In September 2013 during a visit to Astana President Xi Jinping spoke of establishing a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) that would ‘open the strategic regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and gradually move toward the set-up of a network of transportation that connects Eastern, Western and Southern Asia.’ Made during the President’s inaugural visit to Central Asia, the speech was both an articulation of a policy in a region that had been underway for around a decade, as well as the first declaration of a foreign policy vision that has increasingly shaped China’s own projection of its approach to foreign affairs. Founded in Central Asia, the SREB and the development of trade and infrastructure corridors emanating from China that it has come to symbolize, is slowly becoming Beijing’s dominant and most vocalised foreign policy strategy and is possibly set to be the defining public narrative for Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping.
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.
Parts of this article were adapted from the authors’ “China and Central Asia: A Significant New Energy Nexus” in The European Financial Review, April 30, 2013, accessible here.
Over the past decade China has aggressively developed its energy cooperation with Central Asia, which has an abundance of oil and natural gas deposits, and relative political stability. Through its energy relationship with Central Asia, China not only diversifies its access to new energy sources but also gains greater flexibility in playing regional geopolitics that advances its broader national interests.
China’s President Xi Jinping (left) and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev look on next to an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the eve of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit, in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters
The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, which begins today in Shanghai, largely passes unnoticed most years. But this year it is being touted as a major global event, largely due to Russia’s current awkward relationships elsewhere and China’s growing global profile.
It also offers a window into President Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s foreign policy.
Various Russian media outlets have loudly and repeatedly declared that China supports Moscow’s view on Ukraine. Recently, in an interview on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterised China as “our very close partners” with whom he has no doubts.
On the face of it, this interpretation is accurate, but the reality is far more complex, with China uneasy about Russia’s actions though it may share Moscow’s concerns.
A gentle rapprochement is under way between China and the United Kingdom. After almost two years in a diplomatic freeze, David Cameron visited Beijing last month and made an effective play for more trade. For the UK, this is a moment to recalibrate its relationship and play a role in coaxing China towards becoming a responsible international stakeholder. One route to that end is through understanding and working with China’s ‘march westward’ strategy, which has at its heart the re-activation of the ancient Silk Road linking China to Europe.
The way Central Asian states will turn — to Russia’s Eurasian Union or to China — is the test for influence in the region. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/IvaNdimitry
If one turns enough of a blind eye, it is easy to be optimistic about Central Asia. Wily diplomats from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are masterfully playing off the great powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are turning into hubs in their own right – and nobody can tell plucky Uzbekistan what to do. This is nobody’s backyard, and attempts by neo-imperialists in Moscow, Washington and Beijing to play games in the region are only strengthening the hands of the Central Asian states themselves. This is a comforting picture – which is why Western policymakers love it – but it looks increasingly false as President Putin tightens the screws.
Why a Eurasian Union matters
Russia’s desire to strengthen its sphere of influence in Central Asia seems to be intensifying. The first sign came in October 2011 when Russia’s ‘national leader’ published his vision for a Eurasian Union in the Gazprom-Media owned daily Izvestia. Here Putin stated that the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would come into force on 1st January 2012 was just the beginning – and that it would expand ‘by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, we plan to go beyond that, and set ourselves the ambitious goal of a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’
China is on its way to becoming the most consequential actor in Central Asia. This isn’t a critical or a negative statement, but rather a reflection of a reality on the ground.
The heavy investments in Central Asian infrastructure and natural resources, the push to develop the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and China’s focus on developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into an economic player are slowly reorienting Central Asia toward China. None of this means that China is aiming to become a regional hegemon, but unless it is willing to write off considerable regional investment, it is going to find itself needing to engage in regional affairs in a more focused manner.
And these actions are likely to be interpreted regionally as hegemonic. A potentially very prosperous corner of the world, Central Asia, is in an early stage of development that could easily be pushed by instability in a wrong direction. China needs to prepare herself to step in and help resolve matters.
Foreign Minister Lavrov meets State Councillor Dai. Picture from here
State councillor Dai Bingguo’s visit to Russia this week for strategic security talks has once again focused attention on the supposedly close relationship between the two BRICS powers.
An image of alliance thrown up by their parallel voting in the UN and Western analysts’ inability to look beyond former cold war alliances mean that suspicion is often cast on a relationship that has as many fractures as it does cohesion. The reality is China and Russia disagree as often as they agree.
On the chaos in Syria, the two have shown they are willing to support each other by holding up the UN as a reason for their refusal to countenance action on Syria. But while both may see eye to eye on this issue, this is not always the case. Looking in the annals of Security Council resolutions over the past few years, one can find a few instances where China or Russia found themselves abstaining alone.
On the surface, this week’s Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit will be another marker in the organisation’s steady development as a serious player in regional and, increasingly, international affairs. Below, however, a growing tension between China and Russia is starting to show.
The two powers increasingly see their interests diverging in Central Asia. They are close allies in the UN Security Council, but on the ground China and Russia are steadily moving in different directions.
And it would seem that the SCO is not the only reason for his visit. In initial discussions, the summit was to be held in Shanghai. But, primarily at Moscow’s instigation, the decision was made to hold the conference in Beijing. Given that this was Putin’s first visit to China in his new role, he was eager to ensure that it was held in the capital so he could combine the summit with a state visit to Beijing, highlighting the importance of the bilateral over the multilateral in Russian minds.Russia’s hesitation with the SCO is observable in several ways, not least in President Vladimir Putin’s travel schedule. His first foreign visit since regaining the reins of power took him to Belarus, Germany and France, before coming to China this week.
Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was predictably controversial in Europe and America. In Beijing, the official read-out provided by Xinhua highlighted a positive conversation, with President Hu Jintao stating with “confidence that Putin’s new presidential term would see faster progress in building a stronger and richer nation”. That statement affirmed the importance of the Sino-Russian axis as a pole in international relations. Putin, the quintessential Russian chess master, has a very clear sense of where Russia’s future must lie, and needs Beijing onside if he wants to carry this out.
The Sino-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs. As Putin put it recently, “there are some sources of friction”. The joint Chinese-Russian veto last month of a UN resolution on Syria attracted attention. But, beyond this, tensions persist as Russia proves implacable in discussions over energy pricing, and tries to develop a “Eurasian Union” to counter China’s successful inroads into Central Asia. The resultant price increase is detrimental to Chinese interests and delays economic integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).