Turkey, China See Opportunity In Central Asia After Moscow’s Ukraine Invasion
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Since Moscow's February invasion of Ukraine, Central Asian governments have sought to limit their reliance on Russia and grapple with the economic fallout from economic sanctions that the Kremlin's war has brought to their region.
For China and Turkey -- two powers with long-standing ties to Central Asia of different magnitudes -- this has opened the door to new opportunities as the region's leaders reassess their balancing acts between various world powers.
Turkey recently expanded its footprint in Central Asia, signing trade and defense agreements, stepping up arms sales, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conducting high-profile meetings with his counterparts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
China, meanwhile, has continued to follow the course it set out decades ago by pursuing its security interests in the region and ensuring access to energy exports and valuable minerals. It has also stepped up its diplomatic engagement and hardened its rhetoric.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up a visit to Kazakhstan on June 7 and the third annual China + Central Asia foreign ministers' meeting in Nur-Sultan on June 8, where he "expressed deep concern about the serious spillover impact of the Ukraine crisis," urged Central Asian governments to stay out of geopolitical conflicts, and reaffirmed Beijing's economic interests in the region.
"There's a noticeable increase of activity both from Turkey and China in Central Asia [since the war started]," Erica Marat of the National Defense University in Washington told RFE/RL. "Both countries see an opportunity to expand their own presence in the region."
The interest in strong ties is also mutual, she adds.
The Kremlin still wields strong influence over Central Asian capitals and governments have been careful not to criticize Russia, but they've also moved to distance themselves and are eager to find alternative partners to Moscow, especially as they face a dimming regional economic forecast and key political transitions.
In March, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, son of longtime autocratic Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, took office as president.
And Kazakhstan voted in a June 5 constitutional referendum that will reduce the powers of the presidency and strip former President Nursultan Nazarbaev of his remaining influence. The amendments came after violent unrest in January and a shadowy political struggle behind the scenes between current President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Nazarbaev.
Toqaev says the changes are meant to limit future nepotism by barring the president's relatives from holding government positions, although critics say the new constitution won't alter the nature of Kazakhstan's authoritarian system.
"Russia doesn't have the capacity to follow through on all the initiatives it has brought to Central Asia over the years, so while [Moscow] is looking elsewhere, other states are trying to take advantage of it," Luca Anceschi, a Eurasian studies professor at the University of Glasgow, told RFE/RL. "But for Central Asia, it's about the domestic context. They want to limit and contain any fallout from the war."
The New Business As Usual
Despite Wang's calls to keep geopolitics out of the region during his visit this week, the Chinese official took veiled aim at the United States in the readout from his meeting with Toqaev, which happened shortly after a late May tour of Central Asia by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu.
"China hopes that Central Asian countries will stand firm, eliminate interference, strengthen coordination, cooperate in good faith, and safeguard regional peace and stability," the Chinese statement said. "China has never sought geopolitical interests in Central Asia, and never allows nonregional forces to stir up trouble in the region."
Wang was referring to Washington -- already a target before the Ukraine war -- but the acrimony has grown as China has sought to shift blame for any economic pain felt inside Central Asia on the United States and the West for imposing sanctions against Russia.
The Kazakh readout of the meeting between Toqaev and Wang did not include the Chinese foreign minister's warning about geopolitics, instead focusing on Chinese President Xi Jinping's backing of Toqaev's political agenda at home and his plan to visit Kazakhstan in the fall.
The summit with all five Central Asian foreign ministers ended with mostly boilerplate statements of cooperation and deepening trade ties, with local governments using the talks to call for improved transport links, including a long-discussed railroad project linking China with Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan making it into the final readout.
While Chinese engagement has deepened in recent years and continues to accelerate, there are still lingering questions from regional observers about how entwined Beijing wants to become in Central Asia and whether China can be the economic engine for the region that local governments have hoped.
"I don't know if the war has changed how the region is seen by Beijing," Anceschi said. "I'm also not sure if China wants any more of a footprint in Central Asia than it already has."
A Push From Ankara
Amid the regional reshuffle and Russia's changing financial fortunes, Turkey has made a renewed push into Central Asia.
In March, Erdogan wrapped up a two-day trip to Uzbekistan and left with 10 agreements and a pledge with Tashkent to increase their annual bilateral trade volume to $10 billion. A similar figure emerged from Toqaev's May 10 state visit to Turkey, which both Ankara and Nur-Sultan heralded as a new era of ties.
"The Russian invasion of Ukraine has served as yet another impetus" for Turkish engagement in Central Asia, Emil Avdaliani, from the European University in Tbilisi and director of Middle East studies at the Georgian think tank Geocase, told RFE/RL.
Turkey has had a long-standing presence in Central Asia, but it has developed unevenly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with Ankara generally struggling to make significant gains for influence. But Turkish hard power -- particularly its drones that gave Azerbaijan a decisive advantage in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and are now being deployed by Ukrainian forces -- has helped boost its image.
Turkmenistan is a longtime client for Turkish arms, especially the Bayraktar TB2 drones, and Kyrgyzstan also bought its own in 2021 following a border conflict with Tajikistan.
But perhaps the greatest opportunity that Central Asia and Turkey provide for each other is on trade.
Avdaliani says Ankara still faces limits in the size of its economy and the resources available to it when compared to Russia, China, or the United States, but that a larger Turkish role is currently welcomed in the region and is well-placed to fill part of the void left by Russia following the Ukraine invasion.
In particular, Turkey is looking to position itself as a viable alternative to Russia's role along China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which ferries goods from western China through Central Asia and Russia to European markets.
With sanctions against Russia now cutting off that route, Turkey could become a convenient way to bypass Russia.
"The Central Asian states, and Kazakhstan in particular, are seeking greater Turkish engagement because of changes in connectivity patterns across Eurasia," Avdaliani said.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.