Although the United States’ war in Central Asia is drawing to a close, concerns about a potential conflict in the region remain high. On October 1, following a war of words between the Tajik government and the Taliban, the Russian Foreign Ministry voiced concerns “about the growing tension in Tajik-Afghan relations in the context of mutually speaking statements. acrimonious from the leaders of the two countries ”. In the wake of continuing uncertainty over Afghanistan’s future, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization is planning four unprecedented four exercises at the Tajik-Afghan border in October, all simulating an armed incursion.
The Central Asian states bordering this zone are increasingly relying on external partners to strengthen their defenses. As the United States leaves the region, Russia and China are increasing their security assistance. However, current trends do not point to a competition of great powers in the region between these two nations.
Just days after the Taliban entered Kabul, Russia organized two military exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The second, larger exercise took place just 20 kilometers from the Afghan border and involved 2,500 Russian, Tajik and Uzbek soldiers, as well as tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack planes, helicopters and other weapons in a simulated joint response to cross-border militant attack.
China is also strengthening its security presence. A few days after the end of the Russian exercises, the powerful Chinese Ministry of Public Security organized counterterrorism exercises with its Tajik counterparts. China’s strategic activity in Tajikistan has grown considerably since it opened a small military installation in the country near the border with Afghanistan in 2016. It has even undertaken exercises with the Ministry of Security. public – the first international training activities it has ever carried out.
Afghanistan, and China’s fixation on the idea of Uyghur militants returning from Central Asia to set up camps, has resulted in an unprecedented level of Chinese security activity in neighboring states. In 2014, General secretary Xi Jinping has given a number of secret speeches in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, since a leak to the New York Times, in which he expressed concern that “Uyghur fighters” could use Tajik territory as a staging area to stage attacks in China. However, there is no evidence that Uyghur militants are operating from Tajikistan. In fact, recent International Criminal Court filings suggest that the country’s Uyghur population has fallen dramatically following raids into the country on Tajik territory by Chinese security services, targeting civilians in bazaars across the country. .
China and Russia are linked by several interests in Central Asia. Both fear that the region will become a source of terrorism. Both want to contain any instability that may emanate from Afghanistan. And both want to push the United States out of the region. The latter goal has been achieved, but neither Russia nor China can really take credit for it.
With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Washington’s already limited role in the region is expected to diminish further. The prospects of a return of US troops after the withdrawal have attracted limited interest from governments in Central Asia.
Immediately after September 11, when the United States launched operations in Afghanistan, it used Central Asia as a logistics hub, opening bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In 2014, both bases were closed. And the Northern Distribution Network, a series of supply lines to Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia launched in 2009, was shut down in 2015 following rising tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Although the US government has pledged to build new facilities on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, security assistance has grown from a high of $ 450 million a decade ago to just $ 11 million. dollars in 2020. The United States and NATO collectively represent 85 of the 269 joint exercises involving Central Asian militaries since 1991, according to data collected by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. But their frequency has also declined, from a peak of seven in 2003 to an average of just two since 2018, with no recent exercise following the collapse of the Afghan government.
Russia remains the region’s main security partner. It maintains military installations in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, supplies half of Central Asia’s arms imports and has organized 121 joint exercises since independence. Russia has a series of security mechanisms, both bilateral and multilateral, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Our data shows that while Russia’s share of the regional arms market over the past decade has remained constant, it has steadily increased its share of regional exercises from 39% to 49% as the region prepares for the withdrawal of ‘Afghanistan. Central Asian states have agreements with Russia to purchase weapons at reduced rates. For the region’s poorer states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Russia often simply donates weapons, most recently donating 12 BRDM-2M patrol vehicles to Tajikistan in mid-September. Russia’s drills are, on average, twice as large as those organized by its closest competitor, China. And unlike China, which has focused on developing ties with Central Asian security services and police forces, Russia is focusing on military-to-military cooperation. Two-thirds of Russian-led joint exercises have involved the Russian military or air force. This hinders the potential for cooperation with Beijing.
Russia has also demonstrated its hard power capabilities in the region in recent years. In August 2018, Russian forces in Tajikistan launched a series of airstrikes against drug traffickers, marking its first armed intervention in Afghan politics since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. A few weeks after the fall of Kabul, Russia stepped up its 201st military base of 7,000 men. in Tajikistan with 30 new tanks, 17 new BMP-2M infantry fighting vehicles and a set of Kornet anti-tank guided missiles.
Since Taliban ancestry, Russia has been testing its logistics networks to transport Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters to Gissar air base outside Dushanbe in the event of destabilization in Afghanistan. Rapid reaction capabilities have been stepped up to strengthen the Tajik border, with Russia also transferring Su-25 attack jets from Kyrgyzstan to Gissar. Unlike competitors like China, Russia retains regional prestige thanks to its combat experience in Syria, which allows it to train using proven tactics and techniques.
China walks west
At the same time, China’s role in the region has grown, with its share of the arms market increasing from 1.5 percent to 13 percent over the past decade. China is also establishing a strategic position in areas where Russia lags technologically, such as with drones. China has sold its CH-3, CH-4, CH-5 and Wing Loong drones to partners such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. China has also been more active in terms of strategic exercises and has organized 35 joint exercises either bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
China began to take a more active role in the defense of Central Asia in 2014, seeing it as a bulwark to prevent instability in Afghanistan from spreading to Xinjiang. These nationally oriented goals have led Beijing to focus primarily on integrating its internal security services, paramilitary forces and counterterrorism forces with those of neighboring states.
Some 59% of the Chinese exercises we have tracked involve the security services, with special operations forces and police units not far behind. This shows a marked difference from the Russian approach to regional security. The Chinese exercises include Cooperation-2019, a series of exercises that allow China to improve the interoperability of local paramilitary units with the Communist Party’s armed wing, the People’s Armed Police. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan each participated, marking the first time their National Guard units trained with their Chinese counterterrorism counterparts.
The security nature of these exercises also reveals China’s willingness to continue appeasing Russia, which sees itself as the dominant security actor in the region. Beijing has shown deference to Moscow here in the past. In 2017, the Development Research Center – an influential Chinese cabinet think tank – invited top Russian researchers to a private seminar to determine Moscow’s red lines in the region. Recent exercises even suggest deepening cooperation. In 2021, for example, Exercise Sibu / Interaction, which was the largest ever held in China with Russian forces, placed more emphasis on joint actions, including command and control, than on exercises. previous ones.
China’s growing influence
At present, Russia and China do not appear to be competing in Central Asia. But it will be tested as China’s rise in the region continues into the onset of the post-American era. China may not currently consume Russia’s share of the arms market, but it may start to do so as the Chinese arms industry grows and continues to seek markets for export.
While China has been largely deferential to Russia and likely to remain in the short term, there are signs that it is considering its own approach to this strategic part of the world. Increasingly, China has developed its own initiatives without Russia. It held its first exercise outside the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2014, and established its own multilateral mechanisms such as the China + Central Asia Foreign Ministers Meeting, launched in 2020, and the fight against terrorism with Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, created in 2016.
As China’s economic and security interests continue to grow in the region, the current framework for Sino-Russian cooperation may become part of a larger Pax Sinica in which Beijing is increasingly gaining control.
Bradley Jardine is a global researcher at the Kissinger Institute of the Wilson Center on China and the United States.
Edward Lemon is Research Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Yin Bogu)