Over the past couple of years, Russia and China have become increasingly active in Central Asia as they compete with one another for influence. One country poised to become a key testing ground for this competition is Kyrgyzstan. Due to its strategic location, Kyrgyzstan has received serious attention from both Moscow and Beijing in both the military and economic spheres. And while the two regional heavyweights have common security interests in cooperating in Kyrgyzstan, their overall competing geopolitical imperatives in Central Asia could lead to a more problematic relationship in the future.
For both China and Russia, Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan) are of particular interest. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has managed to retain its formerly dominant military position in the region by maintaining military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Even economically Russia has been a top investor and trade partner, only to be surpassed in the past couple of years by Chinese economic power.
Kyrgyzstan is of particular interest to Beijing due to its location. The country borders on China’s restive Xinjiang region, which is inhabited by Muslim Uyghurs. Attacks against Chinese officials have long been a problem in Xinjiang. Beyond China itself, the Uyghurs are also represented in several Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan. It is quite natural that Beijing is worried about the Uyghur independence movement becoming a cross-border one. Indeed, China’s fears were well reflected in a terror attack which took place in Bishkek in 2016, when a Uyghur national rammed the Chinese embassy with a car, and then blew the car up inside the embassy compound, causing substantial damage and injury.