Country Report: Russia (July 2023)
The late spring and early summer of 2023 brought a plethora of analyses of Russia’s relations in Asia, ranging from the Korean Peninsula to China to the SCO to India. The China-Central Asia summit drew close scrutiny. Many articles explored the ramifications of conflict in Ukraine for Russia’s “Turn to the East,” raising uncertainties about Sino-Russian coordination over Eurasia.
In the July Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, No. 4, Konstantin Asmolov and Liudmila Zakharova analyzed Russia’s relations with the governments of Korea, asking how relations with the two would evolve as a cardinal shift in the world order is beginning. They asked if the national interests of the three intersect. Russia aims to be one of the world centers, increasing its military and economic potential, while the DPRK seeks to maintain a sovereign state with conditions for economic development and gradually widening foreign economic ties, without full dependence on China unless it is the only way for the political elite to hold on to power. As for South Korea, it aims to keep its strategic alliance with the US but avoid a situation of alienation from China in order not to get draw into an open conflict, while diversifying its economic ties as it sustains economic growth and strengthens its position in the world arena. Seoul does not want to damage ties to Russia, an influential “neighbor of North Korea” with which economic ties are considerable. In 2021 Russia was its tenth trading partner, supplying 6% of its gas and oil. Lotte, Hyundai, and Samsung all have large investment projects in Russia, the loss of which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Neither North or South has economic or, even more, political interests, in Ukraine, and public opinion in the South sees the conflict as at the end of the map, not directly involving Koreans. To the start of the “Special Military Operation” Russia tried to carry out balanced policies toward the peninsula, trading only one-fiftieth as much as China does with the North. After resolving the debt problem in 2014, there were no meaningful results due to the sanctions regime, and to 2022 Russia was ready to agree to new sanctions if Pyongyang took a fresh step toward the development of missiles and nuclear weapons. Its image as a permanent member of the Security Council was more important than good relations with North Korea, turning away from labor that in 2017 comprised 30% of Primor’e’s construction workers. On May 26, 2022, the first evidence of change occurred in a proposed Security Council resolution. Indeed, the North was said not to have conducted another nuclear test because it would damage ties to China and Russia.
Cooperation with North Korea has advanced slowly, however, due to first, its credit history and after 2014-15, its bad-faith handling of barter. The company “Sever” lost $2 million. Inadequate information linked to meager civil and academic exchanges exacerbates the problem. Also, the idea spread that priority should be given to international institutions, which observed sanctions closely, and that Russia’s reputation would be hurt. (Its reputation is so low now that no further decline would matter.) Russia did not violate the sanctions for which it voted, and if it did so, reform of the Security Council could follow excluding Russia. Moreover, bureaucrats are overly fearful of taking new steps. Yet, China has had both periods of strict observance of sanctions (especially in 2017) and, notably recently, more pragmatic development of cross-border ties.
Earlier the priority with the South was the economy, despite the term “strategic partnership,” which oversold relations. In 2019 trade reached $29.9 billion, including 26.4% of the foreign trade of Primor’e. There are no unresolved bilateral problems. Today, the South is intent on preserving relations, recovering the prior level after the “Special Military Operation.” At present, nothing radically changes the character of relations or positions the South in opposition based on values of “democratic Korea” and “authoritarian Russia.” Russophobia is absent, and meetings in support of Ukraine are organized by Russian-speaking citizens of Russia close to the opposition Democratic Party with mass support. Seoul did not want to be dragged into the anti-Russian sanctions of the West, officially staying out in 2014. In 2022, they had to demonstrate solidarity with financial measures on banks, state obligations and funds, and export controls over strategic materials. Moscow added South Korea to the “unfriendly” list. Yet, South Korean companies, unlike European and Japanese ones, did not rush to leave the Russian market. In 2022, exports to Russia dropped 37% and imports by 15%. Cars and car parts were hit. Oil and petroleum products from Russia slipped. But imports of coal, frozen fish, and aluminum rose. Moreover, exports to South Korea from Kirghizia rose by 231%, and from Kazakhstan by 115%. In this way, risks are reduced. South Korean companies are even trying to strengthen their position at the expense of departing Western competitors, earning increased profits. Seoul does what is minimally needed to be part of the international community, not crossing “red lines” and not consciously selling weapons to Ukraine through intermediaries. Seoul hopes that Moscow understands its position of “we are for sanctions, but in fact we have done the minimum and are ready to cooperate.” For Russia, this raises two problems: the very fact of joining the sanctions and the absence of a guarantee that the South will not impose new ones if the situation changes.
Moscow also does not want to worsen the situation. At Valdai, Putin warned Seoul against supplying weapons and military supplies to Ukraine. Hawks eager to sever ties between Moscow and Seoul are sufficient in the information world, and their position could strengthen. Pressure from the US on the ROK on the “Ukraine question” is growing, seen from periodic mentions in US and European media of secret arms deals. Leaks of secret US documents appearing in April show that despite Biden’s direct mention of this to Seoul, Seoul has not yielded and seeks a way out. Yoon told Reuters that a situation could develop when Seoul would find it hard to stick to humanitarian aid and financial support. Moscow took this as readiness to change policies, which angered many politicians, including Medvedev. On the eve of Yoon’s visit to the US, Seoul greatly expanded the list of goods to Russia which require separate authorization, but in DC, Yoon did not give a clear signal of such a change, and the White House noted that the question was not on the agenda. Yoon’s meeting with Zelenskyy on May 16 did not indicate that either. Given the absolute priority of US relations, more serious US pressure could get Yoon to yield.
What can change the situation. Russia and China may stop observing the UN sanctions, given the UN shift to answer to the “collective West.” The rapidity of breakdown of the former world order increases the likelihood of methods previously considered unacceptable. The West may put Seoul in a dead-end situation, knowing the reaction of Moscow to arms supplies to Ukraine, even the variant of replacing the arms of other countries supplying Ukraine. Moscow is ready to respond at the cost of cooperation with Seoul. Another provocation would be attempts to prove war crimes, responding to the Ukrainian ambassador in Seoul’s April 28 appeal. If the overall level of confrontation between Russia and China with the “collective West” were to force countries to take sides, possibly leading to use of nuclear weapons, this too would be impactful.
Possible outcomes include loss of the Russian market to South Korean business and loss of space to maneuver for Seoul, as China’s “informal sanctions” increase. The non-proliferation regime could collapse. The longer the special military operation lasts, the less likely Russo-ROK relations will return to their earlier level. South Korean internal contradictions could lead to impeachment, but that does not mean better ties with Moscow since progressives also criticize Moscow quite intensively. Domestic politics and the US could both pressure Yoon.
The optimal scenario is no serious change in relations, minimal sanctions and sustained economic and cultural contacts. Russia would only criticize when Seoul joins Tokyo and Washington in joint declarations. Seoul would be “the friendliest of unfriendly states.” Yet, this is improbable as Russian ties to the West do not improve and full capitulation of Ukraine would mean continued labeling of Russia as aggressor, requiring additional sanctions from Seoul. If Russia were to accept an analog to the Minsk agreement or armistice, it would be taken as a defeat inside Russia, leading to Russian anger channeled against Seoul too. It is an illusion to expect more independence from Seoul. Thus, the likely outcomes involve a practically full split with Seoul, along with closer Russian ties to the DPRK. If Seoul initiates the split by crossing a “red line,” perhaps unknowingly under pressure from Washington, Russia will presume an active search for South Korean “agents” in Russia and nationalization of South Korean assets. Another set of scenarios would be tied to actions by Pyongyang forcing Russia to react, e.g., a nuclear test or conflict turning into unplanned war. Moscow would have to choose. Alternatively, Moscow and Pyongyang could draw closer, leading to colder ties to Seoul as a result. This could follow the end of the operation in Ukraine and Russia’s need for the North’s help in its Far East, or if the operation’s success required internationalization of the conflict or cooperating with the North would provide demonstration effect in response to South Korean behavior.
South Korea’s ties to Russia are different from Japan’s, but that could change under US pressure or the deepening of myths that Moscow was responsible for the division of the peninsula and the Korean War or that the resettlement of Koreans in Central Asia in 1937 was an act of genocide planned by Moscow to maintain good relations with Japan. Support for anti-Russian demonstrations similar to anti-Japanese ones could follow. Supplying arms to Ukraine (even if after a North Korean nuclear test to prove the reliability of weapons for its missiles) would be a bad sign, as would US nuclear weapons in South Korea (having a domino effect) or large-scale maneuvers with Japan. Russo-ROK relations in the near term will tend to worsen, but how fast depends on Seoul. Russo-DPRK relations will formally improve, but not to fully restored cooperation. The architecture of security on the Korean Peninsula probably will not be forged on already existing rules of the past world order, readers are told. North Korea is used to working with Russia on the principle of “economic benefits in exchange for a geostrategic bonus.”
If observance of sanctions loses priority, Russia and the North can offer each other strategic assistance. Russia can use North Korean labor in the recently annexed four oblasts. Security Council resolutions do not prevent joint projects using North Korean debts. In case of escalation, North Korean military personnel could study US and South Korean technology in Russia or North Korea could supply arms that might be useful in the Donbas. It would be better not to use North Korean volunteers, posing logistical and language problems, giving Russians the negative impression Russia lacks the force for victory in Ukraine, opening the way for analogous forces in Ukraine, and deepening regional tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Some call for supplying North Korea weapons, but that is not in Moscow’s interest. Still, if the ROK irreversibly worsens relation, crossing “red lines,” there is much Russia could do. So far no “red line” has been crossed, but Russia should make clear what would do so. From the early 2000s mass consciousness saw the “good” South and “bad” North. In 2022, things seemed to turn 180 degrees, but an effective, long-term policy demands something better, readers are told.
On June 23, RSMD carried a Russia-China dialogue led by Kirill Babaev, Andrei Kortunov, and Feng Yujun, covering three quarters in 2022 and the first quarter of 2023—a time of deepening external confrontation. In this year of conflict, the divide widened from the US to the “Global West” versus Russia with, on the whole, a positive influence on Russo-Chinese relations, now more stable and reliable as China supports Russia’s self-defense moves and fills many trade slots left by the West’s sanctions. Russia welcomes Chinese thinking that this period marks an historical turning point, as if Moscow had led the way for both countries. China has turned more negative toward the US, finding it using the Ukraine conflict for its Indo-Pacific strategy. The article is positive about the jump in bilateral trade to $185-190 billion in 2022 (a 29% increase,) with added cross-border routes and air flights as pre-COVID levels of interaction resumed. The two agree on the value of expanding the SCO and BRICS, as Russia is broadening its diplomatic presence in the East and moving ahead with the Greater Eurasian Partnership. Yet, citing Chinese contributors, many concerns about the state of relations were conveyed in a context of deglobalization, sanctions wars, insecurity, and the end of the postwar order in Europe.
Transport barriers remain. There is still no contract on the projected gas pipeline through Mongolia (Power of Siberia-2). Mutual investment levels are low despite many projects under consideration. Acknowledged is the difference in Chinese and Russian treatment of US alliances, the former preventive in the Indo-Pacific and cooperative in Europe, the latter aggressive. While Russia seeks blocs, China seeks multilateral economic ties, even as both talk of “indivisible security.” Whereas the “Turn to the East” was obliged to intensify in 2022, 75% of Russia’s exports (a 43% rise) are energy related, and their prices rose 64%, meaning the volume rose by 10%. Trade had stagnated in 2018-20 around $110 billion, jumped to $147 billion in 2021, and jumped further in 2022. Yet, China is concerned about a big increase in its trade deficit from $12 to $38 billion in one year and about protective measures newly imposed for Russian industry as well as the sanctions. Anti-dumping measures were applied to Chinese truck tires in 2021. Many Chinese companies in Russia are not interested in the use of rubles demanded by Russia and fear loss of credit from EU banks. Investing through third countries now labeled “unfriendly” by Russia leads to being unable to withdraw profits. Lower oil prices in 2023 impact trade totals.
Transit trade via Russia to Europe was cut, but the same trains have often switched to Sino-Russian trade, including electronics, cars, computers, clothes, and shoes. Devoting its funds to conflict in the West, Russia has less for the East, finishing some earlier projects mainly. After Russia refused over a long period Chinese participation in the full energy cycle and now fearing secondary sanctions, technological partnership with China is slowed. Russia seeks 5+1 in ties to China with the EEU, but China is moving toward 1+1 with Central Asian states. Integration of multilateral organizations is proving difficult in the transition from globalization to regionalism and with the breakdown of international economic institutions. The BRI has no fixed standards, but debt risks, and political instability, as well as geopolitical challenges. Russia treats the Russia-India-China troika (RIC) as the core of BRICS and the SCO, while recognizing China’s view that the Russia-China dyad is decisive. The Ukraine crisis slowed RIC institutionalization, to the point of missing its 2023 meeting and failing to meet at the Samarkand SCO, as India focuses on tensions with China and worries about Russia-China relations.
While Russia-India trade jumped to $38 billion in 2022 with Russian exports rising by 400% and Indian exports also rising rapidly, China-India relations have stagnated, and India seeks to lead the “Global South” in rivalry with China’s claims, while refusing the yuan in energy deals with Russia and resisting supply chains connected with China. The crisis in RIC is only partly compensated by a strong Russia-China dyad in the SCO and BRICS, sustaining the GEP as Iran joins the SCO and Belarus will soon join. Docking OBOR (the BRI) with the EEU is key to the integration of Eurasia, but neither is being coordinated well. The dyad needs to coordinate in BRICS, which has been negatively influenced by the Ukraine operation and sanctions, but China sees risks in the SCO as some entrants take a narrow approach just to get benefits and hesitate to oppose the West or seek a strong regional entity. Meanwhile China seeks SCO coordination in Central Asia, but Russia is less cooperative there.
India uses the SCO to balance the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. Clashes exist on currency use. While the BRICS and SCO are key to China and Russia transforming the world order, the impact of secondary sanctions is big and there is little consensus on resolving internationalization-regionalization differences, despite the “Global South” finding the G7, IMF, and World Bank discredited. Even as the article insists that China and Russia are closer together from developments over the year, it points to no shared vision for Eurasia as Russia remains more hostile to the Indo-Pacific than China and offers only energy and agriculture, slackening Chinese interest amid concern about a trade imbalance.
Ivan Zuenko in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, No. 4, described the rapid acceleration of Russia’s “Turn to the East” in 2022 and the need for a sharp increase in expertise on the East, especially on the main partner China. Instead of a select few, the sphere for studies should be raised to the level for contacts with Europeans and partners in the post-Soviet space. Instead of treating China as exotic, it should be treated as a “normal country.” Opinions vary on how and in what quantity to prepare specialists or even whether to do so in principle. It was not long ago that educational officials considered country experts out of style, faulting a lack of universalism and inattention to theoretical and methodological questions. Language could be reserved for electronic translators.
Practice has demonstrated that for concrete countries not even the most informed expert with a broad profile can replace a prepared country specialist. As Vasilii Kashin remarked, “the absence in Russia of systematic, large-scale scientific study of contemporary Ukraine played a role in the inability in a timely manner to evaluate the transformation of Ukrainian society and state, a reflection of the failure of Russian academic policy over the entire post-Soviet epoch.” Thus, the problem is not China studies but approaches to academics and education as a whole, including limited resources. The preparation of competent country specialists is expensive and does not always bring quick results, but they are essential for transforming quantity into quality. Mass consumption of such a workload is not necessary for businessmen, officials, “leaders of public opinion,” or bloggers for express feedback on China. It could even be harmful, not allowing them “to see the forest through the trees,” as in a Russian corporation seeking a 15–20-minute synopsis of China with which it is working. The problem starts with calls for one-dimensional answers in line with the image of China as an exotic, Eastern civilization. The result in most materials in Russia is a view of China as either a very powerful source of “good” or an “absolute threat,” but almost never as a “normal country” with achievements, problems, and mistakes.
Most China watchers (at all levels) are in danger of falling into one or another trap. The first is archaic impressions of China, as if it is steeped in the past and wise. Today’s China is far from the images fixed in countless historical serials. It is as if one judged today’s Russia through the epic songs of Kievan Rus. Another extreme is to view China as too “contemporary” through the trap of modernization, as if the modern attributes of major Chinese cities reveal a country with the same characteristics as in metropolises elsewhere. Chinese specifics exist and underappreciating them can lead to serious financial losses. The third trap is to overgeneralize about all of China, overlooking local variations.
For orientation, Zuenko identifies eight features, which avoid the above traps, begin in Chinese with the character “fa,” and each have a positive connotation in Chinese culture and are fully integrated into today’s China. First, China is in dynamic transition from traditional to post-industrial society, which Xi Jinping praises as the welcome rise of the “Third World,” leading to cooperation with each other but also difficulties in keeping up with an effective strategy to work with China. For example, attributes of a patriarchal society coexist with smartphones and skyscrapers. Second, China is a country of contrasts. Xi seeks to overcome social inequality, contrasts between the center and periphery, and urban-rural differences. Third, polycentrism exists, unlike Russia with one center: the Lower Yangtze, the Pearl River delta, the capital region, and the Sichuan hollow, even as putonghua bridges differences. Much more than in Russia geographical mobility exists and unites the nation, especially the elite under the influence of party study, courses, and cadre rotation. Fourth, China is a partocracy. Many in Russia view this as the Soviet model, but China has moved well beyond that. During Xi’s third term, we can expect revolutionary changes. Fifth, under Xi we see a rise in revanchism and nationalism, after what is treated as a “century of humiliation.” This is felt strongly in Anglo-Saxon countries, but potentially touches Russo-Chinese relations. China makes a sharp distinction between “Tsarist Russia,” treated as a bad colonial power and contemporary Russia, repeatedly avoiding sensitive moments in historical memory, but the history of bilateral relations potentially divides the two, in as much as key developments are judged differently. Cooperation proceeds despite history.
Zuenko finds as his sixth point alienation from the processes of globalization, despite talk of integration of diverse nations. In accord with Moscow, Beijing stresses that globalization must not mean erasure of civilizational distinctiveness. In business China is in the midst of rapid change, not feeling itself part of a globalized world, convinced of its exclusivity and the impossibility of others to understand the “Chinese soul,” often leaving foreigner to have a superficial knowledge of Chinese culture and not even try to dig deeper. Seventh, one cannot plan on commercial success. It comes unexpectedly. One must grasp the specifics of the Chinese market, but even the most competent are sometimes helpless before a super-competitive state under the influence of diverse factors. Eighth, China finds itself in a complex process of changing its socio-economic model. The “Chinese miracle” model rested on enormous reserves of cheap labor, enormous foreign demand for Chinese production, and a very favorable foreign geopolitical environment.
The transformation, however, is complicated. The old model rested on massive domestic investments and infrastructure, leading to many ineffective economic projects and vast internal debt and corruption. Over Xi’s ten years, despite declarations of “all-around, deep reform,” nothing has changed, although the environmental situation has improved. Given systemic problems, one must conclude that China is at the peak of its development and will not be stronger than it is today. Stagnation may last decades, throughout which Russia will provide essential resources and be a key foreign policy partner, not an object of expansion. China knows its own interests and is ready to consider the interests of another. It has serious problems, which it cannot resolve by itself. Sino-Russian relations are stable with contradictory interests not a concern. With confidence Russia can work with China to its great advantage.
In MEiMO, No. 6, the Russian Far East in contemporary Russo-Chinese cooperation was discussed by P. Ia. Baklanov and V.L. Larin, who praised the favorable conditions but insisted they were not being utilized well on either the Chinese or Russian side of the border and that a truly coordinated plan is needed. In the 2010s, stagnation set in, seen in the share of bilateral trade (around 10%). Primor’e drew 79 percent of Chinese imports from Russia’s Far East in 2021, while Sakhalin, Sakha-Iakutiya, and Zabaikal’sk totaled 57% of the exports. Minerals, marine products, and wood products account for 80% of exports, as the value of exports rose from oil and marine product prices. Apart from the Zabaikal’sk and Amur regions, there is little Chinese investment. Economic gains rested on oil exports and machine imports. Economies heavily dependent on China seek expanded relations. Most residents support this, but not a few fear it. Ambivalence slowing ties rests on fear of being just a resource provider dependent on capital plus increased migration from China. Ports in Primor’e are not being modernized despite the need. Heilongjiang seeks to extend OBOR (the BRI) through cooperation in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, exporting machines and equipment. Primor’e would be used for transit to the sea. In pursuit of integration, Heihe would become a trans-border megalopolis. Suifenhe has big plans too (Primor’e-1), as does Manzhouli, each building economic corridors, as Jilin also uses Hunchun (Primor’e-2) in gaining an outlet to the sea. Processing would take place on the Chinese side. The Russian government has introduced a new customs regime to boost wood processing on its territory. In 2018-19, 1 million Chinese tourists visited annually the Far East, made easier by the 8-day electronic visas available for citizens of 18 countries in Vladivostok. The departure of many Western companies is favorable for replacing them with Chinese ones.
On July 15 in Izvestiya Sof’ia, Smirnova wrote on prospects for Sino-Russian economic ties after the 2022 40% jump in trade in the first half of 2023 to $115 billion, leaving China with a $10 billion trade deficit and using the yuan in third countries. Smirnova foresees further growth in trade from China’s need for natural resources and energy, expanded infrastructure, Western sanctions, and shifts in China’s supply chain.
Former ambassador to China Andrei Denisov in Izvestiya stressed that China is a partner, not a competitor. He insists that historical ties between Central Asian states and Russia are weighty enough so there is no reason to be concerned at Chinese financial and economic ties, which these states need. China does not pretend to any kind of political influence; instead asking Russia to ensure stability, including for ever-greater Chinese investments there. A division of labor exists, perhaps uncomfortable for Russia, which wishes its economic presence were greater. At the recent “China Plus” summit, China offered $3.5 billion in assistance, but China welcomes the economic growth of these states to sell more of its goods. High-tech goods sanctioned by the West are bought from China without it violating those measures. OBOR is no longer what it was. China has learned from its mistakes. It will be hard to resist and is beneficial not only for China but for partner-countries too. China is changing its model to rely on domestic consumption as a vast middle class is rising. Asked if China considers Russia a partner in OBOR, Denisov said, without doubt, noting that in March Xi Jinping invited Putin to participate as the main guest this fall in the third OBOR summit. He said that Russia is ready to take part on equal footing, while proposing economic factors to make the entire BRI more effective. COVID set back the dynamics, but we are now reinvigorating them as part of the EEU.
In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, No. 6, Andrey Denisov, recently having ended a ten-year stint as ambassador to China, commented on a parliamentary visit there and the need to adapt the legal foundation of the two countries to resolve tasks posed by their two leaders, including for the SCO. Denisov warns that both sides face many unresolved questions, which need first to be specified. One example raised is quarantines. He points to both central and local legal needs.
In Vedemosti on May 27 Il’ya Lakstygal asked why China had activated ties with Europe, its official visiting Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and France after Lavrov praised China’s positive role. Europe asked China’s representative to exert pressure on Russia. China sought to sustain ties to the EU and drive a wedge in their US ties and to be the voice of the “Global South.” Although China calls its stance neutral, there is no real cooperation on Ukraine, given Europe’s support for Ukraine. China well understood that Europe could not take a constructive position.
Voennoe Obozrenie, May 23, discussed the China-Central Asia summit in Xian of May 18-19. It raises the impression that Comrade Xi is boldly seizing the global situation, including building a new railroad that bypasses Russia either through Iran or across the Caspian Sea. The essence of the agreements reached is a process of finally transitioning from a Russian to a Chinese sphere. Why should it matter if countries are marching on October 1 in China, not May 9 in Russia, as China takes the lead not only on projects that guarantee a profit to participating countries, but in security? Xi proposed a military alliance to the five states, offering $3.6 billion in support as a “goodwill gesture,” which could go to Chinese arms—much cheaper than Russian ones. Xi offered to take part in the development of the entire region, coordinating development and building big infrastructure products, naturally through Chinese companies.
Not long ago, Russia preserved Tokayev’s position in Kazakhstan; next time, it appears, China will be called upon, and it will be interesting to see the results. Will the CSTO or the EEU disappear? That would leave Russia with a bloc of three, including Belarus and Armenia. Central Asians from far back go with the more powerful. After the start of the Special Military Operation, Central Asian leaders were careful about “going to the West,” but after Russia’s retreat, they began to support anti-Russian sanctions. The bear no longer seems so frightening. Russia is not invited into either railroad building or a military bloc. China has decided to establish its own zone of trade and influence. Will this alliance pose a threat to Russia? Relations with Russia will endure as secondary. Russia has become a sore spot for China due to military actions and sanctions, and China will not swear at its main markets in the EU and US. The article concludes that Russia is quietly ceding Central Asia to China, the EEU and CSTO are becoming a fiction. If experts insist that Moscow and Beijing are not competitors in this region, the fact is the two are not in a military bloc nor found a way to forge a region together.
Nurlan gasymov in Vedomosti, May 21, focused on Xi’s meeting with the Central Asian leaders, calling it a “new era” in the region and announced future 5+1 summits every two years. In the first four months of 2023 China’s trade with these states rose 37%, surpassing $25 billion. New rail and auto routes through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were promised. China is trying to gain equality with Russia in the region, said Ibragimova, but Aleksander Lukin does not think that China is interested in squeezing Russia out of Central Asia. Yet, the article notes that, in some sense, Chinese are trying to take charge of security in the region, deeming Russia busy elsewhere.
Boris Nikolaev in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on June 19 assessed the China-Central Asia summit and the plans to bypass Russia with a new rail line and gas transport. The C5 group signifies the formation of a new group within the SCO excluding Russia. This satisfies China’s geopolitical interests. Russia responded by gathering together in Moscow the EEU council with the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus among others but Uzbekistan and Tajikistan not in the EEU were present only by video. The very same questions raised in Xian were discussed, but from the point of view of Russia’s interests, including logistical centers, transit routes, and reduced tariff barriers. Putin proposed a Eurasian rating agency, ending dependence on Western ones. Two points on the C5 are stressed: the absence of Russia, allowing China to present its own strategy; and the possible competition with Russia in supplying hydrocarbons to China, impacting Russia’s budget and reflecting Chinese restraint on constructing “Power of Siberia-2” through Mongolia or its effort to extract more favorable terms. Russia now delivers 20% of China’s gas imports, but it would rise with the new pipeline and increased use of other lines (Power of Siberia-1 in 2027 and a proposed line from Sakhalin). Beijing is hesitant to become so dependent on one supplier, motivating its outreach to Central Asia. Tokaev spoke of raising trade from $31 to $40 billion annually with Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan trade will hit $10 billion in 2023. The actions of Central Asian leaders inside China are reviewed in some detail.
In RGRU, Fyodor Lukyanov on July 5 discussed a virtual meeting of the SCO, complaining that it lacked revolutionary initiatives since the Iran inclusion decision came earlier. Established to resolve border problems and developed much further, the SCO since India and Pakistan joined gained prestige but faced complicated internal processes. He notes it lacks the prerequisites to become in the foreseeable future an anti-Western front. It has the main Eurasian powers now with Iran, except Turkiya unwilling to join the geopolitical opposition of NATO. In Russia, there is constant discussion of the SCO, the most influential organization in its part of the world, gaining currency now in response to Russia’s isolation in the West in the consideration it could become a counterweight to the anti-Russian coalition. Only Russia and Iran are in fierce conflict with the West. Others seek to maintain constructive relations with the US, EU, and the East Asian allies of Washington. Even China prefers to avoid direct confrontation, let alone India, Pakistan and the states of Central Asia. They favor preserving a balance, minimizing risk, sticking to their own interests and treating bloc consciousness as a legacy of the Cold War. Another popular idea in Russia—to turn the SCO into a universal organization—contradicts the logic that international organizations are passé, including US-led liberal ones. The SCO is a regional entity, focused first on transport-logistics and economic projects, now facing barriers.
Sergei Velichkin in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, No. 5, argued that India would continue to pursue its own interests in the face of diplomatic pressure exacerbated by massive Western disinformation materials vilifying Russia. American stereotypes have long been planted online among the young audience demographically dominant in India. Yet, the US is seriously mistaken about the vector of public attitudes in India. The majority do not consider Russia to have committed aggression against Ukraine but blame the conflict on NATO or the West under the leadership of the US. Trade with Russia has ballooned from $12 billion in 2021 to $35 billion in 2022, weighty evidence of the failure of the US sanctions campaign against Russia and its attempts to drag India into an anti-Russian coalition of the “West and others.” With this goal in mind, Modi together with the leaders of Indonesia, the UAE, Argentina, and Senegal were invited to join the G7 summit in Germany in June 2022, where support for Ukraine totally dominated the agenda, as if the “Global South” would be symbolically included. However, Modi devoted his attendance mainly to bilateral relations on such themes as ecology, energy, climate, food security, health, gender equality, and demography. India is sticking to its course of broadening relations with Russia, politically, commercially, and in other spheres, even as it develops closer ties with the US, Japan, and major European states In trade, investment, science and technology, and defense on its own terms and to strengthen its own position versus China. With most of the Global South rejecting unipolarity and Western domination and facing problems resulting from the West’s sanctions, India faces the task of becoming its leader to clarify its position as a great power, one of the world centers, and a force for a multipolar global structure. As host of the G20, India aims to avoid Ukraine and focus on economic matters, given its central ambition of internal economic development. China, not the West, is India’s biggest trade partner and potentially biggest source of investment. It is possible that India will seek a “grandiose deal” with China.