Maria Merkulova's Blog

“New Great Game” players: Russia and China

February 18, 2013

In previous article we pointed out that players of a “New Great Game” are usually divided into two groups - US, UK and NATO, and Russia, China and SCO. As we described principles that form US strategy, it’s necessary to do the same thing with those who play on the “other side”of the game. Russia’s and China’s strategies are different, thus we can not call it the “SCO strategy” combining them in one.

The most important thing one need to bear in mind, reviewing Russia’s and China’s approach to CA is the predominance of bilateral agreements. This is essential for understanding that Russia and China are not treating CA as one consolidated region, building relationships with every CA state separately from other, both having for it their own reasons.

Russian “strategy”

The term “strategy” in Russia’s relationships with CA is usually misused, because there isn’t any. What really exists is a set of practices on how to deal with each CA country. Russian perception of reality in case of CA is opposite to US one - if US is living in Future, Russia is leaving in Past. President Putin in 2012 said that Russia need to develop and extend it’s relationship with CIS countries, but the CIS project is no longer working, as also OSCE (one may think also of SCO, but it sure is much more China’s instrument than Russia’s). The model of dealing with CA through regional organization is no longer relevant for Russia. One important thought must be also taken into account when trying to understand Russian policy in CA - from five Post-Soviet CA states only Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan remain friendly to Russia, and the former tries to demonstrate to everyone this bought loyalty, which is evidently alive only while Russia has money to buy it. The problem behind this lack of strategy lies deeply in Russia’s perception of CA as a part of Russia.

This “imperial” view on CA leads to following ideas which configure Russia’s relationships with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: CA as a buffer zone and CA as a sphere of interest.

Legacy of Russian Empire is not hard to understand - CA was perceived as an outpost - these territories were governed in a specific scheme. Cossacks were sent to protect the borders, but the territories were mostly self-governed (particularly part of Kazakhstan and Northern Kyrgyzstan, because they went under Empire’s protectorate by their own will, the state law in this case was different from the law for conquered ones) because borders were more important than what happened inside them. Moving borders deeper inside the core of the continent showed strength and created this “buffer zone” between Russia and any force that emerges down the continent. Soviet period changed this perception by including CA people and territories in the big communist project, so the whole territory was united for the purpose of gaining a great common ambition. Collapse of USSR left new Russian state without this “buffer zone” leading to creation of several regional initiatives as CIS, OSCE and SCO. Idea of a “buffer zone” is responsible not only for Russia’s participation in anti drug-trafficking policies of CA states but also a reason, why CA stability and security is worth interference.

The issue of influence in CA rises inevitably when a region so close to Russia historically and geographically faces independence, need for money and nation-building. This brings us to the “sphere of interest” part of Russia’s perception of CA. Inasmuch as CA states were and are in need for aid and investment Russia’s goal is to keep them as allies giving them what they need. It’s a natural fear that CA countries will find help somewhere else, but it is not only the fear of some external force (for example US), it’s also a fear that CA countries can form a proper region and become stronger, in no need of Russia’s help it’s unclear whose political ally can CA be. This particular fear might be the main reason of dealing with CA countries separately: such model helps Russia to limit the amount of cooperation between CA states.

Russia’s approach to CA states is not based only on some past imperial experience, it’s also mirrors the worldview of a person, who constructs the framework for this relationship - we had Primakov’s era in 1990 and Chubais’s idea of “liberal empire” in the beginning of 2000. Now we have president Putin’s view, which is “Eurasianism”. Putin bears the idea of not only creating common trade space in the framework of Customs Union, he also is inclined to the idea of a one state “to rule them all”. Taking into account that no CA state will go for it, this idea seems really far-fetched, but he tries to propose in to Kazakhstan along with the common currency.

Chinese view

Talking about Chinese plans for Central Asia one needs to take into account that “Chinese threat” is often strongly exaggerated. We can not say there is no such, but we also have not enough evidence to show that this threat is as big as it is pictured by media. The issues of China’s predispositions in relations with CA countries are based on the concept of sufficiency, this makes China the only one player in the “Game” we are describing who has economical reasons over geopolitical rivalry.

As was mentioned in the previous article, Chinese main concern is energy resources - for that purpose it builds roads, pipelines and railroads in Central Asia - to get this energy resources cheaper and by more safe path then by sea.The second great issue that form Chinese policy in CA is an idea of penetration into Central Asian markets. In the middle of 2000 China was trying to mire CA states into free trade zones, the aspiration which was not admired by CA states leaders. For that idea didn’t succeed China started getting involved in joint ventures, getting to the desirable market not from the outside, but from the inside. This two goals both do not require interstate cooperation of CA countries, it’s ample to have only two-party agreements, which is exactly what China is doing.

Besides purely economical reasons, China seems to bear in mind an idea, that it’s participation in developing of the region will help to form a better stable environment for amplifying economic growth in it’s own northern regions like Shinjan. Again, all that we have evidence for is a growing (not without obstacles) economical interest - no nation-building mission and no historical predispositions are driving China into the “Great New Game”.

Both China and Russia have interests in Central Asia and both of them try to rationalize their involvement in the region. Short-term, models of relationships described above can exist and even be necessary and decent. But Russia needs to understand, that CA countries will not always be willing to get her financial help, and as some russian scholars are suggestion - should invest more in collaborative projects in industry, services and even tourism, since it will provide more long-term relationships with the region. As for China’s strategy - China has to be ready that security threats after NATO’s withdrawal from afghanistan can make it’s business projects harder to carry on. Once there was a joke that Russia and US have been to Afghanistan, and now it’s China’s turn. Though Chinese experts aren’t laughing and keep telling that “it’s not going to happen”, China is in need for a security strategy in CA, and the same is for also relevant for Russia.

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