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. Continue reading →
China has established a global financial institution that focuses on building roads, railways and other key infrastructure projects crucial to development in Asia. Though there are concerns raised by the United States, the formulation of the AIIB ties China further into a multilateral system.
China has emphasised tirelessly that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), its new financial institution initiative, is an open and inclusive multilateral institution. The United States has presented the main opposition to the AIIB, but recently many of the US’s allies have joined the financial institution as founding members.
The AIIB is a test of leadership both for an existing superpower and a rising power. The sharp difference between the US and many of its close allies’ reaction to the China-led AIIB shows the US’s dominance over leading financial institutions is waning. However, a lot remains to be decided as to how the AIIB will work and how far it will test the US’s dominance in this field.
After the deterioration of Russian–Western relations over Ukraine, Moscow has shown itself keen to reinvigorate its relationship with Beijing as a preferred partner – especially but not exclusively in the all-important energy sector. In addition, the two countries’ common ambitions for a multipolar international structure enhance the mutual benefits of a strong partnership. Yet, Sarah Lain argues, the Sino–Russian relationship is characterised by increasing inequality, as Moscow finds itself needing Beijing more than Beijing needs Moscow.
Memorandum of intentions signed between the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Ministry of Defence of People’s Republic of China in 2014. Photo by Kadex
Kazakhstan has faced many security challenges during its 23 years as an independent country. Its geo-strategic position at the heart of Eurasia has led to its adoption of a multi-vector foreign policy championed by its leader and widely emulated in the region. Consequently it has looked to maintain good relations with all its neighbors and has sought membership of a range of international organizations and institutions that it believes enhance its foreign policy objectives. In recent years China has included Central Asia as a region for its economic ambitions, and in the process China has challenged Russia’s historical dominance in this region. As China’s economic activity grows in the region, it would be reasonable to assume that China would seek influence in the sphere of regional defence and security, including that of Kazakhstan. Continue reading →
The conclusion of the 14th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit hosted in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 11-12 September 2014 resulted in the signing of key documents that set out procedures for accepting new members, including requirements that applicant states need to fulfil in order to achieve full SCO member status. Consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO has not expanded since its evolution from the “Shanghai Five” in 2001. Despite this, discussions relating to SCO membership expansion, specifically in relation to India and Pakistan’s potential entries, have been on the SCO leaders’ table for a number of years. However, it was only at the recent SCO summit that the organization’s leaders have come closer to agreeing on the admission process for new members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular supports SCO expansion. At the Dushanbe summit, he proclaimed the progress over SCO membership enlargement to be of great importance, emphasizing that when Russia takes the SCO chairmanship at the next summit in Ufa in 2015, Continue reading →
Kyrgyz traders in Karasuu bazaar, Osh region, loading a shipment of televisions that came in from Xinjiang. Photo by Sue Anne Tay
China’s economic influence in Kyrgyzstan has been growing rapidly over the past decade. Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s early membership in the WTO and its generally free economic environment, the country became a major importer, re-exporter and transporter of Chinese goods. As a result, bazaars have become major economic lifelines for Kyrgyzstan, concentrating great amounts of wealth and benefiting hundreds of thousands of people.
Although Chinese economic presence in Kyrgyzstan (and the wider region) is yet to translate into political influence, there are indirect political consequences for Kyrgyzstan. Over the past few years, shuttle traders importing Chinese goods have been at the forefront of the debate as to whether or not Kyrgyzstan should join the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union (CU). There are mixed feelings towards the union.
In a year of potential flux across Central Asia, one trend should remain constant: China’s relentless expansion of influence in the region. As Western forces withdraw (in one configuration or another) from Afghanistan, the Manas Transit Center closes in Kyrgyzstan and the United States diplomatic, development and security cooperation efforts are precipitously decreased in the area between the Black Sea and the Pamirs, leaders in the region are preparing for a reality in which they will have to balance Russia’s bombastic pugnacity with China’s economic steamroller. While it would be ideal for the locals, so to speak, to carve out their own geopolitical and economic space, this task is made more difficult with the loss of a non-Eurasian great power as a potential partner. Continue reading →
Outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, lie two major transit hubs. To the west is the Manas Transit Center, the United States’ main waypoint for soldiers coming in and out of Afghanistan. And to the north is the Dordoi bazaar, said to be the largest re-export market in Central Asia, a funnel for cheap Chinese goods to the relatively rich consumers of Kazakhstan and Russia. The Manas Transit Center is set to close in 2014, marking the end of Washington’s major security presence in the region. Dordoi, meanwhile, will be open indefinitely, an enduring symbol of the region’s Chinese-dominated future. Continue reading →
Though it has received comparatively little attention, one of the most profound geopolitical trends of the early 21st century is gathering steam: China’s pivot to Central Asia. As American military forces withdraw from Afghanistan and gaze toward the Asia-Pacific, and while Washington’s European allies put NATO’s eastward expansion on the back burner, Central Asia has become China’s domain of investment and influence. The Washington policy community finally woke up to this reality in September, when Chinese president Xi Jinping swept through Central Asia, signing tens of billions of dollars worth of deals and generally treating the former Soviet republics as if they were in China’s sphere of influence. Continue reading →
As local leaders fear instability following the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, Chinese policymakers are equally mindful of “unrest in the Fergana Valley once there is a change of leadership in Tashkent, or due to other factors,” said Alexandros Petersen, an energy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Petersen notes that Beijing is trying to spread risk with yet another alternative pipeline route on the drawing board, from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Tajikistan to China.
In his seminal article from October 2012 advocating for China’s ‘March Westwards’ Beijing University Dean of International Relations Wang Jisi spoke of a ‘new silk road [that] would extend from China’s eastern ports, through the center of Asia and Europe, to the eastern banks of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean coastal countries in the west.’ In addition to this route to Europe, ‘A major route from China’s western regions through the Indian Ocean should also be constructed as quickly as possible.’ An ambitious geopolitical sketch of the world seen from Beijing, but one that is being brought to life under President Xi Jinping, whose recent tour of Central Asia provided some definition of what exactly China is aiming for in its western relationships. Continue reading →
As Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to Central Asia last week, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the northwest of China, hosted the 3rd annual China Eurasia Expo. While maybe not intentionally choreographed to take place at the same time, the two events have a significant parallelism to them, reflecting the importance of Xinjiang to China’s Central Asian policy. For China, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” that Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan starts in Xinjiang, acting as the connective tissue that binds China’s crowded and prosperous eastern seaboard with Eurasia, Europe and the Middle East.
China’s interest in Central Asia is primarily a selfish one. This is not unusual in national interests: foreign policy is naturally focused on self-interest. But with China in Central Asia, the key role of Xinjiang distinguishes it from China’s relations with other parts of the world. For Beijing, Central Asian policy aims at both increasing China’s connectivity to Europe and the Middle East as well as reaping the benefits of the region’s rich natural resources, but also about helping foster development and therefore long-term stability in Xinjiang. A province periodically wracked by internal violence and instability, Beijing has quite clearly made the calculation that to stabilize the province, more economic development should be encouraged. Continue reading →
Presaging his stopover in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Kazakhstan in which he spoke of establishing a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would bind China to its Eurasian neighborhood. A trip so far focused largely on Afghanistan and trade, the stopover in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) summit is the capstone to what has been a successful trip, tidily wrapping the two subjects up in a bow largely of China’s making.
Of course, there are numerous other topics on the table at the summit beyond Afghanistan. Expanding membership looks like it is going to remain unresolved again – India and Pakistan continue to knock loudly on the door. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani has announced he will attend, possibly highlighting the new regime’s diplomatic approach (although it is unclear what the SCO means within this context), and it seems likely that further agreements about closer cooperation and discussion are likely to be held. Beijing will undoubtedly push an economic agenda – though this will find hostility from the other member states fearful of dominance. The question over the SCO development bank will remain unresolved. Continue reading →
Whither Central Asia after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan? That is the question on the lips of Central Asia watchers globally, as well as policymakers and pundits in the region. There are numerous theories, but few take into account the full picture of shifting geopolitical tectonics.
The narrative popular in some circles in Washington and propagated by some in Kabul and elsewhere in the region is that the greatest upcoming threat will be the potential “spillover” of extremist Islamism into the post-Soviet space.
The coming great power vacuum in the region, when the US loses interest and Russia finds itself less capable of asserting itself, is often linked to the supposed spillover effect to create a swirl of potential political instability, perhaps resembling the current tumult across the Middle East. Continue reading →