China’s Slow Moves Into the ex-USSR

Armenia has reportedly bought Chinese multiple-launch rocket systems, representing – if the reports are in fact true – the most significant entry to date by China in the defense market of the former Soviet Union. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China is the fifth-largest arms exporter in the world. But despite the fact that China borders on several post-Soviet states, its arms sales and military aid to that part of the world remains negligible.

China defers for now to Russia on Central Asian security and military issues and does not show immediate interest in increasing its role,” wrote the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a recent report (PDF) on Chinese-Central Asian relations. That is even more true with respect to the Caucasus. And it’s especially the case in terms of military equipment, where the new republics still remain dependent on Russian/Soviet technology more than two decades after gaining independence in 1991.

Armenia’s acquisition of AR1A multiple-launch rocket systems has not been confirmed by the Armenian government, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty attributed the information to an anonymous military source. RFE/RL also noted that Armenia had acquired an earlier version of the system in the late 1990s.

But as a whole, the military equipment transfers from China to the ex-Soviet space have been minimal. For several years Azerbaijan has been considering purchasing JF-17 fighter jets jointly produced by China and Pakistan. And Kyrgyzstan’s media reported (in Russian) in June that it was acquiring air defense systems from China, but that report gave few details and has never been corroborated.

The ICG report listed the small amount of known Chinese military aid to Central Asian states: “In 2007, it gave the Turkmen army precision equipment and uniforms and offered a $3 million loan for military needs. Under a 2002 agreement with Bishkek, China gave vehicles, communications equipment and uniforms to Kyrgyzstan worth $1.2 million, and in August 2008, it delivered military equipment to the Kyrgyz border services worth about $700,000. Between 1993 and 2008, it provided $15 million in military aid to Tajikistan. Uzbekistan was the first in the region to get Chinese arms – sniper rifles in 2000, and in 2009 the two reached a $3.7 million agreement to equip Uzbek border crossings with mobile scanning systems financed by a Chinese grant.”

China’s military has been more active – especially in Central Asia – with respect to joint military exercises than it has been with arms sales. In 2001, China helped establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security bloc that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The group has held a number of joint military exercises, though they appear to have been declining in importance in recent years. Behind the scenes, China has used the SCO to get the Central Asian members to extradite Uyghur activists whom Beijing accuses of fomenting rebellion in Xinjiang, the Uyghur-dominated province that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (The Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims who share many historical and cultural ties with Central Asians in the former Soviet Union.) And more than anything, China seems intent to use the SCO as a framework under which to carry out its investments and economic development projects in Central Asia.

A large part of the reason for China’s light military footprint in the post-Soviet space is that it does not want to challenge Russia. As the ICG report observed: “Russia continues to seek military influence in Central Asia but has become increasingly distrustful of the SCO and China’s intentions. Beijing is aware of this; a Chinese analyst noted: ‘Russia attempts to squeeze the SCO while supporting competing organisations.’” And as Raffaelo Pantucci, an expert on China-Central Asia relations, has noted with respect to Russia, “China has no interest in stirring up a security competition having a foreign and security policy that does its utmost to not seem threatening.”

Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that eventually China will take a more active defense role in Central Asia. It has dramatically increased its economic activity in the region, especially building infrastructure projects like a huge gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. And if China’s power continues to strengthen, while Russia’s declines, we will likely see a shift in the balance of power in Central Asia. The U.S.’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan, John Herbst, recently said that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if China surpassed Russia as the dominant power in the region in the next “15-20 years.” If that happens, China’s military role would seem destined to increase. 

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