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With Russia mired in an extended conflict in Ukraine and more and more depending on China for provides, Beijing is shifting rapidly to develop its sway in Central Asia, a area that was as soon as within the Kremlin’s sphere of affect.

Russia, for its half, is pushing again arduous.

Because the leaders of Central Asian nations meet with the presidents of China and Russia this week in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, China’s rising presence is seen within the area. New rail traces and different infrastructure are being constructed, whereas commerce and funding are rising.

Flag-waving Kazakh kids who sang in Chinese language greeted Xi Jinping, China’s chief, upon his arrival in Astana on Tuesday. He praised ties with Kazakhstan as a friendship that has “endured for generations.”

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is expected to arrive Wednesday for the beginning of the assembly in Astana, an annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Group, a regional grouping dominated by Beijing. The discussion board was for years targeted largely on safety points. However because the group has expanded its membership, China and Russia have used it as a platform to showcase their ambitions of reshaping a world order dominated by the US.

The group, which was established by China and Russia in 2001 with the Central Asian nations Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, has expanded lately to incorporate Pakistan, India and Iran.

Whilst China has expanded its financial affect throughout Central Asia, it nonetheless faces challenges to its diplomacy, as Russia seeks to tilt the steadiness of members within the Shanghai discussion board in its favor.

The chief of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, is predicted to attend the summit this yr. He’s Mr. Putin’s closest overseas ally, who depends closely on Russia’s financial and political assist to remain in energy. Overseas Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia has said that Belarus can be named a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Group at this yr’s summit. That may be a minor diplomatic victory for the Kremlin.

An even bigger setback for Beijing is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is skipping the summit this yr. Mr. Modi plans to go to Moscow subsequent week to carry his personal discussions with Mr. Putin and is as a substitute sending his minister of exterior affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to the summit in Astana.

Coming after Mr. Putin’s latest journey to 2 of China’s different neighbors, North Korea and Vietnam, that upcoming journey by Mr. Modi to Moscow signifies that Mr. Putin continues to be in a position to weave his personal diplomatic relationships separate from Beijing, stated Theresa Fallon, the director of the Heart for Russia, Europe, Asia Research in Brussels.

“He’s saying, ‘I’ve received different choices,’” Ms. Fallon stated.

India had joined the Shanghai Cooperation Group at Russia’s behest in 2017, when Pakistan additionally joined on the encouragement of China. However India’s relations with China have develop into chilly since then, after border skirmishes between their troops in 2020 and 2022.

Whereas Mr. Modi had favored nearer relations when he took workplace a decade in the past, the 2 nations now not even enable nonstop industrial flights between them.

India is changing into extra involved in regards to the area’s geopolitical steadiness of energy as China’s clout rises and Russia’s wanes, stated Harsh V. Pant, a professor of worldwide relations at King’s Faculty London. China and Russia have additionally solid more and more pleasant relations with the Taliban authorities of Afghanistan, which has run the nation for the reason that departure of American forces in 2021 and has lengthy sided with Pakistan towards India.

“As far as Russia was the dominant participant, India was high-quality with it,” Mr. Pant stated. “However as China turns into extra vital economically and stronger in Central Asia, and Russia turns into the junior accomplice, India’s issues can be rising.”

In broader phrases, nevertheless, Russia’s participation within the Shanghai Cooperation Group is essentially a rear-guard motion to counterbalance the area’s seemingly inexorable shift towards China. Mr. Putin depends closely on China to maintain his economic system and army manufacturing afloat amid Western sanctions, and over time his authorities has come to just accept Beijing’s rising ties to Central Asia’s former Soviet Republics. The large hole between Russia’s and Beijing’s financial muscle makes direct competitors in Central Asia futile for the Kremlin.

As an alternative, the Kremlin has sought to keep up a measure of leverage in its former satellites on points that stay very important to its nationwide pursuits, together with by attending largely symbolic occasions just like the Astana summit. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin will maintain six separate conferences with Asian heads of state in Astana, in response to Russian state media.

Russia needs to keep up entry to Central Asian markets to avoid Western sanctions. Because the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has obtained billions of {dollars}’ price of Western items by utilizing Central Asian intermediaries. These embody shopper items like luxurious automobiles, in addition to digital elements which have been utilized in army manufacturing.

Russia additionally depends closely on thousands and thousands of Central Asian migrants to prop up its economic system, in addition to to rebuild the occupied components of Ukraine.

Lastly, Russia needs to cooperate with the governments of the largely Muslim nations of Central Asia on safety, and the specter of terrorism specifically. These threats have been laid naked earlier this yr, when a bunch of Tajik residents killed 145 folks at a Moscow live performance corridor within the deadliest terror assault in Russia in additional than a decade. The Islamic State claimed accountability for the assault.

Russia and China don’t simply compete in Central Asia. They typically cooperate, as a result of they understand a shared curiosity in having secure regimes within the area which have little or no coordination with Western militaries, stated Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Heart, a analysis group.

“They see regional stability anchored in authoritarian regimes which are secular, non-Muslim and, to a level, repressive at residence,” he stated.

William Fierman, a professor emeritus of Central Asian research at Indiana College, stated that Beijing additionally faces deep-seated public concern in Central Asia that China might use its large inhabitants and migration to overwhelm the sparsely populated area. Soviet authorities fanned these suspicions for many years, and even a youthful technology that didn’t develop up beneath Soviet rule now seems to share these issues, he stated.

In Astana, the elephant within the room is prone to be the conflict in Ukraine. Few specialists count on a lot public dialogue of the conflict at a discussion board dominated by Beijing, given its oblique assist for the Russian conflict effort.

Mr. Xi may even use his go to to push his imaginative and prescient of constructing higher transportation hyperlinks throughout the area, stated Wu Xinbo, the dean of the Institute of Worldwide Research at Fudan College in Shanghai. After the summit, Mr. Xi is scheduled to make a state go to to Tajikistan, the place the U.S. State Division just lately estimated that over 99 p.c of overseas funding comes from China.

A lot of China’s investments in Central Asia are in infrastructure. China concluded an settlement with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan final month to construct a brand new rail line throughout each nations. The rail line will give China a shortcut for overland commerce with Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, and past them to the Mideast and Europe. China has tried for the previous 12 years to develop rail site visitors throughout Russia to hold its exports to Europe, however now needs so as to add a southerly route.

“From a long-term, strategic perspective, this railway is essential,” stated Niva Yau, a nonresident fellow specializing in China’s relations with Central Asia on the Atlantic Council, a Washington analysis group.

Suhasini Raj and Li You contributed reporting and analysis.

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