/ Russia´s interests in Central Asia and China´s Belt and Road Initiative: A strategic partnership or one-man show?
Russia-China relations are often displayed as a strategic partnership. In how far the strategic partnership benefits both countries is analysed with a focus on Russia´s interest in Central Asia as well as China´s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region. The article begins with analysing the official public discourse of Russia regarding the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership in Central Asia. This will be compared against the current developments and China´s engagement in the region. While there are common interests such as balancing global influence of the US, China has clearly the lead in the strategic partnership. Russia is slowly losing its grip on the region as a traditional regional hegemon. To slow down the dwindling of its influence Russia deepens the economic ties within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and potentially broadens it to include China in a multilateral frame with other member states. In the meantime, Russian President Putin consistently attempts to portray an equal cooperation between Russia and China working together towards a common idea of a greater Eurasian partnership.
To appear as an independent and important international player, Russia portrays an image as equal strategic partner of China. Since 2015, Russia often refers to the term “Greater Eurasia” implying a new role and identity for Russia working together with China. There are indeed converging interests for example balancing against the influence of the US with the new geopolitical space “Greater Eurasia” which refers to Russia, China, Central Asia as well as Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia.[i]In addition, economic ties between Russia and China are strengthened particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea and related economic sanctions from Western countries. While China invests heavily in Russian oil and gas companies such as Rosneft and Gazprom, Russia is exporting the S-400 surface-to-air missiles and the Su-35 air defence fighter jet to China absent of any previous concerns about Chinese military and industrial espionage.[ii]To judge about the strategic partnership, the engagements of both states in the Central Asian region are analysed.
In general, Central Asia has a geostrategic position, vast amount of resources and Russia and China have the common interest of holding elites in power to maintain political stability in the region.[iii]While Russia plays a traditionally important role in the region other actors such as Iran, Turkey, the EU, the US, India and most of all China are becoming increasingly involved. Further, political connections between Russia and the Central Asian states become less important as the Central Asian states opened up their foreign policy for diversification with the previously mentioned countries.[iv]The diminishing Russian influence goes along with the decreasing number of ethnic Russians living in Central Asia. Ethnic Russians living in Central Asia are almost 24 % in Kazakhstan, 5.5% in Kyrgyzstan and 4 % in Turkmenistan, 2.3 % in Uzbekistan and less than 2% in Tajikistan.[v]
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan belong to the Russian dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) which was founded in 2015, to foster economic growth in the region and to institutionalize Russia´s “Greater Eurasia”. The beginning phase of EAEU was less successful and EAEU attracted little international attention. Intensifying the problems of EAEU was China conducting bilateral agreements with the Central Asian states and thereby neglecting the EAEU or Russia´s role in it.[vi]China is increasing its engagement with investing in energy projects in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan as part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Beyond this, with China diversifying their dependency on oil and gas which comes now from Central Asian countries, Russia is losing political leverage on China. Furthermore, the trading volume of Russia with Central Asia is constantly decreasing and only two third of the Chinese` which is about 30 billion USD and growing. As a consequence, China is slowly building their dominance in Central Asia economically but still hesitant in gaining political and military hegemony in the region.[vii]
After the Russian economy was weakened through sanctions in 2014 and decreasing oil prices, Russia intended to join the Chinese NSR and both countries declared to connect the EAEU with the BRI in 2015. Both initiatives seem to be comprehensible, with the EAEU focusing on regulatory systems and BRI on transport infrastructure. [viii]This is a good opportunity for Russia to realize the imaginary term of “Greater Eurasia” and connect the region with China to an economic trade zone. In June 2016 at the Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Russian President expressed the idea publicly to include other actors such as China, India, Pakistan and Iran.[ix]As well as this at the EAEU meeting in form of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in May 2019, Putin invited Tajikistan and Moldova to join the EAEU.[x]Despite the ambitious rhetoric, the Russian-Chinese linkage has been less fruitful than expected. In particular Russia´s preferred regions for development in Siberia and the Far East do not attract Chinese investment. Moreover, many agreed projects between the BRI and EAEU have not been realised but are long time envisioned projects.[xi]
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is yet another example of Russia trying to stop the dwindling of its influence in Central Asia. The SCO consisted originally of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Within the organization, Russia intended to push the agenda towards regional security to prevent the Chinese dominating the agenda with economic development in Central Asia. As well as this, India and Pakistan joined the SCO in 2017 after Russia opted for including more members to appear less dependent on China and to include China in multilateral agreements. As a response, China further proceeds with its BRI projects with Central Asian countries bilaterally outside of SCO, leaving Russia side-lined.[xii][xiii]
During the meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in May 2019, which is the highest supranational body of the EAEU, Russian President Putin repeatedly conveyed the message that the EAEU interconnects with the SCO and the Chinese BRI. This mutually benefits the idea of a greater Eurasian partnership. However, the Chinese bilateral engagement with Central Asian states is contrary to Russia´s public discourse. As a consequence, the strategic partnership between Russia and China builds on converging interests to some extent but leaves Russia behind when China wants to proceed with the BRI.[xiv]It is a strategic partnership with China clearly in the lead and Russia not having the economic might nor the political intention to challenge China´s increasing dominance in Central Asia. It remains to be seen whether Russia can position itself as valuable future partner for China or becomes side-lined with bilateral projects of China and Central Asian states. The ambitious project of Russia to establish a “Greater Eurasia” depends on the willingness of China to be included in a multilateral framework instead of pushing its BRI bilaterally. As well as this, if Russia continues to see the EAEU and “Greater Eurasia” as a counter-block to the US and to bolster its own geopolitical dominance in the region, Central Asian states will refer directly to China.[xv]
[i]Lewis, D. G. (2018). Geopolitical Imaginaries in Russian Foreign Policy: The Evolution of ‘Greater Eurasia’, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:10, 1612-1637, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1515348.
[ii]Lokshin, P. (2018). Moskau buhlt um die Gunst der Chinesen, Welt, https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article175753930/Strategische-Partnerschaft-Moskau-buhlt-um-China.html, accessed on 28th of June.
[iii]In addition to the mutually beneficial economic relations between Russia and China, common interests of holding elites in Central Asia in power to maintain political stability in the region still overshadow conflictual interests.
[iv]Gast, A.S. (2018). Zentralasien und die Präsidentschaftswahlen in Russland, Zentrum für Osteuropa- und interna-tionale Studien (ZOiS), ZOiS Spotlight 8/2018, https://www.zois-berlin.de/publikationen/zois-spotlight-2018/zentralasien-und-die-praesidentschaftswahlen-in-russland/, accessed on 27th of June 2019.
[v]The numbers are derived from the CIA´s World Factbook, for more information please see: CIA (2019). The World Fact Book. Central Asia. Kazakhstan, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kz.html, accessed on 27th of June 2019.
[vi]Lewis, D. G. (2018). Geopolitical Imaginaries in Russian Foreign Policy: The Evolution of ‘Greater Eurasia’, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:10, 1612-1637, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1515348, p. 1614.
[vii]Lokshin, P. (2018). Moskau buhlt um die Gunst der Chinesen, Welt, https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article175753930/Strategische-Partnerschaft-Moskau-buhlt-um-China.html, accessed on 28th of June.
[viii]Eder, T. (2018). Chinas Marsch nach Westen. Aufstieg in Zentralasien und Afghanistan, Arbeitspapier Sicherheitspolitik, Nr. 13/2018, Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik.
[ix]Putin, V. (2016). Plenary session of St Petersburg International Economic Forum, 17 June, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52178, accessed on 1stof July 2019.
[x]Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia. (2019). Meeting of Supreme Eurasian Eco-nomic Council, http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/KZ/events/60597, accessed on 28th of June 2019.
[xi]Lewis, D. G. (2018). Geopolitical Imaginaries in Russian Foreign Policy: The Evolution of ‘Greater Eurasia’, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:10, 1612-1637, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1515348, p. 1630.
[xii]Eder, T. (2018). Chinas Marsch nach Westen. Aufstieg in Zentralasien und Afghanistan, Arbeitspapier Sicherheitspolitik, Nr. 13/2018, Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik.
[xiii]Paikin, Z. (2019). Russia’s pivot to the east: Where does it leave the EU?, European Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_russias_pivot_to_the_east_where_does_it_leave_the_eu, accessed on 28th of June 2019.
[xiv]Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia. (2019). Meeting of Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/KZ/events/60597, accessed on 28th of June 2019.
[xv]Lewis, D. G. (2018). Geopolitical Imaginaries in Russian Foreign Policy: The Evolution of ‘Greater Eurasia’, Europe-Asia Studies, 70:10, 1612-1637, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2018.1515348, p. 1630.