Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia and its Central Asian neighbours have undergone a period of re-adaptation, rebalancing and reintegration as they attempt to adjust to the realities of fending for themselves in a globalised world. Arguably, one of the most complex and challenging diplomatic relations is currently the one between Russia and China, particularly in the context of the Central Asian republics, where both desire becoming the dominant ally.
China’s focus is primarily economic; it considers itself the natural economic partner for Central Asia, something which was indeed the case for a large portion of history. The centrepiece of this desire for economic integration is the One Belt, One Road project that aims to renew the Silk Road that once linked China with Europe.
The key issue facing Sino-Russian relations is therefore how to balance China’s desire for economic integration in the region with Russia’s need to be a key political and economic player there. For them it is a question of security, economics and prestige.
If Russia and China cannot find a way for the One Belt, One Road project to sit successfully alongside the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – a Russian-led initiative that is often seen as more of a political than economic project – the two states are likely to end up in direct competition for influence in the region. If this competition were to become a battle of investment and infrastructure, China can outspend Russia ten-to-one; however, Russia has a key political trump card that the Chinese ought to be wary of – its far-reaching influence over the governing elites of its former vassals.
Many post-Soviet leaders came to power through the Soviet political system, often studying at Russian universities. Their political and intellectual values are therefore likely to be highly influenced by these Russian institutions. As a result, Russia exercises two complementary types of power over the political elites of Central Asia.
The first is the soft power that encourages these leaders to see things in a similar way to Moscow. This is a key lubricant in organising regional cooperation such as the EEU as it can avoid potential misunderstandings. Russian officials must be wary of the risk of overplaying this intellectual pre-eminence as, if overemphasised, it has the potential to be perceived as condescending.
The second is the fact that the previous political integration of Russia with these states means that Russia still has a certain amount of leverage over the legitimacy of the political systems in these countries, allowing them to exert a certain degree of pressure if necessary. In addition, Russia supplies a great deal of raw materials to many of these countries, making them more susceptible to complying with Russian demands. This can make political elites more sympathetic to the Russian agenda. Russia sees Central Asian states as within their civilisational orbit and as such believes that it is owed special privileges within the region.
However, as time has passed, this Soviet-derived influence has waned, and although Moscow can maintain its persuasiveness through military cooperation and integration, it is unclear how much this can stand up to billions of dollars of Chinese investment.
Since 2014, the Russian economy has been strugglingdue to the dropping price of oil and economic sanctions. This economically beleaguered Russia cannot offer Central Asian countries the assistance and funding that China can bestow upon them. Beijing has a good reason to invest in Central Asian transport and supply networks: better transport facilities could link China to European markets, as well as giving China increased access to the oil resources of Kazakhstan, the mineral deposits of Kyrgyzstan and the natural gas produced by Turkmenistan.
China’s demand for gas complicates things further for Russia. Given declining European demand for Russian-sourced natural gas since the Ukraine crisis, there is a temptation for Russia to compete with Central Asian gas suppliers to trade with China, which is already facing a short-term oversupply of natural gas due to a slowing growth in demand.
Furthermore, the success of the One Belt, One Road initiative to a certain extent relies on goods being able to pass unhindered through the various countries on the route, yet the current Russian sanctions regime stops European produce from going to China by rail.
If Russia’s difficult relations with the West become contrary to China’s economic interests, it may be tempted to invest in routes which include Central Asia, but exclude Russia. This, in turn, might encourage Russia to play a spoiler role and use its aforementioned political influence to frustrate Chinese plans. Both Russia and China would benefit from the further development of the One Belt, One Road project, but it remains to be seen whether Russian policymakers will be able to accept that China would see much larger economic and political gains in the region.