The former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have spent more than a century closely tied to Russia, with their economic, political, and cultural orientation being almost entirely toward Moscow.
But with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., China has become a key player in the Central Asian region. Since 1991, when Chinese traders began bringing consumer goods into Central Asia, the situation has changed dramatically.
Chinese big business has moved in, and Beijing has trade missions in every Central Asian country. China invests in local enterprises, donates aid money, and is active in bodies like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which groups Central Asian, Russia, and China. Beijing claimed last year to have invested a total of $1 billion in Central Asia, and increased trade with those republics tenfold in the last decade.
Sebastian Bersick, research fellow at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels, says the reorientation is part of the process touched off by the end of the U.S.-Soviet bipolar dominance of the world during the Cold War: "This is all part of the new developments which we are witnessing since the fall of the wall in Berlin and the end of the systemic bipolarity in international relations."
China, on its way to being a major world power, is seeking stability in its own region, as well as strategic links with Europe as a counterweight to the overall dominance of the sole remaining superpower, the United States. These moves, says Bersick, will have an impact also on Central Asia: "The development in the coming years of a free-trade area, a common East Asian free-trade area between China and some members of ASEAN [the Association of South East Asian Nations] -- of course, this offers trade opportunities for the Central Asian countries as well."
He says he does not expect the Central Asians to be part of this planned free-trade zone in the short term, but he says they are bound to have that opportunity in the future: "Right now, there is no talk of the Central Asian countries joining this kind of free-trade arrangement, but certainly in the future this will be an option."
Further afield, China's growing links with the European Union are illustrated by last month's summit, which was seen as confirmation of a mutual interest in seeing a "multipolar" world.
EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin spoke warmly about the "very dynamic" EU-China partnership: "The relationship is growing, visibly, before our eyes from one that started out as pretty much exclusively a trade relationship into one that covers all the elements of a modern partnership."
Beijing has been part of the movement promoting Asian contacts with Europe for the past decade. It is a key member of the ASEM process, meaning the cooperation forum grouping China, Japan, South Korea, and the 10 ASEAN nations, on the one side, with the 25 EU members plus the European Commission on the other.
Any trade advantages enjoyed by the ASEM members can eventually be expected to have a positive impact on Central Asia as well.
But Beijing is casting its net even wider, by seeking closer links with Moscow, consigning to history the great ideological rift of the Soviet era. China and Russia will hold their first-ever joint military exercises next year.
China is the Russian arms industry's top customer. It is said to be in the process of spending some $2 billion on weapons this year to update its military forces.