains Unfocused, China Important but with Little Sense of Friendship." 1 Although this article may not add new findings to the previous studies on the trends inside Central Asian countries, the present author hopes to offer some additional discussion on those countries' relations with China.

1. US Presence in Central Asia

In 1989, the Cold War came to an end between the United States and the Soviet Union; it also ended in Europe. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union broke up, and newly independent states emerged in Central Asia. China was quick to establish diplomatic relations with these countries, and carried on border negotiations, agreed upon earlier with the Soviet Union, now with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to fix border lines. Aiming at border defense and stability, China created the Shanghai Five, which eventually developed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Its cooperation agenda accordingly diversified from border stability to cross-border economic cooperation. The development of China's western provinces resulted from the resolution of border problems in China's interior and the burgeoning cross-border relations with Central Asian countries. 2

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States also swiftly approached and established diplomatic relations with the newly independent Central Asian states. Tomohiko Uyama notes, "The United States was one of those countries that established relations with these states most quickly and proactively. However, its interests so converged on specific issues such as denuclearization, democratization, and oil and gas development that they evidently lacked balance." 3 Ultimately, the United States aimed to reduce Russia's influence in the region. But the Central Asian countries did not necessarily welcome the US involvement since they were interested in becoming more autonomous.

What changed this situation was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The United States shifted its security policy to the "war on terror," indicating its willingness to cooperate with socialist China. As mentioned below, even before the 9/11 attacks, the Shanghai Five raised anti-terrorism as one of its cooperation agendas, which had something in common with the US "anti-terrorism" policy. As a result, the United States established its bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, deploying US forces in Central Asia --- Russia's sphere of military influence. As Yoko Hirose points out, this was "an event that occurred during a rare honeymoon period when China and Russia agreed on the ‘war on terror.'" 4 In due course, Russia began to dislike the presence of US forces in Central Asia. Central Asia is currently in Russia's sphere of military influence, which will not fundamentally change in the 21st century.

Was the relationship between the United States, which called for the "war on terror," and the Central Asian countries then strengthened after the 9/11 attacks? Tomohiko Uyama notes that "Central Asia's significance for the United States was linked devotedly to Afghanistan; the US vision of the relationship with Central Asia became more obscure." 5 Their sense of distance from Afghanistan varied among Central Asian countries, while the United States could not take up democracy and human rights violations as problems in those countries, which were not democratic. Thus, the US policy toward Central Asia became ambiguous. As is widely known, US relations with Uzbekistan, known for its peculiar style of democracy, became intimate temporarily but deteriorated when the Uzbek government suppressed by force an anti-government movement in the Andijan incident in May 2005.

The Uzbek government regarded the incident as a riot involving the Islamic Liberation Party, deepening the suspicion that the United States plotted to overthrow the Uzbek government. Changing its pro-American stand, the Uzbek government began to demand and realized the withdrawal of US troops from its territory. In addition, US military aircraft were banned from flying over Uzbekistan. After this, Uzbekistan strengthened its relationship with Russia, and bilateral military and economic ties were established. 6

The above does not mean that the United States has since then been indifferent to Central Asia. Under the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Central Asia in November 2015 and held a meeting with foreign ministers of the five regional countries in Samarkand attempting to create a C5+1 dialogue framework. 7 Reportedly, this effort was modeled on Japan's "Central Asia plus Japan" dialogue framework. 8 But that US policy failed to produce sufficient results. Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky, and Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Foundation compiled a report titled "U.S. POLICY TOWARD CENTRAL ASIA 3.0" in January 2016. As also discussed by Tomohiko Uyama, the report acknowledges the decline of the US presence in Central Asia and calls for adopting pragmatic policies based on a positive recognition of Chinese and Russian influence in the region. 9 This may indicate a perception in Washington that the Obama administration's policy toward Central Asia remained "cursory."

The Trump administration policy toward Central Asia continues to focus on Afghanistan but, at the same time, it seems to have become more aware of China's increasing economic presence in Central Asia. In February 2020, Secretary of State Pompeo visited Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), and the State Department released the "United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity." The document underscored the strategic importance of Central Asia, advocated security and economic cooperation, and called for a stable and prosperous Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, however, Pompeo met with Kazakhs who had fled from Xinjiang as if to give a warning to China. However, the Kazakh government did not join the meeting; on the contrary, the difference in their positions toward China became clearer. The Trump administration seems to have conceived of utilizing its relationship with Central Asia for some purposes irrelevant to Central Asia rather than for building a relationship to do something for Central Asia.

2. Growing Presence of China

When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s and newly independent states were born in Central Asia, China was also quick to recognize these countries. Since then, China has fixed its borders with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, etc., formed the Shanghai Five with these countries, and promoted cooperation across borders. For China, these border negotiations were an extension of those it had conducted with the Soviet Union before its dissolution. Since the Soviet Union fragmented into several countries, China was obliged to conduct negotiations with these countries. The conclusion of the border negotiations helped China with a substantial reduction of its land defense costs. This, along with other factors, enabled China's "maritime expansion."

Chinese cooperation with Central Asian countries evolved from the Shanghai Five, committed to border cooperation, to the SCO, a more comprehensive organization for China-Central Asia cooperation. Russian influence over Central Asia is still enormous on the military front. Meanwhile, China has been making inroads into the region, mainly on the economic front, while taking in even Russia or, at least, not denying Russia's cooperation policy toward the region. China has gradually strengthened its political and military advancement into Central Asia. The Shanghai Five began in April 1996 with a summit meeting of the five countries of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, held in Shanghai and the signing of the "Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in Border Areas (Shanghai Agreement)." Later, in 1997, the five member states signed the "Agreement on Mutual Reduction of Military Forces in the Border Areas" in Moscow. In 1998, they adopted a joint statement at a summit meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, thereby announcing security cooperation to address ethnic separatism, religious radicalism, international terrorism, and cross-border crimes (arms and drug smuggling, organized crime, etc.). The joint statement also expressed the member states' shared concerns about the situation in Afghanistan, nuclear testing in South Asia, and other extraterritorial issues and presented a new security perspective.

In July 2000, the Shanghai Five held a summit meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which Uzbekistan attended in an observer capacity. The participant countries identified three evil forces (ethnic separatism, international terrorism, and religious radicalism) and agreed on a regional cooperation organization, paving the way for establishing the SCO. Uzbekistan gained an official membership in 2001. The six member countries declared the establishment of the SCO, signed the "Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism," and confirmed the Shanghai Spirit, which features new security perceptions (based on the fundamental notions of "mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and consultation"), respect for diverse civilizations, and pursuit of common development.

It was after the birth of the SCO that the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Since the Taliban was also a threat to the Central Asian countries, they agreed to deploy US forces in Central Asia (with an exclusively anti-terrorism mission). The policies pursued by China came in sync with the US anti-terrorism policies, and the SCO developed under such an international environment. In 2002, at a summit meeting in St. Petersburg, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Charter was adopted, and the secretariat was established (Secretary-General: Zhang Deguang, Chinese Ambassador to Russia). The SCO membership expanded in 2006 with participation in observer status of Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani leaders.

Along with the expansion of the SCO, China's Jiang Zemin administration implemented the China Western Development program in connection with the solution of unbalanced Chinese economic development, attempting to promote border trade through Xinjiang. The Hu Jintao administration, which followed the Jiang Zemin administration, strengthened cooperation with Central Asia by multilateralizing the SCO frameworks ("peripheral diplomacy"), with stable border issues in the background. Multilateral cooperation in the military/security domain also advanced, and anti-terrorism joint drills took place among the SCO member countries.

The Xi Jinping administration's engagement with Central Asia can be understood as part of the One Belt, One Road initiative. The close relationship between the region and this initiative is apparent, given that Xi Jinping proposed the Silkroad Economic Belt ("One Belt") in Kazakhstan in September 2013. However, it is noteworthy that this initiative is an extension of the policies that started under the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations. China concluded strategic partnerships with Central Asian countries, with some of which it established higher-level partnerships. China signed a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan (2011), Uzbekistan (2012), Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan (2013); a full strategic partnership with Uzbekistan (2016), Tajikistan (2017), and Kyrgyzstan (2018); and a permanent full strategic partnership with Kazakhstan (2019). This list demonstrates the policy continuity from the Hu Jintao through the Xi Jinping administration.

Central Asian countries considered China to be a country that "did not meddle with internal affairs," and whose economic presence they welcomed, compared to the United States deemed to bring in Color revolutions. In a sense, China, considerate to their pro-Russian sentiments, took the side of Central Asian countries. Nonetheless, because it is fundamentally an economic country and does not go further, China is not an object that inspires sympathy. 10 In general, however, Central Asian countries practice a division of cooperation between Russia and China in terms of politics, military, and the economy --- the former two are with Russia, while the third is with China. Unquestionably, Chinese investment is alleged to be accompanied by the problem of "debt trap." Yet, Russia is economically incapable of building infrastructures in the region --- there is no option available but China. China, on the other hand, is alleviating caution against it through such efforts as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) co-financing with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in Tajikistan. However, the three countries bordering China, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are wary of China and entertain strong doubts about China's Xinjiang policy. There are some attempts among Central Asian countries to safeguard their "autonomy," such as Kazakhstan's decision to maintain a different rail track from the Chinese one and to install a crossover at the Khorgos transportation base.

China is enhancing connectivity in Central Asian countries by constructing railroads and highways, which will advance cooperation among Central Asian countries and strengthen their relations with China. In addition, China has invested in exploiting natural resources in Central Asia while constructing pipelines. Once China's relationship with Turkmenistan over natural gas was particularly close, but recently China has diversified the sources of its natural gas imports. Due also to declining selling prices, Turkmenistan's natural gas industry is not doing well.

3. Traditional Actors and New Actors

I have so far discussed the relationship between Central Asian countries and the United States and China while focusing on security in Central Asia. Next, I will spare some space for Russia that has an overwhelming influence on regional security, and for India that is emerging as a new actor.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has deployed military bases in Central Asia and maintained its military and security influence. As mentioned above, US troops were deployed in the region in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although Russia initially accepted it, it came gradually to regard it as a problem and took a stance of rebuilding its military presence in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is considered the first Central Asian country that accepted Russia's military engagement. In June 2002, Russian Defense Minister Ivanov visited Bishkek at the time of the CIS Defense Ministers' meeting and signed an agreement on maintaining Russian military facilities in Kyrgyzstan. On the occasion of President Putin's visit to Bishkek in the same year, both countries agreed upon expanding an airbase for Russian use. 11

Russia concluded a collective security treaty with the CIS countries in 1992, but Uzbekistan and two other countries withdrew from the treaty in 1999. However, aversion to the deployment of US forces in Central Asia led to a motion to institutionalize the treaty in 2003. In May of the same year, six countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, signed the Charter of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Agreement on Legal Status of the CSTO. This move aimed to institutionalize the collective security treaty and invigorate, among other activities, specific joint drills. Russia took a relatively reserved stance when political changes took place in Central Asia, such as the Andijan incident in 2005. Russia seems to have restored some influence in the region, partly due to the regional powers' suspicion about the United States.

In 2006, Uzbekistan joined (or returned to) the CSTO framework. With this, Central Asian countries other than Turkmenistan joined it. Under this framework, Russia and those Central Asian countries formed the "Collective Rapid Reaction Force" (KSOR). 12 The KSOR began to conduct substantial activities like drills, but in the 2010s, Uzbekistan gradually developed its own line of action and withdrew from the CSTO in 2012.

In this way, Russia has been trying to maintain its military presence in Central Asia while removing the US military deployment there. A complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan would create a new vacuum in the region. Reportedly, Chinese troops are advancing toward the Tajikistan-Afghanistan borders, 13 which may in the long run cause Sino-Russia tensions.

Central Asia is attracting attention not only from the United States, China, or Russia but also from India and Turkey. India is interested in the region's natural resources and transportation; Prime Minister Modi visited the Central Asian countries in July 2015. India's interest in natural resources in Central Asia may account for its contribution to peace and stability in Afghanistan and to its SCO membership. India also secured a window into Central Asia by getting involved with the management of Chabahar port in Iran in February 2018. Turkey also takes an interest in Central Asia that is inhabited by large Turkic populations. The Turkic Council is an international organization comprising countries whose official languages are Turkic. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are among members of the Istanbul-headquartered organization.

As such, Central Asia is made much of by superpowers and regional powers. Yet, it is uncertain whether the region, with increasing connectivity, can be united to handle various challenges. Problematic are north-south geographical divisions and the imbalance between the states. Nonetheless, regional cooperation is not necessarily absent. Particular attention has converged on Uzbek President Mirziyoyev, who made a dynamic shift in foreign policy after his predecessor Karimov's death. In March 2018, the first Central Asian Summit was convened in Kazakhstan, and in November 2019, the second Summit in Uzbekistan. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, however, it remains to be seen how the initiative will unfold.


Although such regional powers in Central Asia as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are seeking greater autonomy, they still accept that they are under Russia's military and security spheres of influence, while their economic relationship with China is unmistakably essential. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are in dire need of not only Russia's military support but also of Chinese investment for their survival as states. In this sense, the United States is not seen as playing a vital role in Central Asia, either for regional peace and stability or for the survival and development of the regional countries.

Consequently, it is hard to view the region from the perspective of the US-China confrontation. Given that Central Asia is in Russia's sphere of influence, multiple games, so to speak, are played, where the interests of many players --- the United States, China, Russia, and other extra-regional great powers like India and Turkey --- are intricately intertwined. To make matters more complicated, the interests of medium and small countries within the region overlap with the interests of those super- and great powers. The current situation is too complex to be explained by the games played between superpowers alone.

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