Russia-China Relations in Central Asia: Why Is There a Surprising Absence of Rivalry?
Russia and China have been deepening their cooperation for the last quarter century. While the relationship has not reached the stage of a full-fledged alliance—both states refuse to support the other side’s territorial claims—the growing density of ties between the two is unmistakable. Observers continue to recognize Central Asia as the most plausible site and cause of Sino-Russian tensions and rivalry over political, military, and economic influence.1 For example, Alexander Korolev, who argues that Sino-Russian relations at the global level differ from those at the regional level, identified Central Asia as the area where Russia balances against China.2 Russia-watchers disagree as to whether Russia’s policies in Central Asia can be classified as minor hedging or serious balancing against China. Recently, authors have leaned toward minor hedging, pointing to Russia’s adaptation to China’s presence in the region.3 This article proposes an explanation for why Russia has countenanced China’s advance into Central Asia, pointing to Russia’s vision of regionalism and China’s self-restraint in its policy. It sees less competition than cooperation and less balancing than hedging.
There are several reasons why many observers kept envisioning Sino-Russian tensions in Central Asia and regional rivalry between them as inevitable. First is to confront and question often-overstated official positions, such as one expressed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, “We do not consider China a competitor. We are strategic partners, and the plans of Russia and China regarding that region and overall regarding the Big Eurasia do not contradict each other.”4 Second, the expectation of conflict between great powers is a default mode of thinking about international politics, especially with regard to regional-level politics. The Sino-Russian relationship is thus seen through the prism of a zero-sum geostrategic game, whereas opposing views tend to be dismissed as “geopolitical utopianism.” Realist theories of international relations reiterate conventional wisdom on the incompatibility of claims to the same “sphere of influence.” Thirdly, observers assume that China’s growing economic influence must undoubtedly increase Beijing’s political leverage and thus limit Russia’s room for maneuver.5 In many instances Central Asia continues to be perceived through the prism of the 19th-century “Great Game.” Reality has diverged from such arguments. First, Russia yielded to China’s economic upsurge in Central Asia, then it gave ground on China’s security involvement there, but, most fervently, it has drawn the line at a regional identity favorable to China, while taking satisfaction that China, so far, is deferential.
Contrary to the widespread rivalry thesis, China and Russia have so far managed to avoid open competition. While sporadic episodes of contention did take place and the two states have dissimilar ideas about the organization of regional order in Central Asia, these differences have not translated into enduring open competition. The case of Sino-Russian relations, in effect, challenges conventional wisdom and realist theoretical expectations—both states managed to reconcile their interests. As I explain below, this can be partially ascribed to efforts on the part of Russian and Chinese elites aimed at avoiding competition. It is also an unintended consequence of Moscow and Beijing’s diverging grand visions for Eurasia. Put in the context of their regional and global visions, Central Asia has proved to be manageable. In the Russian vision, China has found a toehold; in the Chinese vision, Russia retains its legacy.
The changing distribution of economic power in Central Asia and Russia’s response
A major shift in the regional balance of power between Russia and China can be traced back to the mid-2000s. At that time, China successfully challenged the monopoly Russia had maintained over the transit of natural resources from the region, crude oil, and natural gas in particular. In the aftermath of the 2008-09 global economic crisis, Beijing has emerged as economic partner number one of the Central Asian states. In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia’s major aim in regional energy politics was to prevent the European Union from gaining access to Central Asia’s oil and gas resources. Of particular importance was the monopoly on transit of Turkmenistani gas. It allowed Gazprom to enjoy substantial economic benefits from re-selling cheap Central Asian gas in the European market and to prevent Europe from gaining alternative sources of supply in the post-Soviet region. In 2007, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan agreed on the construction of a new gas pipeline linking their gas fields with the Russian gas network, which was to consolidate Russia’s grip on the region. The project was, however, never implemented as China stepped in. Russia reluctantly acceded to this.
Chinese companies signed agreements with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan that envisioned the construction of new pipelines and the delivery of gas and oil respectively. Following the global drop of oil and gas prices, in April 2009, Russia stopped importing gas from Turkmenistan and strove to renegotiate the existing deal, which had turned out to be too costly for Gazprom. Beijing tacitly intervened in the dispute by offering Turkmenistan a $4 billion loan, which allowed it to resist Russian pressure. The next step was to complete the construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China, which became operational in December 2009. The “gas war” was the most important episode of political-economic competition between Russia and China in Central Asia, but Russia became reconciled.
The Russian elite underestimated Beijing’s determination to gain new sources of oil and gas and overestimated its own position. Russia did not expect China to be able to build the pipelines so quickly and to offer financial assistance to post-Soviet states. Yet, two factors can explain why the fallout from the competition over Turkmenistan was minimal. First, the Russian elite realized that it was unable to compete financially against China. In 2009, Russian energy companies—Rosneft and Transneft—received multibillion-dollar loans from China themselves. Second, the very fact that China-constructed pipelines indirectly prevented the EU from accessing Central Asian natural gas resources helped Moscow to adapt to Beijing’s growing presence. Moscow perceived EU plans to import gas from the region as a direct challenge to Gazprom’s position in the European market. China was not a strategic market in this regard, even though talks on the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to China had been under way for several years.
New oil and gas pipelines were but one element of China’s growing clout in Central Asia’s economic realm, as it emerged as trading partner number one for most of the region’s states. Chinese banks lent Central Asian regimes billions of dollars, often providing a lifeline that Moscow, struggling with its post-2008 recession, could not offer. China became the major source of investments, including in road and, to a lesser extent, rail infrastructure. Beijing’s offer could not have been matched by Moscow. Russia yielded on economic regionalism, assured of its supremacy in security and identity regionalism, unlike if the West had seized the economic edge.
A limited role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in economics and security
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, can be seen as one of the first attempts to mitigate differences between Russia and China with regard to Central Asia. The SCO has been a useful platform for security cooperation, allowing both states to conduct multilateral military exercises “Peace Mission” and paving the way for “sharing best authoritarian practices” in domestic security. Nonetheless, Russia and China’s divergent views on how the SCO should develop in other areas led to a deadlock and seriously limited the organization’s usefulness for managing Sino-Russian relations in Central Asia. The key differences revolved around the place of economic cooperation within the SCO and the organization’s broader international objectives.
Russia, trying to limit and control China’s access to Central Asia’s energy resources, proposed to establish an “energy club.” As Beijing opposed the multilateralization of its energy policy in the region, the energy club never materialized. At the same time, Moscow rejected Chinese ideas to establish a free trade area within the SCO, fearing that Beijing’s economic expansion would only accelerate. Trying to react to the 2008-2009 global economic crisis, Russia and China put forward different solutions to assist other SCO members to overcome it. Unable to reach agreement, each side pursued a unilateral policy. Russia established the Anti-Crisis Fund, whereas China opened a credit line for Central Asian states.
Russia and China could not have found common ground as to a broader role of the SCO in international politics. Beijing used to see the SCO as first and foremost a regional organization, aimed at securing Chinese interests in Central Asia and in Xinjiang province. Moscow, in turn, tended to regard the SCO as a geopolitical bloc with anti-Western leanings. The disagreement as to which function should take precedence prevented the SCO enlargement for more than a decade. Russia opted for broadening the membership, especially aiming to include India, while China put an informal veto on enlargement. The reasons behind the change in China’s policy, which allowed both India and Pakistan to become members in 2017, remain unclear. We can only speculate that Beijing made a goodwill gesture towards Russia, also to diminish Moscow’s possible fear of growing Chinese influence in the region.
While Russia and China can be expected to promote the “Shanghai spirit” and portray the organization as a new way of managing great-power relations, the role of the SCO in reconciling Moscow and Beijing’s visions is going to remain limited. Not only does enlargement make achieving consensus more difficult, especially given Sino-Indian tensions, but also Russia and China prefer a bilateral mode of reconciling their differences. The SCO has served its purpose in managing major differences over economics beyond energy without resolving them, finding some common ground on security with Russia remaining dominant, and constructing a multilateral umbrella that obscured potential divides over identity issues.
Competing regional projects: the Eurasian Economic Union and the New Silk Road
The emergence of parallel regional projects for Central Asia, Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), posed the most serious challenge for Moscow and Beijing since the late-2000s. The EEU became Russia’s major political project for Eurasia almost as a side effect of the 2014 crisis over Ukraine. When proposed by Vladimir Putin during his presidential campaign in 2011, the project was first and foremost directed at securing Ukraine’s place in the Russian “sphere of influence,” regardless of future domestic developments in Kyiv. However, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Donbas insurgency, Ukraine’s membership became impossible and the weight of the project gravitated towards Central Asia. It does not mean that the Chinese factor did not play a role earlier. The notion of limiting China’s influence in the region was recognized by many observers even prior to the Ukraine crisis, but it is only after 2014 that Central Asia became the focus of Russia’s project. At that time, China had already proposed its own vision of regional cooperation, the SREB.6 Moscow “upgraded” its concept of regional cooperation by putting forward the concept of Greater Eurasia, often referred to as the Greater Eurasian Partnership.7 Initially elaborated by a group of analysts from the Valdai Club, Putin made it into official policy in mid-2016, briefly sketching out the idea at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. The concept was almost deliberately vague, with a broadly sketched vision of bi- and multilateral cooperation between Russia, China, India, the SCO, and ASEAN, with the EEU as the core. Russia was able to demonstrate its leadership potential as it put forward a vision of regional identity that included China and its grandiose plans.
The initial reactions of Moscow and Beijing to one another’s actions were cautious. Chinese and Western observers read Russia’s integration plans as an attempt to stall Chinese economic expansion. Russian analysts interpreted the New Silk Road as a reply to Moscow’s EEU. It is thus not surprising that a number of analysts expected Russia and China to clash over the region. Both states’ elites appeared to understand the possibility of a fallout and took intentional steps to diminish the potential for rivalry. In 2014, the joint communique after the summit mentioned both SREB and EEU, signaling that Moscow and Beijing were working on a reconciliation. A year later, in 2015, Russia and China signed a separate memorandum, in which they agreed to “synchronize” their initiatives. In May 2018, China signed the trade agreement with the EEU that reduces some non-tariff barriers and simplifies some customs procedures. Apart from this gradual effort to avoid competition, differences between the two visions of regional cooperation have, paradoxically, helped to alleviate Sino-Russian rivalry in the context of widening identity gaps with the West over regional issues.
Different visions of regional cooperation
Russia’s vision of regional cooperation has been stretched between two poles. On the one hand, it is narrowed down to the post-Soviet space and limited by the affirmation of Soviet-era historical ties. In addition, the complex legal framework of the EEU constitutes an “entry barrier” for potential new participants. On the other hand, this spatially-bound project has been accompanied by ideas transcending the boundaries of the post-Soviet space. From the mid-1990s, the concept of “Greater Europe” served as a link between Russian-led and European integration processes. In the mid-2010s, it has been replaced by the still vague idea of “Greater Eurasia.” Indeed, acute consciousness of Russia’s battle with the West over steps to achieve Russia-centered regionalism in Europe elicited wishful thinking that China would be a welcoming partner in Asia, downplaying the possibility of contention over Central Asia.
The Russian elite attempts to achieve two goals: to maintain political primacy in the post-Soviet region, thus preventing other actors from gaining a foothold without Russia’s consent; and to extend Russia’s influence beyond the post-Soviet region. The post-Soviet space is not particularly promising for Russia in terms of possible economic benefits, especially when juxtaposed with either the EU or East Asia. This reflects a deeper contradiction in the Russian elite’s thinking about international politics. Russia-sponsored regionalism aims to protect the post-Soviet space and Russia from negative consequences of globalization and international turbulence, while simultaneously it is supposed to open new possibilities for Russia to increase its impact on global politics. Moscow aspires to make the EEU into one of the centers of the multipolar world order and to establish it as a link between East Asia and Western Europe. For that it must assume harmony with China as a partner respecting Russia.
The concept of “Greater Eurasia” is an attempt to compensate for the territorial limitations of the EEU. It seems to follow China’s broad and vague approach to regional cooperation. From the current discourse we can read that “Greater Eurasia” has no clear boundaries. The idea encompasses a declared willingness to cooperate with the EU, and “Greater Eurasia” is to include all major players, from China to India and ASEAN. With the concept, the Russia government seems willing to transcend both long-term great-power rivalries in Asia, like the one between China and India, and to overcome distrust smaller states have developed towards great powers, as in the case of China and ASEAN. There is, however, little substantive information on how the idea could be operationalized except that its core is Sino-Russia ties, which are assumed to be buttressed by the ability to cooperate closely in Central Asia.
China, while declaring its ambitions to rearrange its neighborhood and to provide new ways of regional cooperation, has put forward a general rather than specific concept. The New Silk Road, in addition to providing China with access to foreign markets, has also been presented as an expression of Beijing’s willingness to provide international public goods and readiness to share international responsibilities. With regard to the latter, however, China stopped short of providing any details. The most outstanding feature of the Chinese project is its flexibility and the absence of strict geographical boundaries, which results in its openness and low, if any, “entry barriers.” Beijing’s more recent addition, the so-called Polar Silk Road, as well as its planned cooperation with Latin American states as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), confirm how flexible the idea is and testify to Beijing’s global ambitions. Defining its vision of cooperation in functional rather than spatial terms reflects China’s goal to transcend the existing and future regional arrangements and to prevent other powers from the creation of closed political-economic blocs. The rhetoric of facilitating trade and infrastructure investment pledges seeks to maintain the openness of particular economies for China’s goods and capital. Vital to the Polar Silk Road as well as SREB is a vision of regionalism in which the Russian side is satisfied to cooperate closely with China, which poses no threat to Russia.
The political dimension of the Chinese project has not been well defined, neither in terms of decision-making process nor with regard to the norms of cooperation. China stops short of voicing open claims to regional leadership. Instead, the emphasis is on benefits to various states stemming from China’s own development. The lack of a developed institutional design behind the Chinese project and the absence of norms that would bind all participants together are the most conspicuous features of the New Silk Road framework. China has referred merely to general international norms such as the five principles of peaceful coexistence, international market rules, win–win cooperation, and reciprocity. The general message China continues sending to its partners is that the ultimate shape of the New Silk Road is open to negotiations with prospective participants. No regional identity aspirations are articulated in the north, while Chinese sharp power and community themes are concentrated further south.
If the institutional-normative aspect seems underdeveloped, China has had unquestionable success in planting the idea of the New Silk Road in the imagination of the expert community and the broader public. The Chinese concept has evolved into a new version of globalization rather than just a regional (and thus limited) cooperation project. There is, however, a clear contradiction between globalizing rhetoric, adding new dimensions and limitless openness of the project on the one hand, and the regional, Asia-focused, reality of investments being made and political cooperation being implemented on the other. The sheer number of routes and corridors designated as parts of the New Silk Road illustrates the relevance of Asia as the major reference point for China’s vision: the SREB focused on Central Asia, the 21st Maritime Silk Road centered on China’s neighbors from ASEAN and the China-Pakistan corridor. Other economic and security cooperation forums, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), reaffirm Beijing’s focus on Asia.
China’s project, even if, to some extent, conceived as a response to the Russian-led EEU, does not pose an open challenge to Russia. The Chinese elite understands regionalism in functional terms, while its Russian counterpart frames regional cooperation spatially. The Chinese vision of regionalism reflects economic prioritization, while for Russia political influence remains key. China’s New Silk Road is underpinned by concrete financial resources and can be expected to be implemented. Meanwhile, Russia’s projects are more about great-power posturing and saving face. Given how deeply great power identity is embedded in Russian political and intellectual elites’ mindsets, Greater Eurasia is a way to find a new mission for Russia in an evolving international order. The concept papers over Sino-Russian differences and postpones competition over influence in the post-Soviet space, maintaining the illusion of equality between Russia and China. Beijing’s “approval” of Greater Eurasia, which can be found in joint Sino-Russian declarations adopted at bilateral summits and in Chinese leaders’ rhetoric, perpetuates this illusion.
Unintended consequences of implementation
While differing visions of regionalism are conducive to Russian-Chinese coexistence, the process of implementation of their regional initiatives on the ground provides an additional, albeit unintentional, safety net that limits the potential for clashing interests. The major components of the New Silk Road currently being implemented include railway connections between China and Europe, the majority of which go through the territory of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus (i.e. the EEU territory), and investments into transport, infrastructure, and energy projects, financed by the Silk Road Fund or the AIIB. This process of implementation creates incentives for Russia to cooperate with China rather than to oppose Beijing’s initiative.
While China has established a number of railway routes, some of which bypass Russia—the trans-Caspian corridor and the corridor via Turkey—the bulk of trains travel through Russia. The use of other corridors, which cannot be excluded, would be much less beneficial to China and more difficult in practice mainly due to weak infrastructure.8 The railway connections facilitate Sino-Russian cooperation in several ways. Firstly, the functioning of the Customs Union within the EEU framework and the related absence of borders between EEU members provide for faster transport, lower transportation fees, and easier customs procedures. The trains cross only two customs borders, one between China and the EEU, and the other between the EEU and the EU. Secondly, the implementation of railway connections creates a pro-cooperation lobby in Russia, with Russian Railways at its helm. The transportation corridor via Russia has created a group of stakeholders on the Chinese side. It includes specific Chinese provinces that provide subsidies for railway connections and the CR Express, a state-owned group tasked with coordination of railway links with Europe. Finally, the dependence on the Russian railway system enables Moscow to use rail transport as a tool to exert political pressure on its neighbors. The transit blockade and China’s unwillingness to act as an intermediary have eliminated Ukraine from participation in rail connections between China and the EU.
Chinese investments in energy projects in Russia, implemented under the banner of the New Silk Road, have created another group of stakeholders in Russia. These are the individuals and firms that are interested in uninterrupted cooperation with China. Among the most significant agreements reached so far are: $10 billion in loans provided by Chinese banks for the Yamal-LNG project, implemented by a private company Novatek, owned by Putin’s close associate Gennady Timchenko; investments in Novatek’s Arctic-LNG project; the acquisition of 9.9% of the Yamal-LNG project by the Silk Road Fund; and the acquisition of 10% of Russia’s biggest petrochemical group SIBUR by the Silk Road Fund. While these investments might have taken place irrespective of China’s New Silk Road project, their inclusion into this framework reduces Russia’s potential opposition towards the project.
Russia’s implementation practices are also conducive to Sino-Russian regional cooperation. Paradoxically, they are mainly due to the EEU’s failures rather than its achievements. The Russia-led process of EEU implementation has been bogged down for the past several years. Russia’s failure to complete the implementation of the EEU rules and norms, including a single market with four freedoms of movement, diminishes the potential for Russian-Chinese competition. The flaws of the EEU mean that it remains “porous” to Chinese goods and capital. The failure of EEU members to agree on joint rules regulating the energy realm resulted in a practically unlimited Chinese presence in Central Asia’s energy sector. The ill-functioning EEU does not put brakes on China’s economic expansion and reduces possible incentives for rivalry. At the same time, Russia’s “Greater Eurasia” concept remains far from entering the implementation stage. Its role is much more symbolic than practical as Russia cannot provide its partners with similar financial incentives to those China offers. Still, the vague nature of cooperation to be undertaken under the “Greater Eurasia” aegis means that any agreement involving China, the SCO, or the EEU can be portrayed as a success.
China’s growing role in Central Asian security
In the run-up to 2014, the US self-set deadline for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, many observers anticipated a return of Sino-Russian rivalry to Central Asia. They argued that the departure of Beijing and Moscow’s common competitor—the US—would inevitably lead to tensions.9 While the withdrawal in 2014 was only partial, Washington started paying decidedly less attention to Central Asia. As a result, regional political dynamics have been taking place between China, Russia, and Central Asian states, with the US and the EU playing only secondary roles. China’s activity in the region grew substantially, making it a more and more important player.
One reason behind Russia’s adaptation to China’s growing influence in the region is Beijing’s policy of self-restraint. This policy comprises a tacit acceptance of Russia’s equal partner status, which can be illustrated by Beijing’s self-imposed limitation on its security presence in Central Asia and its support for the Russia-promoted idea of Greater Eurasia. Whereas Russia maintained its military presence within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and through bilateral agreements on military bases with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Chinese military engagement in the region was mostly within the SCO framework, for instance in the form of multilateral Peace Mission exercises. However, Beijing’s policy has recently started to evolve, which may pose a challenge for Sino-Russian relations.
In recent months, the media have reported on a growing Chinese military presence in Tajikistan, which the Chinese government consistently denies. According to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese border guards replaced their Tajik counterparts in the corridor’s border posts.10 The Economist reported that China is stationing troops and conducting joint exercises with Tajikistan without extending the invitation to Russia.11 China officially reported on conducting exercises with Tajikistan in 2016 and on establishing a quadrilateral border security cooperation comprising China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.12
If China did establish a military presence in the region ignoring multilateral frameworks and without prior consultations with Russia, it would pose a serious challenge to Moscow’s self-appointed role as the region’s security provider. The insult would be even greater given that since the mid-2000s Tajikistan has resisted Russia’s pressure to return to joint patrolling of the Tajik-Afghan border. Yet, Beijing continues to put a lot of effort into denying any military presence in the region. Every time the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is asked about it, spokespersons deny any presence of Chinese troops on the ground. Such an approach can be read as directly aimed at reassuring Russia. It is also possible that China consulted with Russia on its border guard deployment, perhaps for the reason that Russia continues to maintain several thousand troops in Tajikistan and Tajikistan is a CSTO member. On security, China’s deferential tone is reassuring to Russia even if concerns are not fully assuaged. Given growing arms sales and joint military exercises, regional security coordination keeps growing, as Central Asia remains on the sidelines as a secondary arena with little cause for concern.
Maintaining leadership in Central Asia, or, in broader terms, in Eurasia, is much more important to Russia than it is to China. For Moscow, it is also important to be capable of defining Eurasian regional identity and to be recognized as Eurasia’s “leader.” China has showcased a shared global identity with Russia and focused its own regional identity on challenges from Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Southeast Asia, and India. The BRI treats Russia as a peripheral player, posing few concerns. Given memories of the Sino-Soviet split, criticisms of Moscow are carefully constrained, and efforts are made to avoid an identity gap, as Chinese publications concentrate on gaps with others, especially the US. Trumpeting the common threat and identity gap with the US, including in Central Asia, China steers those paying attention in Russia away from perceiving an identity challenge. Moreover, the minimal nature of Central Asian affinity with China culturally—even today after three decades of open borders—allays possible Russian concern. Russians respond by writing almost nothing on the potentially inflammatory subject of Chinese arrogance, Chinese aspirations in Central Asia, or the threat of China’s repressive turn internally. Such coverage limits airing of any concerns. In this process, China has controlled the narrative of its regional vision, reassuring Russians.
Russia’s regional identity with claims that could be challenged by China in Central Asia puts the onus on the West, not China, for threats to the Asian regional order. Greater Eurasia is not presented as challenging China but as something opposed in the West. Problematic partners for China, such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and even India, are not discussed in identity terms for building regionalism. No country is taken as a force for balancing against China or even as having cause to be concerned about China. Central Asia is an arena where India, Iran, and Pakistan can operate without direct mention of any limiting China’s ambitions. Omitting talk of Sinocentrism, Russia has made it much easier to coexist in Central Asia with China.
The absence of outright competition between Russia and China in Central Asia can be ascribed to a combination of factors: deliberate efforts on both sides to limit potential rivalry, “lessons” learned by the Russian ruling elite, China’s policy of self-restraint, and different visions for arranging the regional space. In the late-2000s, Moscow and Beijing struggled to create the impression that there were no problems in their relations in Central Asia in spite of growing redistribution of power in the region to China’s advantage. In the aftermath of the Turkmenistan-Russia gas war, the Russian elite seemed to have acquiesced to the Chinese presence in Central Asia’s energy sector. The fact that the resources were “taken over” by China rather than the EU was of vital importance. At the same time, the Kremlin learned that it was unable to compete with China’s “checkbook diplomacy.” In the 2010s, Russia gradually limited its presence in the energy sector.
This policy of masking genuine challenges changed only in the mid-2010s when both sides recognized the possibility of a clash between their regional projects, the EEU and SREB. Measures they have taken since do not settle all the problems and often paper over the existing differences rather than solve them. Nonetheless, this deliberate effort to limit competition was of particular importance to a weaker party, Russia. Regional cooperation projects pursued by both states have not generated open competition either. China is more interested in practical benefits of regional cooperation, whereas Russia uses its projects to maintain the image of a strategic leader of Eurasia. Beijing is ready to keep up the appearances and recognize Moscow’s Greater Eurasia project as an equal counterpart to its own BRI. The real loss of influence in the region has been partially compensated by the reinforcement of Russia’s credentials as a great power equal to China. Beijing’s readiness to recognize Greater Eurasia as a valid political project assuaged Russia’s fears of marginalization. The EEU, in turn, facilitates the implementation of the Chinese project, for instance when it comes to easier transit between China and the EU. Russia’s project is predominantly based on a top-down approach, with the Kremlin setting the agenda and domestic economic players remaining relatively uninterested in economic expansion in the post-Soviet space. In the case of China, regional cooperation under the BRI aegis combines Chinese leadership’s strategic ambitions with concrete economic interests of domestic stakeholders, ranging from border provinces to private and state-owned enterprises. As a consequence, Moscow is first and foremost interested in political outcomes of its regional cooperation plans. Beijing, in turn, needs to weigh both political and economic factors. On top of this, the global and open nature of the BRI dovetails with Russia’s trans-continental but still regional vision of cooperation in Eurasia.
Beijing’s policy of self-restraint in Central Asia contributed significantly to limiting competition with Russia in the region. Limited engagement in bilateral security cooperation with Central Asian states and tacit recognition of Russia’s primacy in the security realm were the landmarks of this policy. Against this backdrop, China’s recently growing role in regional security may have negative effects on relations with Russia in Central Asia. The Chinese military presence in Central Asia outside of existing multilateral formats challenges Russia’s claim to a unique role in the region. A lot, however, will depend on Beijing’s ability and willingness to keep a low profile. Admittedly, under Xi Jinping China has largely dropped its policy of hiding its strength, but this has not been the case in relations with Russia.
This article was prepared in the framework of the project ‘Domestic ideas, international norms, and regional orders: the comparative study of the New Silk Road and the Eurasian Economic Union, funded by National Science Centre, grant agreement 2017/25/B/HS5/00292’.