Russia’s activities in its ‘near abroad’ and China’s Belt and Road initiative might be set to clash in Eurasia, writes Michael Clarke.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent consolidation of their positions atop their respective countries’ political hierarchies for the foreseeable future raises the spectre of an ‘authoritarian axis’ astride Eurasia. Recent exhortations by both parties that Sino-Russian relations are now at their “best time in history” and that Beijing and Moscow constitute each other’s “most trustworthy strategic partners” appear to confirm such fears.
The Sino-Russian ‘entente cordiale’ tends to be framed by Western analysts in one of two ways. The first view is that their relationship amounts to a ’proto alliance’ between “revisionist” powers sharing a mutual mistrust of the West and a shared desire to rewrite the rules that shape the global order. The second view holds that latent security dilemmas and mutual suspicion will ultimately unravel their strategic partnership.
However, while it is clear that both China and Russia share a number of broad strategic interests, a closer examination of their relationship in the mutually vital regional context of Central Asia reveals a much more complex dynamic – one characterised by both of these themes of accommodation and competition.
The impact of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in particular, demonstrates the potential for Russian and Chinese interests to fundamentally diverge in Central Asia and undo their post-Cold War, pragmatic ‘entente cordiale’ there.
For the best part of two decades, as Alex Cooley aptly noted, Central Asia’s regional order has been shaped by “great games” with “local rules”. Here, the largely authoritarian rulers of the Central Asian states were able to successfully play Russian, Chinese, and American interests off against each other to strengthen their own domestic and international standing.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, China and Russia developed a clear coexistence in the region, with each recognising the other’s comparative advantages. Moscow retained the role of security provider and China became increasingly predominant economically. Indeed, by the close of the 2000s, China had overtaken Russia as Central Asia’s major trading partner.
The broader convergence of interests in Sino-Russian relations, however, was demonstrated by Moscow and Beijing’s clear accommodation of each other’s global strategic interests. For instance, Russia acceded to China’s efforts to construct a “statist multilateralism” in the form of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) focused on Beijing’s Xinjiang-centric security concerns, and China refrained from overt criticism of Russian interventions in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
However, the increasing encroachment of Chinese power and influence into Central Asia, long defined as part of Moscow’s ‘near abroad’, is now fundamentally challenging the regional balance.
The BRI’s emphasis on developing trans-Eurasian economic and infrastructure connectivity has made Central Asia a vital hub for Beijing’s efforts. With its far north-western province of Xinjiang serving as a jumping off point, China wishes to establish a Silk Road Economic Belt that will ultimately link China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe.
Since 2012, however, both Russian and American influence in the region has been weakened. Washington ultimately sought to extricate itself from Afghanistan and reorient its strategic and military attention toward the Asia-Pacific. Russia, meanwhile, has had to grapple with the economic consequences of declining oil and gas prices, and the diplomatic and strategic costs of President Vladimir Putin’s interventions in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria.
Russia’s ability to offer attractive ‘public goods’ to the Central Asian states in security, economic and normative terms, in particular, has been most affected by these developments.
In a security context, while Russia has been the dominant actor among Central Asia’s independent states, its war with Georgia in 2008 and more recent actions in Ukraine and Crimea have contributed to misgivings in Central Asian capitals regarding Russian commitments to the status quo.
Economically, Putin’s own regional project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), amounts to a form of protective integration that seeks to embed Russian hegemony in the post-Soviet space through a restrictive customs union.
In contrast, the economic and normative underpinnings of China’s BRI are in some important ways complementary to the interests of the Central Asian states. Most immediately, China is focusing on greater economic interconnectivity through the improvement of critical infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines, highways, railways and telecommunications networks. This gels well with the long-held desire of Central Asia’s energy-rich states, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, to diversify export routes for their oil and gas.
Additionally, a number of the Central Asian states have also identified diversification of their economies beyond resource exports as a core priority for their future economic well-being. China’s commitment of some US $124 billion to the Silk Road Fund to assist in necessary infrastructural development has also been welcomed by Central Asian capitals.
Thus, although President Putin has claimed that the BRI and EEU are in fact “complementary”, Beijing’s initiative runs counter to Moscow’s protective integration agenda. The BRI is focused on facilitating freer economic interaction throughout Central Asia and, as Yu Bin has noted, comes without “the West’s political strings for economic intercourse and Russia’s heavy doses of geopolitics”.
The late 19th-century British diplomat, Sir Eyre Crowe, first coined the term “entente cordiale” to describe Britain’s alignment with France against Bismarck’s Germany. While the relationship implied an alignment of interests, “For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all,” wrote Crowe.
“For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content”.
It appears that the BRI, at least in the Central Asian context, may begin to reveal the limitations of the Sino-Russian shared frame of mind.