MOSCOW -- The Kremlin did not bat an eyelid as Chinese President Xi Jinping jetted from one Central Asian capital to the next tying up billion-dollar energy deals in Moscow’s backyard. Privately, it might have been glowering.
For years after gaining independence, the countries of former Soviet Central Asia remained locked in Moscow's embrace -- and their coveted oil and gas reserves flowed through Russia. But China has broken that stranglehold on resources in recent years by wooing the republics with huge credit lines and investing big in pipeline projects.
And if there was any doubt that Central Asia is falling rapidly under the spell of the yuan, Xi’s tour in early September will have cleared that up.
In Turkmenistan, Xi sealed deals potentially tripling gas imports to China by 2020. In Kazakhstan, he brought China into the Qashaghan (Kashagan) oil project as part of a package of $30 billion deals. In Uzbekistan, he signed $15 billion in deals on oil, gas, and gold. And in strategic Kyrgyzstan, he invested $3 billion to boost, among other things, the Kyrgyz section of a gas pipeline snaking across steppes and mountains from Turkmenistan to China.
Aleksei Maslov, head of the School of Asian Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, is clear about the implications.
"Officially, Russia does not utter any concerns at all, but in my opinion these actions are alarming for Russia's traditional sphere of influence," he says.
The energy deals are a double blow to Russia: not only do they reduce its political clout in the region, they also undercut Russian energy majors because they sate potential Chinese demand for Russian energy.
Geopolitical Long Game
So why, then, does Russia quietly tolerate it? The answer, according to analysts, is wrapped up in Moscow’s partner-cum-rival relationship with Beijing, Russia’s limitations, and the Kremlin’s grand geopolitical considerations.
Alexander Rahr, research director of the German-Russian Forum and an expert on Russia and Central Asia, believes President Vladimir Putin actively decided to allow the Chinese into the region as a tactical move to keep relations good with its powerful neighbor in the east.
"I think this was a firm choice, a difficult choice, but it was made," he says. "He cannot afford to have geopolitical battles with NATO and the West on the one hand and, parallel to that, battles with China for influence in Central Asia."
According to Rahr, the Kremlin is instead putting its energy into keeping Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova in its orbit. Russia is staunchly resisting Ukraine and Moldova’s bids to sign Association Agreements with the European Union. Moscow is trying to pressure those countries to instead join the Moscow-led Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
In Central Asia, Russia shares regional security interests with China. Moscow and Beijing both fear the spread of radical Islam in the region after the drawdown of NATO coalition troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
Both also fear that a change of regime could unleash turbulence in the region. Here, the Kremlin sees Shanghai Cooperation Organization member China as a crucial ally, in Rahr's view.
"Russia, I think, for itself has realized that it [can't keep] terrorists out of this region without the help of a strong country like China," he says.
For Moscow, analysts say, Chinese foreign policy and incursions in Central Asia represent less of a political challenge because Beijing does not advocate ideology and human rights in contrast to the West.
China has also been a staunch ally of Russia on the UN Security Council where both have used their vetoes to block, for instance, UN mandated military strikes against Syria where civil war has been raging for 29 months. China often follows Russia’s votes on the UN Security Council, which provides Russia with legitimacy on the international stage -- one of Putin’s priorities.