Beijing and Moscow are competing for influence and profits in Central Asia, invoking a centuries-old battle for the energy-rich area, but political pundits are at odds as to who's winning so far.
Home to some of the world's largest natural gas and coal reserves, Central Asia has been a region of geopolitical strife ever since the original 'Great Game,' a reference to Britain and Russia's political rivalry during the 19th century.
The region has traditionally yielded to Russian power due to its inclusion in the Soviet Union, but China has emerged as a new patron in recent years through new trade relations and investments. Countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are strategic players in Beijing's 'New Silk Road' project, an ambitious attempt to expand Chinese infrastructure across three continents.
Most importantly, Beijing is a net importer of oil and needs the natural resources and raw materials from Central Asia at affordable prices, noted Bhavya Sehgal, head of Asia-Pacific research at Frontier Strategy Group.
In reaction, Moscow has ramped up efforts to secure its position as the region's leading superpower. In January, President Vladimir Putin formally launched the Eurasian Economic Union, comprised of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan.
"Russia is reluctant to further empower China, even in a multilateral setting, as it prefers instead to promote its own regional economic architectures," noted Alexander Cooley, professor of political science at Columbia University, in a March research paper.
Moreover, Russia is making a concerted effort to increase its military and security presence, political risk firm Stratfor argued in a recent report. Putin is likely to use the threat of spillover violence from Islamist militancy in Afghanistan to justify the move, when in reality the Kremlin remains preoccupied with Chinese and U.S. influence, the report said.