An Aggregate of Converging Interests

27 december 2012

Should Russia Fear China’s Growing Influence in Central Asia?

Vitaly Vorobyov is a senior research fellow at the Center for East Asia and SCO Studies at the Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He is also Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.

Resume: China is determined to have its voice clearly heard on Central Asian affairs and to keep the SCO’s attention focused on the region, not diluted. This is evidenced by China’s firm stance on a number of pressing issues.

As the center of gravity in global development shifts towards the Asia-Pacific region, the political significance of Central Asia as Eurasia’s geopolitical core increases. China’s rapidly evolving cooperation with this region becomes increasingly tight. But what interests lie behind this process? And how lasting can such cooperation be?


Central Asia is strategically important for China’s national security. Along with Russia, China considers this region its backyard, an unyielding foothold in the face of an increasingly disturbing shift in the U.S. military focus to the Pacific where Sino-American competition keeps growing. China’s concern about increased Western activity with regard to Central Asia becomes ever more noticeable as the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain.

Faced with a serious shortage of resources and with marketing problems, China links its far-reaching plans with Central Asian countries which are rich in mineral resources and which badly need financial and trade partners free of ideological fixations. Beijing’s decision to assert itself in the region is not a tactical maneuver but a long-term choice. China deftly takes advantage of the drive for broader cooperation advocated by Central Asian countries which often orchestrate clashes between foreign players in a bid to get certain benefits for themselves. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union the need for economic contacts with China was necessitated by the absence of alternatives as the region had long been abandoned by Russia. Western countries stepped up their activities at that time, but their human rights and democratic inclinations put the newly born elites on guard.

With no tangible industrial products to offer, Central Asian countries got down to monetizing their territories, that is, putting mineral and energy sources on the market, allotting land for major pipelines, railroads and highways, and building infrastructure facilities. Beijing used that cleverly and prudently for its own benefit. It literally stormed into Central Asian countries, offering its own projects and at the same time picking up local ones. This makes the whole region a transit space for China which it hopes will take it to the Transcaucasia and farther on to Europe, to the Middle East and the Mediterranean; to the Persian Gulf via Iran and to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan (in fact, the Great Silk Road is coming back to life on a new technological basis). In other words, this creates promising Eurasian corridors for China, which are faster and less expensive than the northern Russian routes which already operate at full capacity.

In addition, Central Asian countries have become major long-term suppliers of resources to China and guaranteed consumers of its goods. In fact, China gets considerable volumes of oil and non-ferrous metals, and more than half of imported natural gas from this region at suitable prices.

The commercial and economic interests of China and Central Asian countries have converged quite closely. Beijing is committed to creating an “open border belt” by encouraging sub-regional integration de-facto. There are about 30 border crossing points in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region alone, more than there are on the entire Russian-Chinese border. Trade turnover has increased more than 100-fold over the past twenty years, thus laying a solid foundation for ties between China and Central Asia. China will seek to strengthen them further and will do so forcefully and rigorously, playing for high stakes with a focus on its own strategic needs. It seems that China considers the material aspect of these ties a significant part of its domestic sustainable growth and development programs rather than an addition to the economy.

First of all, China’s activities largely facilitate socioeconomic development, higher employment and better education in Central Asian countries by helping to “draw together” the region which is still being pulled apart by centrifugal tendencies. And yet, free targeted aid notwithstanding, Chinese are far from being altruists. Large investments and loans are, as a rule, conditioned on the purchase of Chinese equipment and machinery, and thus help maintain fairly high economic growth rates in China.



A specific element of the China-Central Asia bond is China’s political and economic system with “Chinese-tinted socialism.” The nature of this model is similar to that of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s. This explains why at the turn of the 1980s there were fierce debates in China not only about the history of its Communist Party after 1949 and Mao Zedong’s role but also about the views of Vladimir Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin and their supporters and opponents on NEP and ways to build the Soviet state. Speaking about an inevitable long period of “peaceful coexistence” between Soviet Russia and states with other social systems, Lenin linked this aspect of “the drastic revision of views on socialism” to NEP (which should be pursued “seriously and for a long time”) and to the need to apply the “mercantile approach” to trade and economic ties with the outside world. The constructive processes consonant with the idea of adapting NEP to China’s specific needs, which sprang out of the ruin of the Cultural Revolution, and contemporary realities and perceptions have merged together into a single concept consisting of three elements.

First, selective and measured use of market levers in the economy, broad incorporation into the global division of labor, cautious borrowing of foreign experience, and creation of attractive conditions for foreign investments. This approach enabled China to make the “Great Leap Forward” and become one of the global development leaders. Suffice it to say that China’s economy showed no signs of fall during the severe world crisis of 2008-2009, and its GDP gained 9.2% (while Russia’s grew by 4.3%) in 2011, even though there is a gradual downward trend induced by the global economic situation.

Second, the state remained at the helm and continued long-term planning under the guidance of the Communist Party, with a seriously updated ideology. Political reforms, however, appear to be less dynamic than the economic ones as the country adheres to the “groping for stones to cross the river” approach aimed at ensuring social stability for its population of almost 1.5 billion during major transformations in the material sector and under the inevitable influence of openness and globalization in the non-material sphere.

Third is a foreign policy underlain by, and attending to, the two above-mentioned factors. It stems from the ideology of pragmatism and rationality (an interpretation of the Chinese philosophical principle of “Shishi qiushi,” or “Seek truth from facts,” used by Deng Xiaoping in the heat of discussions in the late 1970s).

Essentially, this is a principle of peaceful co-existence adapted to modern conditions and current international law. Its basic postulates – non-interference in internal affairs, respect for a nation’s social system and methods of development, equality and mutual benefit, resolution of problems by political methods, encouragement of good-neighborliness – are the backbone of China’s partnership strategy, including with regard to Central Asian countries. Recently, this policy has been supplemented with a call for harmonization of society and international cooperation.

The positive nature of China’s partnership strategy came home to the ruling elites of Central Asian countries, who adopted many elements of the three-pronged Chinese model as their benchmarks. Whether this happened because of the feeling of abandonment after the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union, or their own perception of the world as independent but inexperienced players, or their realization of responsibility that had grown immensely, all these factors require a separate study. What is obvious right now is that, faced with the tough need to “learn to swim while swimming,” the ruling elites saw that China was not turning away from them and was not taking advantage of the situation in order to interfere patronizingly, but on the contrary was offering if not friendship then help. This could not but bring about a reciprocal reaction. Cautiousness remained but prejudices were pushed farther away, while interests drew nearer.

The creation in 2001 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a non-allied political body, lent an institutional dimension to the China-Central Asia tandem. The interests of six founding countries (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) had converged through a common understanding of the acute need for joint efforts to deal with global challenges and threats (international terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking) and ensure maximum stability for the development of Central Asia. The dramatically increased threat from Afghanistan galvanized the countries into action.

With the help of the SCO Beijing legitimized its voice in affairs concerning this region. This is stipulated by the Organization’s Charter and other documents, as well as the very mechanism and style of its operation. For example, the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good-Neighborliness of 2007 not only contains mutual guarantees of territorial integrity, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and non-use of their territory for purposes hostile to the other parties, but it also sets forth far-reaching political commitments. They will most likely be spelled out in the SCO medium-term development strategy, which was first approached at the summit in Beijing in 2012.



China is determined to have its voice clearly heard on Central Asian affairs and to keep the SCO’s attention focused on the region, not diluted. This is evidenced by China’s firm stance on a number of pressing issues.

First, Beijing is perfectly aware that Afghanistan is turning into a headache for the SCO again. The Organization cannot distance itself from this problem, as seen from its decision to give Afghanistan the status of observer in 2012, which was adopted with the active support of China. But should the SCO assume the role of the main external actor in Afghan settlement after 2014 and by so doing facilitate the transfer of the problem from the international, U.N., level to the regional one? The answer to this question is important both by itself and in terms of the China-Central Asia bond. One of the reasons for this is that it involves the West-Central Asian relationship that may appear to be dubious for China’s own interests when the bulk of American and coalition forces pull out of Afghanistan through these countries. In addition, Beijing seems to be wary of the destabilization in the region in the wake of chaos and belligerent Islam coming from the Middle East. (The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region factor is taking its toll).

Second is China’s balanced approach to the enlargement of the SCO’s “core.” It is underlain by its reasonable concern that once it gets underway this process will inevitably lead to continuous changes in the balance of power within this “core.”

Third, the economic dimension of the SCO, which China insists should be invigorated, remains largely opaque. Five of the founding countries (excluding China) are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Since Belarus already has the status of observer in the SCO, and Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan have stated their intention to join the organization, it may eventually encompass practically all of the CIS member-states where a free trade zone is being created. Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are on the way to forming a Eurasian Economic Union by 2015 (some of the SCO Central Asian states may join them). The participants in the latest APEC summit, held in Vladivostok in September 2012, reiterated their commitment to a free trade zone in the Pacific and approved a list of goods for which import duties would be reduced by 5% (Russia and China are among the participants). Moscow received many proposals regarding free trade zones, including with China and India. And Beijing is now talking about a currency union within APEC.

How does this correlate with the SCO program for a gradual transition to a free flow of capital, goods and services by 2020, which has not been revised and still remains in force? It is doubtful that China will passively wait for a “strapontin” for itself as a detached observer in some associations or allow the material dimension of the China-Central Asia bond to be attenuated.

And there are also Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Iran, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. For everyone to be actively engaged in business cooperation within the SCO there must be something more tangible than just memoranda of intent or general documents. The SCO needs to understand which countries cooperate on concrete projects and which develop integration mechanisms (this applies only to member-states), how pre-project efforts (it was Russia’s idea to create a support fund) and selected projects (it was China’s initiative to create the Development Bank) are financed. Without this understanding, relevant SCO mechanisms will hardly produce the desired results – either at the multilateral or, eventually, at the bilateral level.

These and a number of other factors underscore the need for internal fine-tuning within the SCO in order to ensure its largely intensive development. A broader geographical outreach and an abundance of external realities necessitate proper rearrangement of management, primarily in the SCO’s principal body, Secretariat, which has been dormant since its creation. It should turn from a purely recording and registering office into a functional integrator that will consolidate the efforts of all subdivisions (the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, a future counternarcotics mechanism, the Business Council, the Inter-Bank Association, the Scientific Forum, the Youth Council, as well as a committee on friendship and good-neighborliness, the creation of which was recently proposed by Beijing). The China-Central Asia bond will be critical for deciding in which direction the SCO should develop further.

Can Central Asian states give up this bond? It is unlikely that all of them will do so, but there may be tensions with some of them. The degree of cooperation may vary insignificantly, but on the whole these countries wish not only to maintain relations with Beijing but also to develop them further.

Some negative forecasts suggest two scenarios but with the same ending: inevitable Chinese aggression. The first one proceeds from the assumption that the growth of any country’s combined power is aimed at creating the material basis for an offensive policy, including armed annexation of territories. In other words, all peaceful foreign policy declarations made by the Chinese leadership, its diplomatic practices and the signing of binding political agreements is only a cover which Beijing can throw away whenever it sees fit. This makes China untrustworthy. It is believed that its transformation into a first-rate global power is dangerous for the world and may even be fraught with a blitzkrieg against neighboring countries in a not so distant future.

There is no doubt that any state always projects its power outward, especially when it protects its national interests. Naturally, every country should be vigilant and watchful, have reasonably sufficient military capabilities and maintain them in constant readiness and proper condition. The bigger a country, the bigger and more diverse technologically its capabilities must be. But experience shows that in the modern world it is not so easy or so clearly beneficial to secure one’s influence through military escapades. As for China, it shows no obvious desire or convincing symptoms for giving up the policy of partnership, including with Central Asia. In fact, why would Beijing do this? And how could it benefit from doing that? It would, indeed, suffer irreparable reputation damage and devastating material losses, if it did.

The second scenario suggests that some mounting crisis inside the country may prod China to expand. Such forecasts have been made for nearly 30 years, in fact since Den Xiaoping’s days, especially on the eve of major reshuffles in China’s top party and government ranks that happen every ten years. Lately, difficulties in preparing the XVIII Congress of the Communist Party of China (November 2012) coupled with the negative impact of the global financial and economic crisis. Beijing is well aware of the need for serious measures as evidenced by broad and public discussions, and by regulatory efforts taken by the leadership. However no one raises the question of backtracking from the basic principles, let alone scrapping them, just because history has allegedly proved them wrong. Proposals made and measures taken do not go beyond minor, albeit serious in meaning and intent, adjustments to the model, which still is not a mobilization model. A U-turn would mean the rejection not so much of its foreign policy dimension – policy of partnership – as of all of its essential features. This would create a situation where the medicine – military expansion – would kill the patient. Irrespective of who is in the leadership of China, it is very doubtful that it can lose its bearings in time and space.

Despite a certain economic slowdown and growing social tensions, China has a lot of strength. The advantages of its current model lie in the commitment to continuous self-improvement and the ability to adapt and to use soft power (on which Beijing puts a high value). All this means a moderate stance on foreign policy issues and prioritized attention to strengthening good-neighborliness along the “backyard’s” perimeter. In this respect, the China-Central Asia bond, along with the Russian dimension, appears to be an important factor that keeps the Chinese model in a state of dynamic stability. From the political perspective, this model, as an indivisible totality of its key components, is strategically beneficial for both China and its neighbors.

The other scenario suggests that the SCO should be regarded as a step towards a Eurasian military-political union, which would serve as an external form for Russia’s neo-imperial great-power project. Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov spoke about this in August 2012 at the first meeting of the Izborsk Club. The utopian nature of this idea does not diminish its harmfulness for the future of the SCO, for Russia’s position in it, and for Russian-Chinese relations. The organization cannot and will not want to make a voluntary U-turn either in terms of composition or philosophy in order to become a mechanism of submission to the interests of one country, an association driven by conspicuous confrontational and anti-Western motives. Clearly, this will leave no room for the China-Central Asia bond. However, in reality such a union could actually tighten this bond as a means of rebuffing attempts to change the nature of the SCO. As a result, the SCO political domain will be turned against Russia as neighboring countries will take cooperation with China as a guarantee against Moscow’s new forceful policy.


Lately, the Russian Federation has been consistently stating the seriousness of its intention to restore an active presence in Central Asia, both political and economic. This will create two bonds in the region – one with China and the other one with Russia. Are they at odds with each other?

Russia and China have identical political concerns about security and stability in Central Asia. This testifies to their close and fruitful interaction on the entire array of SCO issues. And no signs of antagonism can be seen there. Culturally, the region is and will be unique with regard to both powers, which makes any standoff between Russia and China in this respect highly unlikely. There are only two areas where Moscow and Beijing may compete: economy, which is inevitable and natural; and soft power, that is, peaceful competition of their images (for which Russia is just making a slow start). And yet, in both of these instances Russia and China may pool their efforts under concrete projects, be it within the SCO or elsewhere.

Artificial demarcation or dividing lines will lead nowhere, and the two countries have to get along with each other, avoiding public hegemony claims. The trusting strategic partnership between Russia and China gives such hope. As for the Central Asian countries, they are certainly not minor actors but mutually complementary factors that prove their sovereign intrinsic value and help create advantageous conditions for their socio-economic development based on their own perceptions.

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