Much attention has been paid to a series of visits undertaken by the new Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Central Asian republics last month. Notwithstanding the ostensible trade-orientated nature of the visits, speculation has run rife as to the political- as opposed to economic- implications of this in the form of a new ‘Great Game’ emerging between Beijing and Moscow for influence in the region.
Although it evokes a tantalising picture of geopolitical manoeuvring between two seemingly friendly states, some analysts have been quick to conclude that China has suddenly displaced Russia as the kingpin in the region (an article by the Carnegie Endowment described Xi’s tour as a ten-day ‘victory lap’ ). Another analyst, Edward Chow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, saw the position of Putin and Jinping in a photo at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s summit in Bishkek (the latter slightly more centrally placed) as a huge shift. This is a little presumptive for several reasons.
The first is a shift in the realities of the region’s international relations, whereas perceptions remain at a standstill. The Soviet Union was closed to much of the world; for a long time so was the PRC. Both have undergone fundamental changes, notably the secession of the Central Asian republics and China’s policy of opening up. Yet relations have been seen as zero-sum affairs: either the republics are under Moscow’s influence, or they’re being pulled towards Washington. Naturally, Beijing has emerged as another possible contender. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) alludes to this view in a recent publication, stating that the region might ‘return[ing] to a zero-sum dynamic with Moscow and Beijing’.
The second issue with this view is that it precludes the possibility that China can assert itself in the region without provoking Russian fears of incursion into its backyard. The reality is that it was inevitable that China would one day play a more important economic role in the region than Russia- China’s GDP is currently four times the size of Russia’s, after all. What was agreed upon during Xi’s visits mainly amounted to energy and energy infrastructure contracts (worth $45 billion in just Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan alone). Although China is the largest trading partner of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, it can be explained by rational economics rather than geopolitics.
It was Xi Jinping’s talk of a ‘New Silk Road’, to coin Hilary Clinton’s earlier phrase, which most attracted analysts’ speculation. But Xi’s idea of a ‘New Silk Road’ is no more anti-Russian than Putin’s Eurasian Union is anti-Chinese (although it can be seen as a way of maintaining Russian influence vis à vis China and the EU/NATO). Both are visions of the future, which is something that China is having difficulty deciding regarding its foreign policy. China finds itself at a crossroads; it has emerged as a revitalised, powerful state but suffering from a lack of clear foreign policy direction. Communist foreign policy doctrines are no longer relevant, Deng Xiaoping’s policy of taoguangyanghui- keeping a low profile- is antiquated for China’s modern-day standing in the world and the current policy is pragmatic and undiscerning, almost to the point of being devoid of vision.
It’s little wonder that Xi chose Kazakhstan as a perfect place to pitch his vision of China’s regional role. For China, Central Asia is the only neighbouring region with which it has no conflict, and it is in the auspicious position of being able to make a statement about its intentions without provoking diplomatic spats (one only needs to contrast this with Putin’s statements regarding Ukraine).
Beijing is also smart enough to make sure not to send any overt signals to Moscow when they aren’t wanted; at this moment, Moscow sees no reason to panic over China’s activity. China is quite happy to allow Russia to maintain its influence in the region since it sees it as a stabilising factor in light of the relative weakness of the Central Asian states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was established not as an economic or political alliance, but to solve border issues in the region. Russia has a deep-seated interest in making sure its borders and the borders of its near abroad- particularly to Afghanistan- are secure, and until 2005 it had border guards in Tajikistan. Its border with Kazakhstan- the longest continuous land border in the world- is terribly difficult to patrol in its entirety. Russia’s own security concerns mean that Beijing is playing an economic role which Moscow cannot, and Moscow is playing a role Beijing simply doesn’t want to, since their interests are more or less aligned regarding the security element. China, in the example of Afghanistan, has allowed the US to pump resources into keeping borders stable. Beijing has avoided involving itself with political matters, which has earned the respect of authoritarian leaders such as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov.
In the longer term the concern over growing Chinese influence in the region is founded, and Central Asia’s political leaders are naturally cautious about this, just as they feel cause for concern over Moscow’s interference. But to point to Xi Jinping’s tour of Central Asia as indicative of a growing rivalry in the region between China and Russia is presumptive and misunderstanding of the nature of both Moscow and Beijing’s respective interests in the region.