An outpost of the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) responsible for repaving the Southern Transport Corridor highway in Kyrgyzstan from the city of Osh through Sary Tash to the Irkeshtan border with China. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.
By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen.
First published in the International Herald Tribune (IHT), October 17, 2011.
BEIJING — Traffic around Tiananmen Square was even worse than usual last week as President Vladimir Putin rolled through town to cement the supposedly flowering Chinese-Russian relationship. A series of high-level deals were signed between Chinese and Russian state-owned enterprises and China announced a substantial infusion into the new Russian Direct Investment Fund.
While cordial, an unspoken undertone to the meetings was Russian concern about growing Chinese influence in the former Soviet Union and particularly Central Asia.
Just before his visit to Beijing, Putin had announced a desire to form a new Eurasian Union that would tie a number of former Soviet states back into the Russian orbit. Hands immediately starting wringing in Brussels. At this time of E.U. weakness, the Eurasian Union was seen to be aimed at counterbalancing Western institutions.
These concerns are largely ill-founded. While the new organization is clearly an effort by Russia to reassert authority over its old dominions, it is in fact aimed East rather than West. Russia is far more concerned by growing Chinese influence in its backyard than anything the West is throwing its way.
The core of Russia’s concerns is the slow but steady progress of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, originally set up in the post-Cold War period to define borders between its five members — China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan ( later joined by Uzbekistan).
But in the last 10 years the S.C.O. has evolved into the most interesting, and perhaps consequential, example of Chinese diplomacy. As a Chinese scholar put it to us the other day in Beijing, the organization went from being focused on regional security to honing in on regional development — a trajectory that accords tidily both with China’s and the Central Asians’ interests.
While nominally an equal partner to all members, Russia has felt like a junior partner in the S.C.O. Once one of the two poles in the world, Russia is now considered among the ranks of new rising powers — not a bad group to be in, but clearly a step down from its previous position in global affairs.
Moscow has sought to counter this by retaining links and authority among former Soviet republics. Those in Europe have now been absorbed into the European Union, but the Eurasian states have remained within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, bound by a latticework of organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community.
The S.C.O. was initially ignored by Russia when it was set up a decade ago, but it has steadily developed into an increasingly important actor that has become a vehicle for China’s push to develop Central Asia.
China has focused on trying to turn the S.C.O. from a security-focused organization into an economic bloc, a policy predicated on the knock-on effect that a stable and prosperous Central Asia would have on China’s underdeveloped Xinjiang Province.
Using its deep pockets to pour money into the poor and isolated Central Asian states, China has secured energy contracts, worked on hydroelectric plants and helped develop infrastructure from roads to telephone systems.
But China has gone beyond hard-nosed economics, developing a holistic strategy that attempts to bring Chinese soft power to bear on the region. China has established Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese in all the Central Asian states but Turkmenistan, and has also helped develop an S.C.O. University that brings together some 50-plus universities across China and Eurasia.
As part of a push to develop the S.C.O. as a cultural entity, as well as one focused on security and economics, these are admittedly baby steps, but there is some evidence of success. Growing numbers of Central Asian students can be found at Chinese Universities and reports from Confucius Institutes in the region point to the children of affluent families trying to learn Mandarin.
This is perhaps the greatest threat to Russia’s powerful legacy in the region. Moscow has no money to spend, so it has been happy to allow China’s investment in Central Asia, as long as Russia retains cultural predominance. That is starting to slip. Putin’s efforts at a Eurasian Union thus appear to be a rearguard action to stem the tide of increasing Chinese omnipotence in Russia’s backyard.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is an adviser at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Photo by Sue Anne Tay