If China and Russia were to fight over Central Asia, who would win? A Russian military analyst says it would be China, in a walkover.
The analyst, Aleksandr Khramchikhin, starts by enumerating the various military forces arrayed in and around Central Asia, including those of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The forces of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are modest, but Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan "have no military forces worth the name," writes Dmitry Gorenburg in his blog post on Khramchikhin's article.
Russia's Central Operational Strategic Command has a single tank brigade, while its Chinese counterpart, the Lanzhou military region, has two tank divisions (a division usually contains two to four brigades). There is a similar imbalance in the other types of units:
[T]he Chinese forces in just the Lanzhou military region, which is generally a low priority for the Chinese government and receives few modern weapons, are more powerful than all of the other forces in the region put together...
What does this mean? The scenario of China and Russia fighting over Central Asia is improbable enough that it seems more like a game of Risk, or a kid asking if a tiger fought a shark, who would win, than a matter for serious strategic planning. And Gorenburg agrees. But Risk is still a fun game, so let's continue:
[Khramchikhin] focuses on the possibility that China would attack Kazakhstan. This seems to be a sufficiently fantastic scenario that it could be dismissed out of hand, but instead he argues that China would easily win such a conflict while absorbing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with minimal effort. This means that Russia would have to come to Kazakhstan’s assistance or face the prospect of a 12,000km border with China stretching from Astrakhan to Vladivostok. (I’m not sure what happens to Mongolia in this scenario, but I assume it’s nothing good.) And at this point, Khramchikhin argues that Russia might as well capitulate on the spot.
I have never understood the extent of Russian paranoia about Chinese intentions. China is certainly a rising power, but it has accomplished its rise by developing its economy while remaining fairly quiet and conservative on the international scene. While there are certainly circumstances under which China would use its military forces offensively, particularly in Taiwan, the only scenario I can imagine where it feels the need to use armed force in Central Asia would involve defending itself against Islamist forces that have come to power in the region and are assisting Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang. In this scenario, Russia, Kazakhstan and China are all allies uniting to stop the Islamist threat, rather than adversaries.
Still, the performance of the Chinese armed forces in the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises in Kazakhstan can't have given them too much confidence, given how confidently and unilaterally they seemed to act. It would certainly be interesting to know to what extent Russian military planners these days are thinking like Khramchikhin