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Oct 11, 2021
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Frightened by the fearsome Taliban *, Dushanbe, Tashkent and Bishkek hid behind the backs of Moscow and Beijing

In the photo: during military maneuvers of the Russian and Chinese armed forces.

In the photo: during military maneuvers of the Russian and Chinese armed forces. (Photo: Vyacheslav Prokofiev / TASS)

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While America’s war in Central Asia may be ending, fears of 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 expressed concern about growing tensions in Tajik-Afghan relations against the backdrop of mutually harsh statements by the leaders of both countries. With continued uncertainty over the future of Afghanistan, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization plans to conduct four unprecedented exercises along the Tajik-Afghan border in October, all of which mimic an armed invasion.

The Central Asian states bordering the region are increasingly relying on external partners to bolster their defenses. As the United States leaves the region, Russia and China are stepping up their security assistance. However, current trends do not indicate great power rivalry in the region between the two countries.

Just days after the Taliban entered Kabul, Russia held military exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan twice. A second, larger exercise took place just 20 kilometers from the Afghan border; they involved 2,500 Russian, Tajik and Uzbek troops, and used tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack aircraft, helicopters and other weapons in a simulated joint response to a cross-border militant attack.

China is also strengthening its security presence. Days after the end of the Russian exercise, China’s powerful Ministry of Public Security conducted counterterrorism exercises with its Tajik counterparts. China’s strategic activity in Tajikistan has grown significantly since Beijing opened a small military facility in the country in 2016 near the border with Afghanistan. He even conducted drills with the Ministry of Public Security – the first international training events he ever conducted.

Afghanistan and China’s obsession with the return of Uyghur militants from Central Asia to set up camps have led to an unprecedented level of China’s security activities in neighboring states. In 2014, the Secretary General (CPC Central Committee – S. D.) Xi Jinping made a number of secret speeches in the Xinjiang Uygur border autonomous region, the contents of which were subsequently leaked to the New York Times. In his speeches, he expressed concern that “Uyghur militants” may use the territory of Tajikistan as a transit zone for organizing attacks in China. However, there is no evidence that Uyghur militants operate outside Tajikistan. In fact, recent statements to the International Criminal Court indicate that the country’s Uyghur population has plummeted following raids by Chinese security forces into Tajikistan against civilians in bazaars across the country.

In Central Asia, China and Russia are linked by several interests. Both countries share the concern that the region is becoming a source of terrorism. Both want to contain any instability that may emanate from Afghanistan. And both want to oust the United States from the region. This last goal has been achieved, but neither Russia nor China can truly take responsibility for it.

Goodbye, America!

With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Washington’s already limited role in the region is likely to diminish further. The prospects for the return of US troops after their withdrawal have been met with limited interest from the Central Asian governments.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the United States began operations in Afghanistan, it used Central Asia as a logistics hub, opening bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. By 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 closed in 2015 due to rising tensions between Washington and Moscow.

While the US government has pledged to build new facilities on the Tajik-Afghan border, security assistance has dropped from a high of $ 450 million a decade ago to just $ 11 million in 2020. Since 1991, the United States and NATO have collectively accounted for 85 of the 269 joint exercises involving Central Asian militaries, according to data compiled by The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. But their frequency has also dropped from a peak of seven in 2003 to an average of just two since 2018. There have been no recent exercises since the collapse of the Afghan government.

Russia is entrenched

Russia remains the region’s main security partner. It maintains military facilities in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, supplies half of its arms imports to Central Asia, and has organized 121 joint exercises since independence. Russia has a number of security mechanisms, both bilateral and multilateral, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Our data show that while Russia’s share of the regional arms market has remained unchanged over the past decade, it has steadily increased its share in regional exercises from 39 percent to 49 percent as the region prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Central Asian states have entered into agreements with Russia on the purchase of weapons at reduced prices. For the poorer states of the region – Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – Russia often simply donates weapons, having transferred 12 BRDM-2M patrol vehicles to Tajikistan quite recently, in mid-September.

Russian exercises are, on average, twice the size of those conducted by their closest competitor, China. And unlike China, which has focused on developing ties with the security services and police in Central Asia, Russia has focused on military-to-military cooperation. Two-thirds of the Russian-led joint exercises involve the Russian army or air force. This reduces the potential for cooperation with Beijing.

In recent years, Russia has also demonstrated its “hard power” capabilities in the region. In August 2018, Russian troops in Tajikistan launched a series of airstrikes against drug traffickers, marking their first armed intervention in Afghan politics since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. In the weeks after the fall of Kabul, Russia strengthened its 201st 7,000-strong military base in Tajikistan with 30 new tanks, 17 new BMP-2M infantry fighting vehicles and a batch of Kornet anti-tank guided missiles.

Since the Taliban came to power, Russia has been testing its logistics networks for transporting Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters to the Gissar airbase near Dushanbe in case of destabilization in Afghanistan.

Rapid response capabilities have been expanded to strengthen the Tajik border, with Russia also deploying Su-25 attack aircraft from Kyrgyzstan to Gissar. Unlike competitors like China, Russia maintains regional prestige thanks to its combat experience in Syria, which allows it to train with proven tactics and techniques.

China moves west

At the same time, China’s role in the region is growing, and its share of the arms market has increased over the past decade from 1.5 to 13 percent. China is also creating a strategic foothold in areas where Russia is lagging behind technologically, such as unmanned aerial vehicles. China has sold its CH3, CH4, CH-5 and Wing Loong drones to partners such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. China is also very active in terms of strategic exercises and has organized 35 joint exercises, either bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

China began to play a more active role in the defense of Central Asia in 2014, seeing it as a stronghold to prevent the spread of instability in Afghanistan to Xinjiang. These internal affairs-oriented goals have prompted Beijing to focus primarily on integrating its internal security services, paramilitaries and counterterrorism forces with those of neighboring states.

About 59 percent of the Chinese exercises we tracked involve security forces; the special operations forces and police units are not lagging behind. This demonstrates a marked difference from the Russian approach to regional security.

The Chinese exercise includes Cooperation 2019, a series of exercises that allow China to increase the compatibility of local paramilitaries with the armed wing of the Communist Party, the People’s Armed Police. They were attended by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which was the first time that their national guard units received training with their Chinese counterparts on counter-terrorism.

The security-oriented nature of these exercises also reflects China’s desire to continue to appease Russia, which sees itself as the dominant security actor in the region.

In the past, Beijing has shown respect for Moscow here. In 2017, the Development Research Center – an influential think tank under the Chinese Cabinet of Ministers – invited senior Russian researchers to a private workshop to identify Moscow’s red lines in the region. Recent teachings even suggest deepening cooperation. For example, in 2021, the Sibu / Interaction exercise, which was the largest ever conducted in China with the participation of Russian troops, had a greater emphasis than previous exercises on joint action, including command and control.

The growing influence of China

In Central Asia, Russia and China do not appear to be competing at this time. But this will be tested as China’s growth in the region continues in the early post-American era. China may not currently be absorbing Russia’s share of the arms market, but it may begin to do so as China’s domestic arms industry develops and continues to seek export markets.

While China has shown considerable respect for Russia and is likely to keep it in the near future, there are signs that it is considering its own approach to this strategic part of the world. Increasingly, China is developing its own initiatives without the participation of Russia. It organized its first exercises outside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2014 and created its own multilateral mechanisms, such as the China + Central Asia meeting of foreign ministers (China + Central Asia), launched in 2020, and a counterterrorism program with Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, established in 2016.

As China’s economic and security interests in the region continue to grow, the current Sino-Russian cooperation framework may be phased out within the wider China World (Pax Sinica), in which decisions are increasingly made by Beijing.


By Bradley Jardine – Bradley JardineKissinger Institute Fellow for China and the United States at the Wilson Center (Wilson Centres Kissinger Institute on China and v Combined fortunes);

Edward Lemon – Edward LemonAssociate Research Professor at the Bush School of Public Administration and Civil Service (bush School from Government and Public Service).

Translated by Sergei Dukhanov.

Publication source here.


* The Taliban Movement by the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003 recognized a terrorist organization, its activities on the territory of the Russian Federation are prohibited.

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