China-Russia relations in Central Asia are attracting increasing attention from scholars and policymakers. Most analysis thus far, however, has employed the competition framework in examining this relationship. In contrast to these studies, this article argues that since the independence of Central Asia, the relationship between the two great powers in the region has been predominantly that of cooperation. When the two nations did engage in competition, it was limited, and did not evolve into direct confrontation. This article proceeds in explaining the bases for China-Russia ongoing cooperation in Central Asia, followed by clarifying the nature of the bilateral competition, as well as explaining China’s key policies towards Russia, and finally, outlining the future prospects for China-Russia relations in the region.
The Bases for Bilateral Cooperation in Central Asia
Central Asia is an important region for China-Russia relations. Geographically positioned between the two countries, it helps maintain some distance between the two great powers, but also facilitates closer bilateral ties. Both China and Russia have special geographic, historical, and humanitarian ties with Central Asia, and maintain close political, economic, and security relations with the region. From a traditional geopolitical perspective, competition should dominate China-Russia engagement there. Ever since the independence of Central Asia, Russia has been carefully watching over the region to ensure that no other country encroaches on its interests there. At the same time, China has been eager to develop deeper ties with its Central Asian neighbors. Therefore, it is easy to imagine how conflicts could arise between China and Russia in managing their Central Asia objectives. The discussion below, however, shows that there are substantial bases for cooperation, facilitated by a strong foundation in bilateral relations, the institutional framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and their shared interests in the region.
One could argue that China-Russia collaboration in Central Asia is a product of a strong bilateral relationship, without which collaboration would be either unstable or non-existent. Ever since the mid-1990s, China-Russia relations have been evolving at a fast pace, in part due to the deteriorating ties between the United States and the two countries respectively. In the 1990s, China-US relations remained in the “cooling off phase,” while Russia-US relations slipped from strategic partnership to “cold peace.” The relations with the United States were further tested by a series of crises. The 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia sparked a serious crisis in China-US relations. The 2001 Hainan Island incident further deepened the bilateral drift. As for US-Russia relations, by ignoring Russia’s strong opposition to intervention in Yugoslavia and launching an offensive there, the United States caused a stalemate in bilateral ties. Moreover, it withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which meant disintegration of cooperation on disarmament issues. Given this international context, the strategic bases for collaboration between China and Russia deepened. They announced their strategic partnership on April 25, 1996, at the outset of the first Shanghai-5 summit. This partnership and the Shanghai-5 formed almost simultaneously. This leads us to the next factor facilitating regional cooperation: the institutional framework of the SCO.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Prior to the establishment of the Shanghai-5 in 1996, which included China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the China-Russia relationship in the region was limited to resolving border issues. Following this initial gathering, the leaders of these countries convened every year, and in 2001, established the SCO, which has served as an important platform for China-Russia cooperation in Central Asia and has had significant influence on their interactions in the region. Without the SCO framework, they would have had to resort to separate channels for engaging in Central Asia, and had fewer opportunities for interacting, let alone forming a partnership. The lack of institutional framework for cooperation would inevitably have exacerbated suspicions on both sides, sharply increasing the risk of confrontation. While some sceptics contend that Russia entered the SCO with the sole purpose of “watching over” China,1 I argue that even if Russia was guided by this reasoning, “watching over” still requires some interactions and can facilitate positive outcomes.
The SCO has greatly increased opportunities for China-Russia interactions on many levels. It has gradually enlarged its framework for cooperation, as demonstrated by annual heads of state meetings, prime ministers’ meetings, as well as recurrent meetings among government officials in diplomacy, national defense, security, law enforcement, trade, transportation, science and technology, education, and cultural spheres, among others. The cooperation also includes interactions among non-governmental and civil organisations from the participant countries. While it remains challenging to measure the exact influence these ongoing meetings have had on spurring closer ties between China and Russia, there is undoubtedly a positive correlation between the two.
Other than facilitating direct interactions between China and Russia, the SCO created new common interests for collaboration. They include working on anti-terrorism, regional security and stability, disease prevention, as well as development of regional transport and energy cooperation, and good neighborly relations. The SCO also internationalized China-Russia cooperation and allowed for wider publicity of its key initiatives and results.
In addition, it institutionalized interactions between the two great powers by establishing some “rules of the game.” The international meetings produced numerous declarations, conventions, as well as explicit and tacit agreements. These evolved into important principles for mutual engagement, which helped institutionalize China-Russia relations in the region. Finally, the SCO created a “buffer” for China-Russia relations by establishing a mechanism for orderly resolution of conflicts, allowing each side to present its stance and to make mutual adjustments.
Mutual Strategic Interests
Mutual interests in Central Asia further solidify China-Russia cooperation in the region. Alexander Lukin, argues that there are three, key, common interests uniting them there: upholding political stability, safeguarding secular regimes, and promoting economic development in the region.2 In my view, the mutual regional interests extend beyond these three areas. They include upholding stability in the border regions, as well as providing for wider regional security and stability.
As for border security, I refer here mainly to protecting the border region between China and Central Asia (China and Russia only share a border of about 50km. in Central Asia). This collaboration is demonstrated by Russia’s signing onto the 1996 agreement/treaty “concerning strengthening trust in the military domain in the border regions,” and the 1997 agreement “concerning mutual reduction of military forces in the border regions.” Moreover, Russia was the key representative on the side of Russia-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan in border negotiations with China. Therefore, China and Russia share a common responsibility and a long-term interest in upholding the border security treaties.
Another important area of common interest for the two countries with regard to Central Asia is that of upholding regional security, which mainly refers to fighting terrorism, separatism, and extremism.
Xinjiang and Central Asia have countless linkages due to historic, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious factors. Central Asia also presents a key gateway for Xinjiang into Southwest and South Asia, as well as to Arab and Middle East countries, which facilitates the international development of the East Turkestan independence movement. Chinese authorities, therefore, regard Central Asia as of high strategic importance in combatting this movement.
Russia’s concern for security in Central Asia is connected to its security objectives in the Caucuses and in its Southern regions. From Russia’s perspective, Central Asia is not only a source of danger, but also a transmitter of it. In the words of Oleg Chernov, the former vice-secretary at the Russian Security Council: “Central Asia not only produces security threats and challenges to regional stability, but it is also an intermediary actor, an importer of external threats.”3
Given the fragility of the Central Asian region, it has struggled with casting off these threats. The two countries perceive Central Asia’s security risks as threatening to their domestic interests, and therefore, are willing to collaborate in helping to mitigate these challenges, which are unlikely to be eliminated in the near future, thereby requiring long-term cooperative efforts from China and Russia.
Closely linked to the security objective, the two nations also hold a mutual interest in upholding regional stability. China and Russia both believe that stability in Central Asia, to a large extent, translates into wider regional stability, and is, therefore, in the strategic interest of both nations. Upholding regional stability includes maintaining political and societal stability, as well as peaceful inter-regional relations. There are important reasons for China and Russia to set regional stability as a priority. Geographically, Central Asia is on the periphery for both, perceived as a strategic “backyard.” Stability is conducive for maintaining peace in their periphery, upholding the existing framework for bilateral cooperation in the region, and facilitating peaceful relations among the two countries and the Central Asian states, as well as for developing trade and economic ties with them. From the perspective of China and Russia, a serious political, economic, or security upheaval in the region would be extremely detrimental not only for the region, but also for their strategic interests there. China and Russia’s interest in maintaining stability in the region, therefore, makes them in favor of the political status quo there, as stability and status quo are connected. Neither has openly declared maintaining the political status quo as its policy objective, but their concern for regional stability has led them both to be apprehensive about sharp structural political change.
Finally, China and Russia also hold negative views on the US and NATO’s military activities in the region. Both are concerned about the long-term US military presence there, which similarly impacts their regional standing. After 9/11, the US posted military forces there, to which China and Russia did not object. However, they perceive the long-term military presence of the United States as a potential geostrategic challenge. Following the 2005 “color revolutions,” China and Russia further strengthened their cooperation in preventing political unrest in Central Asia. Both resist US political transformation in the region, believing that it likely leads to regional instability.
The Perceived China-Russia Competition in Central Asia
The key framework for the Sino-Russia relationship in Central Asia is that of collaboration. Russian authorities do not perceive Russia’s relations with China in Central Asia as that of competition.4 Lukin dismisses this as a “myth.”5 China and Russia constitute two distinct major powers, and the fact that they have divergent perspectives and interests with regard to some issues in Central Asia is only to be expected. It would be incorrect to equate differences to competition. Exaggerating the nature of competition can create the appearance of the bilateral relationship resembling a game of chess, which would be inconsistent with the reality on the ground.
In my opinion, there are three sources of competition between China and Russia in Central Asia. The first is their geopolitical positions in the region. Both attempt to exert influence in political, economic, and security domains, and it is, therefore, impossible to completely avoid clashes of interest. Central Asia has been under the dominance of Russia for over a century, whereas China is a “newcomer” to the region, whose goal is solely to engage with Central Asia, rather than to obstruct Russia’s regional intentions. Russia, however, does not seem to grasp that, and continues to view China’s involvement with some apprehension. Although China and Russia have already managed to achieve strategic compromises and regional cooperation, the conventional geopolitical thinking still persists, and gives rise to some mutual competition. However, this display of competition is not systematic, and is not the dominant feature of the bilateral relationship.
Mutual interest in Central Asia’s natural resources is another source of competition. Until recently, Russia dominated this market. Controlling natural resources and oil pipelines not only provided economic benefits, but also strategic ones. It meant controlling the pillars of Central Asia’s economy and strengthening Russia’s global negotiating capacity. Given the EU’s dependency on energy imports from Russia, Russia could use it as leverage in relations with the EU. It, therefore, perceives China’s recent involvement in this sector, including construction of oil and gas pipelines, which reduces Central Asia’s dependency on Russia, as a challenge to its interests.
Bilateral competition for natural resources, however, has not translated into political confrontation between the two nations. Competition has remained within the commercial sphere and has, thus far, not shifted into the political realm. Moreover, even from the economic perspective this competition has not infringed on Russia’s commercial interests as much as some predicted. First, it is important to stress that the Central Asian states were the key initiators of diversification of their energy exports. The China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline, for instance, was initially sought by Kazakhstan. Moreover, China is not the first to break through Russia’s energy monopoly. Western oil companies entered the region well before China’s initial engagement there in 1997. The plan to bypass Russia with the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, announced in 1990 and put on the agenda in 1999, won strong support from the United States and other Western countries. Its political objective was precisely to weaken Central Asia’s dependency on energy exports to Russia. In addition, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s oil and gas production has continued to increase, alleviating the competition for resources in the region. Finally, since Russia has been mainly importing Central Asian gas to resell it to Europe, Europe’s decline in demand for gas following the financial crisis, might translate into Russia’s weaker demand for these resources in the future.
Another competitive element in China-Russia engagement in Central Asia is that of economic integration. China has actively encouraged economic integration with its periphery regions, as demonstrated by its approach to Northeast and Southeast Asia. It has hoped to expand economic integration with Central Asia through a solid institutional framework. Russia, especially under President Putin, has also continuously been pursuing economic integration with these former Soviet territories. In October 2011, Putin put forward an ambitious plan for regional integration, envisioning four successive phases: formation of a customs union, a Eurasian common economic space, a Eurasian economic union, and finally the Eurasian Union.6 The customs union would include Central Asia, which would be positioned within Russia’s orbit. China and Russia, therefore, both hold plans for economic integration with Central Asia, but their strategies sharply diverge, giving rise to potential conflicts. As Russia considers Central Asia as the zone of its influence, it objects to SCO consideration of closer regional integration. China raised the possibility of establishing a free trade zone twice within the SCO framework. Russia neither openly opposed it, nor expressed any support for it, leaving the issue ambiguous. The Russian president’s special representative to the SCO, Ambassador Kirill Barskii, stated: “With regard to the SCO’s regional economic cooperation….we will not consider it in the future. Integration of the Eurasian region should be that of forming a customs alliance/union under the leadership of the Eurasian economic union, which is currently being formed, and which could have cooperative relations with the SCO.”7 This demonstrates Russia’s opposition to regional economic integration under the SCO.
The practice of multilateral diplomacy by Central Asian states, however, helps mitigate possible competition between China and Russia and to foster their collaborative relations in the region. Central Asian states’ pursuit of balance of power in the region helps them manoeuvre between the major neighboring powers. For instance, Turkmenistan even chose to pursue the policy of “positive neutrality.” Central Asian states, therefore, also play an active role in shaping the relations between China and Russia in a positive direction.
China’s Policies towards Russia in Central Asia
China has been treating Russia as a strategic partner in Central Asia, and has strived towards bilateral cooperation in the region. It has no intention to compete with Russia, let alone to push Russia out from Central Asia. If its economic influence has been rapidly expanding, this is merely a consequence of China’s economic development, and is not aimed at counteracting Russia. In September 2013, during his visit to Kazakhstan, President Xi Jinping put forward the concept of “Silk Road Economic Zone,” which is perceived as China’s strategy to the region.
There are two points to consider in evaluating the scope of this concept. First, it allows for the participation of members of the Eurasian economic community, as well as members and observers of the SCO. The SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as five observers: Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The Eurasian economic community has five members, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. With the exception of Belarus, all the members are also SCO members. Therefore, the members and observers of the SCO are also seen as participants in the Silk Road Economic Zone.
Second, according to an official statement on the Silk Route Economic Zone, it will involve three billion people, the combined population of the member and observer countries in the SCO (China: 1.3 billion; Russia: 140 million; Central Asia: 60 million; India: 1.2 billion; Pakistan: 200 million; Iran: over 75 million; and Afghanistan: about 30 million).
Thus, the scope of the Silk Road Economic Zone consists of the above-mentioned countries, a vast region. China lies on its east side, Iran on the west side, India in the south, and Eastern Europe in the north. The zone encompasses East Asia, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, South Asia, and Eurasia. Given that the Silk Road Economic Zone is still an evolving concept, however, it might not necessarily be limited to this region, and its scope could be expanded in the future.
According to the official explanation, the basic role of the Silk Road Economic Zone lies in implementing five functions: communicating policies, connecting roads, strengthening trade, circulating currency, and communicating popular sentiments. Policy communication points to mutual consultation and understanding in the political arena. Connecting roads mainly refers to the creation of a regional transport network, which involves building and fixing roads, as well as implementing appropriate policies. Strengthening trade means eliminating trade barriers, as well as improving irrational regulations and inefficient border-crossing procedures. Fostering currency circulation refers to carrying out trade in local currencies, and thereby realising local-currency convertibility.8 Finally, communication of popular sentiments signifies fostering more non-governmental exchanges and stronger inter-regional friendship.
Many people might raise the question of whether the Silk Road Economic Zone is directed against Russia. In my opinion, this is not the case. The hope is to avoid conflicts with Russia. This is evident by the fact that this zone does not include the former Soviet territories that Russia deems most sensitive, and it does not involve creation of a free trade zone, which Russia has not supported. Moreover, China declared that it would not strive for hegemony in the region.9 Rather, it seeks to work together with Russia and the Central Asian states to increase communications and collaboration. China does not seek to push Russia aside, but is willing to strengthen harmonious ties.
China’s cooperative stance is clearly demonstrated by its attitude towards Russia’s plans for Eurasian economic integration and continued military presence in the region. Russia aims to bring Central Asia under its political, economic, and security system, while China continues to actively develop its relations with Central Asia. On the surface, these two processes appear to be in conflict; however, China is unlikely to oppose or present obstacles for Russia’s integration plans. Its strategic thinking centers on participation, not control. It wants to increase its presence, but not at the expense of reducing that of Russia. China understands Russia’s historic ties with Central Asia and respects its interests.
Other than promoting tight economic integration, Russia has maintained a heavy military presence in Central Asia. It established long-term military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and won permission from other Central Asian states to maintain some military presence there as well. Moreover, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is basically an inter-governmental military alliance, which grants Russia’s military forces access to the region. This presence is long-term and likely to intensify. China, however, has, thus far, not expressed any objection to Russia’s actions, which clearly signifies a different attitude from that shown to the US military presence in Central Asia. Russia’s military presence in the region has a history of over one hundred years and is ongoing, rather than a sporadic, provocative attempt at demonstrating military prowess. In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian forces have continued to be deployed in Tajikistan and assist in guarding its borders. The strong bilateral relationship between China and Russia has also helped mitigate China’s suspicions. The common aim of fighting terrorism and upholding regional stability means that Russia’s military presence can be of long-term strategic importance and mutual benefit rather than a threat to China’s regional interests.
Prospects for China-Russia Interactions/Relations in Central Asia
There are many pessimistic forecasts for China-Russia relations in Central Asia. Some envision the region as entangled in a “great game” with these two as the key players.10 Others argue that since China’s influence in the region is beginning to overpower that of Russia, the two inevitably are heading toward confrontation.11 While pessimistic forecasts should not be ignored, relations are not doomed to confrontation. Despite some challenges, the two have already experienced twenty years of stable and friendly relations in the region, and there are strong grounds for predicting that this trend will persist. In contrast to a competitive relationship, cooperation yields more common benefits for China and Russia. An indication of good prospects for cooperation is the fact that the two countries do not pose a mutual security threat to one another in the region. With regard to border security, national integration, territorial integrity, and military security, among other issues, the two are not mutual threats, and they are unlikely to be so in the future.
China and Russia in Central Asia have not adopted regional strategies in opposition to one another. In dealing with mutual differences and areas of competition, they showed an attitude of mutual respect and understanding, and have not used the differences as a pretext for conflict. Russia’s proposal of a Eurasian Union is a product of its historic legacy rather than a policy confronting China. China’s search for natural resources and economic cooperation in Central Asia is a result of its domestic economic demand, and is not a deliberate attempt to push Russia aside.
Some scholars argue that as China’s influence in Central Asia increases, Russia will undoubtedly confront China. This opinion overlooks three important factors. First, Russia’s overall influence in the region still outstrips that of China. Though China’s economic influence is stronger, Russia’s influence in the political, security, and cultural domains is still dominant. The cooperation between the Eurasian Union and the CSTO is still stronger than that within the SCO. Moreover, even in the economic realm, Russia presents the primary market for labor exports for Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and, thereby, has incomparable influence on the economic and social situation there. Second, China is unlikely to take a confrontational approach towards Russia as its regional influence rises, but on the contrary, it is likely to strive for closer bilateral cooperation, preserving stable relations. Third, when faced with a more powerful China, Russia does not merely have to resist China. Its constructive use of China’s rise is also a likely scenario. In discussing China-Russia cooperation in Central Asia, Russia’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Igor Morgulov, pointed out that while China has vast capital, Russia has experience, technology, industrial capacity, and strong historic bonds with the region, which makes for a fruitful complementary relationship.12
Some also argue that cooperation in Central Asia is built on the basis of mutual resentment of the US influence in the region. Once the US factor disappears, the reasons for bilateral cooperation would also vanish, according to these analysts. US strategic policies in Central Asia, particularly its military presence there, has definitely benefited China-Russia ties. Their shared perception of it as their key strategic challenge brought the two closer and reduced the chances of confrontation. At the same time, the US factor is not the cornerstone of bilateral cooperation. Prior to the US military presence in the region, China and Russia had already established a framework for strategic cooperation. Moreover, other than the US factor, upholding regional security and stability and establishing a good environment in the border areas constitute important bases for cooperation. While the elimination of the US factor would have some influence, it would not detract from the argument in favor of persisting bilateral cooperation. Moreover, the US factor is unlikely to disappear. Even if the US withdraws its military forces, its strategic thinking is unlikely to relinquish Central Asia.
While there is increasing talk about bilateral competition between China and Russia in Central Asia, cooperation is still the dominant framework underpinning their relationship. Some competition between the two undoubtedly exists, but it has thus far been limited primarily to commercial areas, and has been carried out in an orderly manner. Although there are many pessimistic forecasts about China-Russia relations in Central Asia, they are not reliable. This is due to strong common interests in the region, which make cooperation most advantageous for both. The two are likely to continue to resolve their differences through communication and compromise.
1. Nabi Ziiadullaev, “Tsentral’naia Aziia: konkurentsia i partniortsvo, Investitsii v strany regiona obespechiat Rossii politicheskoe vlianie,” Dipkurier, February 7, 2007, http://www.ng.ru/courier/2007-07-02/13_asia.htmlhttp://www.ng.ru/courier/2007-07-02/13_asia.html.
2. Aleksandr Lukin, “Russian-Chinese Relations,” ISPI Analysis, no. 167 (April 2013): 5.
3. О. D. Chernov, “Rossia i Tsentral’naia Aziia,” Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’ (December 2003), 134.
4. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said that Russia and China do not compete in Central Asia but respect each other’s interests there. See: “Russia, China not competitors in Central Asia: Russian official,” The Global Times, September 9, 2013, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/809855.shtml#.UowTlWTk-PE.
5. Aleksandr Lukin, “Russian-Chinese Relations,” 5.
6. Vladimir Putin, “Novyi integratsionnyi proekt dlia Evrazii—budushee, kotoroe rozhdaetsia segodnia,” Izvestia, October 3, 2011, http://izvestia.ru/news/502761.
7. Kirill Barskii, “SHOS nakanune sammita v Bishkeke: zadachi momenta,” July 18, 2013, http://infoshos.ru/ru/?idn=1168.
8. Wu Jiao and Zhang Yunbi, “Xi Proposes a ‘New Silk Road’ with Central Asia,” China Daily, September 08, 2013, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2013-09/08/content_16953163.htm.
9. “Yishang youguan sichouzhilu jingji dai de zhuyao guandian dou lai zi Xi Jinping Zhuxi 2013 nian jue yue qi ri zai Kasakesitan Nazhaerbayefu daxue de yanjiang,” http://news.xinhuanet.com/2013-09/08/c_117273079_2.ht.
10. Masha Udensiva-Brenner, “Great Games, Local Rules, and the Shifting Dynamics of a Multipolar World: An Interview with Alexander Cooley,” Harriman Magazine (Columbia University), Summer 2013, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/creative/epub/harriman/june13/great_games.pdf.
11. Sergey Lousianin, “Russia, China and Central Asian: Energy Aspects,” June 15, 2011, Sergey Lousianin, “Russia, China and Central Asian: Energy Aspects,” June 15, 2011, .