The Great Win-Win Game
No. 4 2016 October/December
Timofei V. Bordachev

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies
Academic Supervisor;
Valdai Discussion Club, Moscow, Russia
Program Director


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Russia and China in Central Asia

On June 5, 2016, a group of armed militants attacked National Guard weapons depots and barracks in the city of Aktobe, north-western Kazakhstan, some 253 kilometers from Russia’s Orenburg. Several dozen people, including the attackers, died in the clash. Siloviki, a term commonly used in post-Soviet countries for security and law enforcement agencies, did not hide their perplexity over what had happened, and foreign observers commented that the situation in Kazakhstan, long seen as a model of stability among the southernmost former Soviet republics, might deteriorate sharply. These events highlight the need for a discussion on broad international cooperation to ensure regional stability, create new institutional formats, and foster collaboration among CSTO and SCO structures.

Central Asia is increasingly becoming a source of concern for its neighbors and countries in other parts of the world. The region directly borders one of the most dangerous hotbeds of radicalism today—Afghanistan, whose territory is also home to a significant number of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. It is quite possible that after Islamic State radicals suffer an inevitable defeat in the Middle East, they will attempt to build a new “caliphate” in Central Asia, especially because it is much safer to fight there than in North Africa, where they are easy targets for gunships in the Mediterranean Sea. Tensions are already mounting in the Central Asian countries adjacent to Afghanistan, and experts have expressed concern that an increasing number of extremists from Afghanistan and the Middle East, but primarily native residents of the Central Asian states, are infiltrating the region. The most moderate estimates suggest that more than 10,000 persons from Central Asia, Russia, and China were fighting for ISIS at the end of 2015.

Despite the significant progress that the “Central Asian Five” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) have achieved in ensuring stability after the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost every one of those states now faces greater uncertainty over their internal stability. Outside observers note the absence of a clear mechanism for transferring power when the “patriarchs” in Astana and Tashkent inevitably succumb to natural causes and cease to rule. Valdai International Discussion Club experts see an even more dangerous situation developing in Tajikistan. A surge in violence there, similarly to that in Kazakhstan’s Aktobe, is by itself undermining internal stability in the country. According to official statistics, 19 terrorist attacks have been carried out since 2010 in Kazakhstan alone, claiming the lives of 49 persons, mainly law enforcers, and 50 terrorists have been killed.

The June SCO summit in Tashkent and the Russian president’s visit to China are good occasions to discuss the need for strengthening multilateral cooperation and ensuring regional security. This particularly concerns the interaction between the region’s two superpowers—China and Russia. Potential instability in Central Eurasia presents a sort of “perfect challenge” for the two countries to engage in a rational game with a positive outcome.

Risks In Central Eurasia

First, it is a real possibility that social and political unrest may erupt in the countries in the region. Unlike Ukraine, where the conflict was provoked by rivalry between external forces, in Central Asia it is mainly internal factors that contribute to domestic tensions. The combination of these factors makes the problem especially urgent for both great powers and naturally increases their need to cooperate.

Second, the geographic proximity of the potentially explosive region to the two great powers plays an important role. Kazakhstan and Central Asia directly border not only the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which has more than one million Muslims and poses a particular challenge to China, but also the Urals and Central Siberia, which are of critical importance to Russia. Moscow and Beijing understand that if the situation were to deteriorate, they could not simply shift the problem to each other and must therefore cooperate on the spot. What’s more, they could theoretically feel concern over the role played in the region by the European Union, and much more so by the United States. Although unrest in Central Asia would not threaten national security for either, Washington in particular views developments in the region in the context of geostrategic rivalry with Moscow and Beijing.

Third, Russia and China are equally interested in removing outside players from the region, whatever their origin. Since the latter view developments in Central Eurasia entirely in terms of the “great game” on the global scale, external interference will most likely have a destabilizing effect. In fact, those countries predictably seek to galvanize risky political transformations in the Central Asian states. In addition, the value of these countries for the U.S., Europe and their economic partners in no way compares to the value of the Persian Gulf monarchies. It is therefore very likely that the West would employ value and regulatory instruments. In other words, it would support regime change in those countries morally and ideologically, as a minimum.

Some experts say that Washington is working to establish a direct dialogue with the Chinese authorities, without Russian participation, on the questions of regional security and economic cooperation. It is even possible that such a dialogue has already begun. However, the unpredictability of U.S. policy and its penchant for supporting the so-called color revolutions that China so desperately fears might have a limiting effect on such a dialogue. It is worth noting that Russia itself has demonstrated flexibility in responding to revolutionary upheavals in neighboring states, as borne out by events in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, does not always hurry to interfere, and occasionally appears ready to recognize the results of such revolutions.

Fourth, Russia and China can offer their neighbors many different formats for interaction to achieve internal stability. Consider the controversial example of the European Union’s efforts to stabilize its periphery. After successfully enlarging the EU in 2004-2007, Brussels launched its Neighborhood Policy initiative for integration, a Eurocentric project aimed at stabilizing its neighbors by encouraging them to adopt EU institutional practices and norms. The arrangement sought to transform those countries and offered them preferential treatment in return for compliance with certain criteria. By contrast, Russia and China are not interested in transforming their neighbors, but in stabilizing the political regimes in Central Eurasia and gradually improving their economic and social conditions over a long period.

Russian-Chinese cooperation will have some importance in reducing the negative effects stemming from the inevitable attempts of the countries in the region to play on contradictions between Moscow and Beijing. Whatever form Russian-Chinese cooperation might take with regard to security issues in Central Asia, it should be transparent, multilateral, include the countries of the region and, on a range of issues, Iran.

Thus, objective factors make it almost certain that Russia and China will find a format for cooperating on Central Asia. What’s more, efforts to stabilize the region could bring Russia and China closer in the global context. The reconfiguration of global economic governance seems to be an irreversible process. Large transcontinental associations are forming and the two most formidable Eurasian powers apparently have no alternative but to continue building closer relations, not least because both have been intentionally excluded from the alliances being created under U.S. leadership.

Vladimir Putin’s visits to Beijing clearly showed that the political and economic aspects of strategic cooperation between the two countries have good prospects for development. The absence of a common ideology and shared values will not be an obstacle. In fact, it was the difference in interpreting common ideological postulates and the struggle for leadership within this common ideology that precipitated the acute conflict between China and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s.

The immediate task is to determine which institutional forms would best make the formation of a “community of interests and values” in Central Eurasia irreversible. The most important practical task before that community and its institutions is to ensure internal security through military, law enforcement and economic cooperation and coordination.

Obstacles to Cooperation

There are, however, subjective obstacles as well. Much of the Russian elite and public are not yet convinced that outside powers should play an active role in regional affairs. Instead they hold on to the long-standing notion that, owing to certain historical reasons, Russia should bear exclusive responsibility for regional security. Advocates of this position are concerned that, unlike the fragmented presence of the United States in the region, the Chinese will take a systemic approach. But they overlook the fact that Russia has historically become involved in Central Asia to attempt, often successfully, to stop the chaos emanating from the region and to get access, albeit with no success, to the natural riches of South Asia.

Fortunately, those concerns did not hinder the signing in May 2015 of the historic Sino-Russian agreement that links Eurasian integration project with the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. The fact that those concerns remain, however, means Beijing should take a cautious approach to building bilateral relations with Central Asian capitals. Traditional regional fears of “Chinese expansionism” are also a factor in this equation, with the anti-Chinese riots in Kazakhstan serving as one recent example. Demonstrators were reacting to amendments to the Land Code permitting the government to sell 1.7 million hectares of agricultural land at auction.

However China is known for not getting involved in the internal affairs of its neighbors and for not forming alliances for security cooperation. Having essentially become one of the world’s great powers, China has adopted a foreign policy typical of a developing country that is constantly striving to stay away from risky situations and binding relations. The main principles of that policy include non-participation in alliances and non-interference in the internal affairs of its neighbors. Both reflect the thinking of a newly-minted power that has only recently achieved full independence and is not yet ready to limit its sovereignty even for the sake of its own safety and peace in the surrounding regions.

But the “new” sovereign China is already 67 years old—a very respectable age. Moreover, the country’s economic capabilities enable it to take greater responsibility for events in the world. China continues to base its very conservative foreign policy on the conviction that economic growth can solve all problems. This might be the right approach for the Central Asian region, but if so, then China should already be creating new jobs for the young people loitering about in Dushanbe and Bishkek. For now, the Silk Road Economic Belt has not developed in any visible way. Over the long term, China will probably have to reassess its conservative approach.

China currently provides limited military assistance in the form of weapon and ammunition supplies to the distressed armed forces of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It remain unclear, however, if that aid is sufficient for those countries to effectively respond to the terrorist threat from beyond their borders or, potentially, from within them. What will China do if serious domestic turmoil breaks out in a number of Central Asian countries, and what assurances does Moscow have that Russian troops will not have to cope with that situation alone? Russia, with the active assistance of Uzbekistan and Iran, has already stopped one civil war in Tajikistan. Serious analysts understand that the long Russian-Kazakh border, not to mention its proximity to industrial facilities in the Urals and the troubled North Caucasus, means that Moscow will have to provide assistance to the Central Asian siloviki in their struggle against the threat of radicalism. In the likely event of a regional crisis, China would quite possibly have to cooperate more actively with Russia, although Moscow, of course, would remain the primary provider of “hard” security in the region. Under such circumstances, flexible forms of intervention such as diplomatic support and assistance for economic recovery would prove most effective.

Another important question is whether China’s significant economic presence in the region would affect its willingness to become more actively involved if a crisis arose. According to Kazakhstan’s Central Bank, China has invested approximately $13 billion in Kazakhstan since 2001, approximately four times less than the $64 billion committed by the Netherlands, and almost two times less than the $23 billion from the United States. China, however, was the primary contributor to the $395.6 million worth of accumulated foreign direct investment (FDI) in Tajikistan in 2001-2012. China also took the lead for FDI in Kyrgyzstan for the same period, investing $299 million, followed by Russia with $161 million. Can these relatively hefty investments guarantee that China will take an interest in developments in those countries? When Libya collapsed in 2011, for example, China had little trouble writing off the approximately $19 billion it had invested there. Most importantly, it preferred to distance itself from the acute military-political crisis in that country, limiting its involvement solely to the evacuation of its own citizens.

Is an Alliance Possible?

The current prevailing view among experts is that Moscow and Beijing are both satisfied with the existing format of relations and equally uninterested in developing closer ties through a military and political alliance or other formal arrangements. Chinese and Russian analysts, who are clearly on the periphery of those bilateral discussions, only rarely speak directly of the need for allied relations between the two countries. Foreign observers are even more reserved in assessing the likelihood of a formal alliance between the two great powers.

Moreover, the international academic discourse suggests that, given the current conditions in the world, major powers such as Russia and China cannot form permanent coalitions for containing states that seek domination. As Jack Levy and William Thompson noted in their brilliant article Balancing on Land and at Sea published in 2010, this is especially true if one state is an off-shore power and its potential “balancer” powers are landlocked states. The authors explain that maritime nations are active beyond the immediate periphery of the landlocked states, and therefore present less of an immediate concern than nearby land-based challenges. One major exception to this theory, however, is the United States, whose forces are very active in the immediate vicinity of the Chinese and Russian borders, and in locations that have strategic importance for both countries. To some extent, this makes the U.S. the third great power in the Central Asian/Central Eurasian region, and therefore prods regional actors into containing it. However, like Europe, the United States is facing no risks or costs related to the actual presence in the region in question. This may actually make its behavior less responsible.

In today’s world, any alliance between major powers that does not include the United States is inevitably anti-American by nature. This would elicit a strong reaction from Washington and its allies that could, in turn, unbalance, if not ruin, the entire global economic system, of which China and, to a much lesser extent, Russia are beneficiaries. Moscow is also reluctant to link its enormous nuclear missile arsenal to China, whose policies in Southeast and East Asia are becoming increasingly assertive. All this warrants even more caution in considering the very idea of an alliance between Russia and China.

China has assigned absolute importance to national sovereignty in response to the tragic events its people suffered between 1840 and 1949, and this makes it ever harder for Beijing to form permanent alliances with other states. Now, however, the situation has changed fundamentally. China and Russia have no need to fight for their sovereignty or for recognition as full-fledged states. In fact, no one questions their sovereignty, and the modern world requires greater coordination in responding to challenges and threats.

Global structural changes, however, are perhaps an even more important factor, especially because states have institutionalized some of those changes in recent years. The United States is pushing for new coalitions to manage the global economy which represent a direct challenge to existing institutions and other major players. If, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) materializes in the Asia-Pacific region, it would produce a “matrix” for tariff and non-tariff regulation of trade and overall economic activity, as well as a host of multilateral arrangements between participating countries that also reflect their various existing bilateral agreements.

There is every reason to believe that, even if ratification of the agreement proves difficult (primarily in the U.S. Congress), the signatory countries will implement its provisions in one form or another anyway. According to Russian expert Igor Makarov, the participants have put tremendous effort not only into elaborating the TPP and coordinating their various interests, but also into meeting the obvious demand for the system of relations the TPP proposes to the leading economies in the region (excluding China). There is even a discussion on creating a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in the Western Hemisphere that would link the economies of the United States, the European Union, and a number of other countries.

The scale of these changes is so great that it casts doubt on the very possibility of preserving the current polycentric structure of the international system. China is also attempting to become a part of these new arrangements that apparently began taking shape after the end of the Cold War. As a result, China’s efforts to become an important and respected member of the international system of governance that has emerged during the last quarter-century might ultimately end in disappointment. And yet, China keeps the door open for talks with the founders of the TPP if it ever becomes a reality. For Russia, on the other hand, the new partnership represents a much lesser challenge due to the structure of its exports and the modest degree of its integration into international production chains. However, if the TPP does go ahead, Moscow will have to reflect those new realities in its foreign policy.

The traditional arguments for and against a hypothetical alliance between Russia and China are based on the assumption that it should serve as a counterweight to the U.S. hegemony that threatens their interests. That thinking, however, overlooks the possibility that Moscow and Beijing might build closer relations not “in opposition to” an outside force but “in favor” of dealing with the important challenges they both face, or simply establishing mutually satisfactory bilateral relations.

Moscow and Beijing have done much in recent years to eliminate even minor objective factors that could lead to mutual competition. Importantly, this unprecedented rapprochement occurs at a time when both powers have fundamentally different domestic situations and need solid and friendly external support more than ever before. This enables leaders in Moscow and Beijing to announce with confidence the emergence of a “new form of relations between the great powers” as the Chinese foreign policy conceptual framework defines them.

The author expresses his gratitude to Dmitry Novikov, Anastasiya Pyatachkova, Andrei Skriba, and Ilya Stepanov, research fellows of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University—Higher School of Economics, for assistance in preparing this article. He also thanks Dmitry Suslov, Program Director of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, and Vassily Kashin, and Igor Makarov, senior research fellows of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies for valuable advice. The author highly appreciates the knowledge of the subject and ideas generously shared with him by Ivan Safranchuk, MGIMO Associate Professor; Igor Denisov, MGIMO Researcher; Erlan Karin, Director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, and Zhao Huasheng, Fudan University Professor.

This article is a shortened version of the paper written for the Valdai International Discussion Club. The original copy is available at: http://valdaiclub.com/files/11127/