With Chinese Premier Li Keqiang planning a series of visits to Central Asian countries in early November, Russian and foreign experts are mulling over the role the region will play in global stability in the future.

Pictured (left-right): Сhina's President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in eastern China, Sept. 4. Photo: RIA Novosti

China is going to reinvigorate its efforts to fight terrorism along its periphery, as indicated by the early November visit of its Premier Li Keqiang to key Central Asian countries. He reiterated China’s intention to strengthen security cooperation in the region by increasing anti-terrorism collaboration with regional and global stakeholders.

Amidst the Aug. 30 terror attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan, which injured three embassy personnel, Beijing’s attempts to expand anti-terror cooperation is relevant for Russia, the U.S. and other stakeholders like Japan and India, which are interested in maintaining security in the region.

This was one of the topics discussed at a recent conference hosted by Carnegie Moscow Center, “Central Asia at the Crossroads: The Interests of Global and Regional Players.” Russian and foreign experts as well as diplomats came together to understand if different stakeholders would be able to cooperate in the field of security regardless of the Russia-West confrontation and the growing potential for a Moscow-Beijing rivalry in the future.

Most experts agree that the balance of power is changing in Central Asia, with Russia and China playing a greater role than the U.S., which had been the key guarantor of stability in the region until recently. The U.S. is now facing a diminished presence in the region with the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

However, “sustainable development” of the region is still on the agenda of U.S. foreign policy experts, even though the U.S. has “scaled back” its presence and is not going to be “a critical decider” in the region, according to one of the participants of the discussion, Eugene Rumer, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He says that Washington will “come back to normality” and save its presence in the region – a step that would be “mutually acceptable” for all stakeholders. According to Rumer, the U.S. is interested in making Central Asia a prosperous region, “free of geopolitical competition.”

However, will such a scenario come true, taking into account China’s increasing influence in Central Asia and Russia’s attempt to maintain its clout there? To quote Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin, there are no reasons to believe that Russia and China will compete politically at least for the next 10 years. After all, Russia is “a guarantor of security” in Central Asia, and Beijing doesn’t see the Russian forces in this region as a threat to China’s national interest.

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“China became closer [to Russia],” he said. “It is even more than strategic cooperation. Regardless of forecasts, the clash of Russian and Chinese interests didn’t take place.”

Likewise, Zhao Huasheng, the director of the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University, believes that Beijing is hardly likely to compete for influence in Central Asia and, instead, it will look for a deeper cooperation with other stakeholders, including Russia. After all, fighting with terrorism, extremism and separatism could become a uniting agenda for countries in the region.

“[Providing] security doesn’t have boundaries. No one country is able to deal with this challenge independently,” Zhao said, pointing out that tackling terrorism is possible only through extensive cooperation between different nations.

Indeed, taken separately, they won’t be able to handle security in Central Asia. Even Russia, with its political and military clout, cannot rely only its own resources. According to Trenin, even though Russia sees itself as one of the guarantors of security, “its resources are limited” and it could not deal with or prevent a large-scale conflict alone.  Primarily, it will think about its own security if something happens.

What Russia needs to do now is “to harmonize” its cooperation with China in Central Asia, because Beijing might use its economic clout for geopolitical purposes in the long-term to defend its national interest, Trenin believes. Likewise, Moscow’s cooperation with other Central Asia countries and the U.S., another guarantor of security, is also important. After all, in the case of the serious conflict that might pose an existential threat for one of these stakeholders, the coordination of their efforts is essential.    

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Given the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and the turbulence in the Middle East, Central Asia is becoming a key region from the point of view of global and regional security, according to Toshihiro Aiki, ambassador for Central Asian Affairs at Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

He argues that Japan also seeks to increase presence in Central Asia, accelerate the cooperation in the region between different countries and coordinate their efforts, for example, in their campaign against drug trafficking. However, it remains to be seen if stakeholders with competitive interests are able to find common ground.  

After all, current U.S.-Russia confrontation affects security in Central Asia, according to Rumer.  The countries of this region will not be able to “take full advantage” of the anti-terrorism cooperation if Moscow and Washington don’t alleviate tensions.

Likewise, Trenin argues that Russia should not attempt to punch above its weight in Central Asia, which is very important, given that fact that the Kremlin nurtures aspirations for increasing its geopolitical influence. This is one of the reasons why Russia launched the military campaign in Syria.

However, on the other hand, Russia became more vulnerable to the terrorism threat emanating from the Middle East and Central Asian countries, which might become even more politically unstable if there are changes in the ranks of the political elites there.

Most importantly, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy might hamper effective cooperation in Central Asia. Today the Kremlin is no longer seeking to become part of the West and the Euro-Atlantic space and is reassessing its role in the world, while making “a turn inward” to boost its sovereignty, said Trenin. Today, Moscow prefers confrontation; previously, it viewed Europe rather as a partner. And this is not a good sign for those expecting more, not less, cooperation in Eurasia.