Russian and Chinese scholars debate their countries’ relations in Central Asia.
By Brian G. Carlson
“Brothers Forever: Russia Turns to the East” April 21, 2014 edition of The New Times (Новое Время), a Russian publication.
Same belt, different dreams
As China and Russia grow closer together strategically, a process that the Ukraine crisis has accelerated, their future relations in Central Asia remain unclear. China’s economic inroads into this region, which Russia regards as its backyard, have become a source of growing concern in Moscow, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt during a speech in Astana, Kazakhstan, in September 2013. These concerns remain largely tacit among Russian officials, but they appear regularly in media and scholarly commentary.
During Xi’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 8 in Moscow, Russia and China issued a joint declaration expressing their desire to cooperate in linking the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). This declaration clearly states that Russia supports the construction of the SREB, while China supports Russia’s efforts to promote Eurasian integration through the EEU. The two sides pledged to seek the linkage of these projects in both bilateral and multilateral formats, above all in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which both are founding members.[i] The Russian government has grown increasingly supportive of the SREB in its official statements over the past couple of years, during which time Putin and Xi, as well as other high-ranking officials from both countries, have discussed the issue during frequent meetings.
Beneath this diplomatic veneer of cooperation, however, Russian government officials and scholars are grappling with the question of how to respond to China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Chinese scholars, meanwhile, are studying the implications of the SREB and focusing especially on the question of how to offer reassurance to Russia.
May 8, 2015. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping. (Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)
Don’t turn pale at the mention of a tiger
Chinese scholars, including several prominent experts on Russia and Central Asia, emphasize their country’s good intentions in Central Asia, the complementary interests of China and Russia in the region, the potential for win-win outcomes, and the need to assure Russia’s support for the SREB. “China-Russia relations are extremely important,” writes Xing Guangcheng, director of the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Russia is China’s important strategic partner in building the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt.’”[ii]
Li Xin, a researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, acknowledges that China is rapidly outstripping Russia as the most important economic actor in the region, serving as the main partner for the Central Asian countries’ development. Yet China neither harbors expansionist aims in Central Asia nor opposes the EEU. In fact, he argues, the benefits that China’s growing economic presence brings to the region serve to promote Eurasian integration. Therefore, there is no need for the Central Asian countries—or by extension Russia—to “turn pale at the mention of a tiger” （谈虎色变, tanhusebian）.[iii]
Because Russia views Central Asia as its traditional sphere of influence, the entry of another great power naturally arouses Russia’s suspicions. Zhao Huasheng, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, recognizes that the SREB is likely to attract Russia’s misgivings. In his view, however, the proposal is not a zero-sum initiative that aims to exclude other powers and therefore does not conflict with Russia’s interests. The goal is instead to promote regional cooperation, which is beneficial for regional stability and development.[iv]
Moreover, if China were to implement the Silk Road Economic Belt in a way that damaged relations with Russia, then China would risk “for the sake of a little, losing a lot.”[v] In his speech in Astana, Xi articulated China’s “Three No’s” in Central Asia: China does not interfere in the region’s domestic politics, does not seek the right of leadership in the region’s affairs, and does not seek a sphere of influence in the region.[vi] These principles, Zhao writes, were “an important message conveyed to Russia, intended to make clear that the Silk Road Economic Belt won’t exclude Russia and also won’t struggle for mastery with the Eurasian Union.”[vii] Zhao argues that the integration projects of China and Russia, as well as the U.S. New Silk Road initiative, can coexist in Central Asia.[viii]
In private conversations, some Russian scholars have told Yang Shu, a professor at Lanzhou University in China’s western Gansu Province, that they are unsure of China’s intentions and fear that the SREB could undermine the EEU’s development.[ix] He argues, however, that by upgrading regional infrastructure and promoting regional economic development, the SREB will encourage regional cooperation. In this way, progress in the development of the SREB, the EEU, and the SCO will be mutually reinforcing.[x]
Don’t wake up evil while it’s quiet
Despite the Russian government’s official support for China’s SREB, scholars and commentators are questioning China’s underlying intentions. During interviews last year in Moscow with scholars, a common perception toward China’s growing presence in Central Asia was that Russia may not be overjoyed by this development, but may as well make the best of it rather than raise a fuss. One scholar cited the Russian proverb “Не буди лихо, пока оно тихо” (Ne budi likho, poka ono tikho), which literally means, “Don’t wake up evil while it’s quiet.”
Some initial reactions in the Russian media to Xi Jinping’s visit to Central Asia in September 2013 were quite negative. Azhdar Kurtov, a researcher at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, observed that by establishing close political relations with Central Asian countries and offering economic assistance, China had laid the groundwork for its advances in the region. “This consistent and well thought-out policy has led to China’s gradually beginning to displace Russia from the region as a geopolitical competitor,” Kurtov said.[xi] Yurii Tavrovskii, a columnist for the same newspaper, argued two months after Xi’s trip that China’s advance in Central Asia “doesn’t promise Moscow anything good.” Russia was simply in no condition, he argued, to match China’s offers of capital and goods, railroads and highways, and large markets for hydrocarbons and other resources.[xii]
Some Russian scholars acknowledge that the SREB could augment China’s power in Central Asia, perhaps partly at Russia’s expense, but argue that the project does not fundamentally threaten Russia’s interests. Russia’s best option, in the view of these scholars, is to seek cooperation with China.
Sergei Luzyanin, deputy director of the Institute of the Far East, acknowledges that China’s fundamental motivation for the SREB might include “not only future economic benefits, but also geopolitical calculations and hopes of building in Eurasia a ‘base of growth’ for a future great Eurasian power.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the Silk Road Economic Belt is not directed at, and does not seek to undermine, either the SCO or the EEU. Russia should therefore seek cooperation with China in Central Asia, either through a northern route based on SCO-EEC cooperation, or a southern route based on SCO-SREB cooperation, or possibly both simultaneously.[xiii]
Alexander Larin and Vladimir Matveev of the Institute of the Far East, posit that China’s “march to the West,” symbolized by the SREB, is “both a challenge and a chance” for Russia. “It entails the increase of China’s economic and geopolitical weight in Central Asia and the consolidation of its role as economic leader, which inevitably will affect Russia’s positions,” they write. They believe that China’s inroads into Central Asia are “fraught with pressure” on the EEU, especially because China’s growing economic clout could make it difficult for the union’s members to maintain relatively high external tariffs.[xiv] This could be an especially important issue for new member Kyrgyzstan, which imports many low-cost Chinese goods. Zhao Huasheng’s argument that the integration projects of Russia, China, and the United States can coexist in Central Asia may be correct, Larin and Matveev argue, but only if the principles of these integration projects are not in conflict. If these principles come into conflict, they argue, then the project led by the weaker side will probably begin to erode.[xv]
Because China’s Eurasian infrastructure development is certain to proceed regardless of Russia’s policies, Larin and Matveev urge Russia to seek its own benefits from the SREB—for example, by promoting the use of its rail network in European Russia as part of the China-Central Asia-Europe corridor that China plans to build.[xvi] Larin and Matveev express concern that China’s new rail routes to Europe could harm the Trans-Siberian Railroad.[xvii] However, Xi has expressed support for Russia’s proposal to link both the Trans-Siberian and the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) with the SREB.
Alexander Lukin, a leading Russian expert on China from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, argues that the interests of China and Russia in Central Asia are not fundamentally in conflict. Both countries seek to preserve regional stability and to combat the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism. China’s fundamental interests in Central Asia, Lukin argues, are strategic—not in the sense of establishing control of the region, but in combating threats to China’s own territory, especially Xinjiang Province, emanating from the Central Asian countries. Lukin cites the work of Zhao Huasheng, who ranks China’s interests in Central Asia as follows: first, the struggle with terrorism and the provision of energy supplies; second, economics and the SCO; and third, geopolitical interests and border security. In Lukin’s view, this hierarchy of interests is acceptable to Russia. Citing the work of several Chinese scholars, Lukin argues that China views the EEU positively and accepts the need to consider Russia’s traditional interests in the region.[xviii]
An accommodation between China and Russia based on the above principles could produce a kind of division of labor in Central Asia. In this view, China would focus on economic projects, while Russia would seek to play a leading role in security through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia’s opposition to an SCO free trade area is likely to continue. Russia has also resisted the creation of an SCO development bank, though this position could change if Russia determines that it could exert greater influence over Chinese investment in the region within the framework of such an organization than otherwise.[xix]
In the near-to-medium term, China-Russia relations in Central Asia are likely to remain stable because of the two countries’ overall good relations and mutual interests in the region. China aims to increase its economic presence in Central Asia, but it seeks to avoid antagonizing Russia as it pursues its interests. Russia harbors concerns about China’s growing presence in the region, but its options for responding are limited. The Russian government’s positive appraisal of the SREB probably reflects its recognition that it can ill afford to offend China, a strategic partner, at a time when Russia is isolated following the crisis in Ukraine.
In the longer term, the picture is less clear. No matter how often China stresses its good intentions, its growing influence in Central Asia is creating facts on the ground that are not always easy for Russia to accept. Growing political influence is likely to follow China’s growing economic presence in the region. If Russia’s concerns about China’s rise grow over the long term, then Central Asia is likely to be the region where it feels these concerns most acutely
Brian G. Carlson is a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. During the 2014-2015 academic year, he is a Fulbright Dissertation Research Abroad Fellow in China. In 2013-2014, he conducted research in Russia.