Russia & India Want to Gently Balance Chinese Influence in Central Asia

The past week or so saw a flurry of reports about an alleged white paper exchanged between Russia and India to coordinate their strategies in Central Asia. Both Great Powers have complementary visions concerning balancing Eurasian affairs, ergo why the 93rd paragraph of last month’s 99-paragraph strategic partnership statement announced that they would cooperate in third countries across the hemisphere. That part of the document explicitly listed Central Asia as one of the regions they’ll focus on.

This aligns with their unofficial efforts to explore jointly leading a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”) for optimizing their overlapping balancing acts in the hemisphere to maximize their respective strategic autonomy and that of their prospective partners vis-à-vis the American and Chinese superpowers. Central Asia is the perfect region to begin experimenting with this in a friendly, gentle, and non-hostile way since China has recently made enormous – mostly economic and energy – inroads that some speculated have begun to make those countries’ traditional Russian partner feel a bit uneasy.

To be absolutely clear, President Putin has always been sincere in praising the grand strategic importance of his country’s historically unprecedented full-spectrum cooperation with China that’s aimed at accelerating the emerging Multipolar World Order (even if some like Sanjaya Baru compellingly argue that it’s more akin to a bi-multipolar one). Russia has no desire to “contain” China, but it is indeed interested in balancing its rise in a friendly, gentle, and non-hostile manner. This isn’t due to any personal suspicions of China but simply aligns with the Neo-Realist School of International Relations.

Seeing how the white paper hasn’t yet been published, observers can only rely on unverifiable media reports about its contents, including those that cite unnamed Indian officials. From what one can gather, the gist of this document is to identify the spheres in which the unofficial jointly led Russian-Indian “Neo-NAM” can be most effective in enhancing relevant third countries’ strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the New Cold War’s superpowers (with the unspoken one of pertinence in this context being China).

One of the proposals purportedly put forth includes military-technical cooperation, but it can also be assumed that there’s much more to it than just that. Russia and India cooperate closely on the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC), which transits through Iran and Azerbaijan, the first-mentioned of which also hosts its eastern branch corridor that’s connected to Chabahar. That particular vector of this project aims to advance India’s economic ties with the Central Asian Republics (CAR) but has suffered from a lack of progress and interest over the past few years despite rhetoric to the contrary.

This created a window of opportunity for Pakistan to unofficially expand the Belt & Road Initiative’s (BRI) flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) northward to Afghanistan via last February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway. This project can be conceptualized as N-CPEC+ and could potentially reach as far as Russia. It also represents the quickest and most cost-effective way to connect the CARs to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the rest of the global economy at large.

North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC).
North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). Image: Clearias

Chabahar and the NSTC’s eastern branch corridor (E-NSTC+) lack that competitiveness. Yet, Afghanistan’s continued uncertainty might play to India’s and Iran’s advantage if it isn’t resolved in the coming future and especially if that country’s security situation deteriorates. PAKAFUZ’s construction might be delayed or, at the very least, become more difficult and costly. Furthermore, as paradoxical as it sounds, last spring’s 25-year strategic partnership agreement between China and Iran might also indirectly play in India’s favour.

That’s because it might result in a trans-CAR corridor between the Islamic and People’s Republics, which could, in turn, expand Iranian-CAR trade. Suppose the latter group of countries are utilizing such a prospective route to trade more with Iran. In that case, they might then also consider employing E-NSTC+ if they become interested in trading more with India too in order to maximize their strategic autonomy between all relevant Great Powers in the region. That could make this project much more attractive with time, but of course, a lot depends on how India leverages forthcoming developments.

Generally speaking, Russia isn’t opposed to CAR’s Chinese or Pakistani economic influence. It just seems to unofficially believe that the predicted expansion of their presence in this geostrategic region should be balanced with a parallel expansion of Iran’s and India’s in order to maintain balance. Extra-regional stakeholders are also interested in the CARs, especially Turkey and the US, the first of which is already trading with it through the Middle Corridor via the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. In contrast, the second could potentially rely on PAKAFUZ as its gateway.

Less likely but still possible is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) exploring some kind of future role there too to complement those Kingdoms’ ongoing economic diversification projects to reduce their disproportionate budgetary dependence on resource exports such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. The incipient rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the past year as well as between Iran and the UAE, could perhaps one day lead to that bloc trading with the CARs via Iran’s E-NSTC+. Of course, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, but it’s still an intriguing vision of the future to consider.

While there remain plenty of uncertainties in Central Asia, especially the continually unpredictable situation in Afghanistan, one enduring trend is Russia’s desire to maintain a sense of balance between that region’s Great Power stakeholders in the most friendly, gentle, and non-hostile manner possible so as to avoid inadvertently provoking any sort of “security/strategic dilemma”. Its de facto hemispheric-wide balancing alliance that it clinched with India during President Putin’s visit there last month is why Russia is relying on its historical South Asian partner to jointly pioneer these efforts.

The CARs will inevitably benefit from more connectivity, economic, financial, and investment competition between their geostrategic region’s many stakeholders because it’ll enable them to play parties off against one another in order to get the best possible deals for their people. The more options they have, the greater their strategic autonomy vis-à-vis these Great Powers. This is precisely what Russia envisions encouraging through its unofficial Neo-NAM efforts with India that seem to be hinted at in the recently reported white paper they shared.

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Andrew Korybko
Andrew Korybko
Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst specializing in the relationship between the US grand strategy in Afro-Eurasia, China's Belt & Road Initiative, and Hybrid Warfare. *Views are personal.
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