The idea of a Eurasian Union was first mooted in 1994 by President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. But his vision extended only as far as a common trading bloc—not the political union he fears is Putin’s true goal. At his insistence, the Eurasian Union was renamed the Eurasian Economic Union. At a pro-Kremlin youth camp held at Lake Seliger near Moscow in August 2014, Putin declared that “Kazakhs had never had statehood” and that Kazakhstan was ultimately part of the Russki mir—“Russian world”. “Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence,” Nazarbayev retorted, angrily, on state television.
But it was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that really caused jitters in Astana. Kazakhstan has much in common with Ukraine: 22% of its people are ethnically Russian, rising to more than 40% in the cities along its northern border with Russia. Many Russians basically view northern Kazakhstan as Russian territory, just as they do Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. In a rare show of public defiance ahead of the EEU treaty negotiations, 500 protesters marched through the leafy streets of Almaty appealing against membership. After more than a century of being ruled from Moscow, the people of Kazakhstan—like their former comrades in western Ukraine—guard their independence fiercely.Political analysts in Kazakhstan believe that Russia’s aggressive attempt to enlarge its sphere of influence has handed the geopolitical initiative to Beijing. “Crimea has weakened Russia,” says Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asian Studies Centre at Almaty’s KIMEP University.
Aidar Azerbayev, an academic at Almaty’s Institute for World Economics and Politics, agrees. “Ukraine strengthens Xi Jinping’s hand,” he told me over dinner in a local restaurant. “China can loosen Russia’s embrace in Central Asia and present its vision of a new Silk Road as a more open alternative.”
President Nazarbayev made Kazakhstan’s position quite clear at the EEU treaty signing, in comments clearly directed at Putin: “We see the EEU as an open economic community, organically plugged into global communications and as a reliable bridge between Europe and growing Asia.” Kazakhstan is positioning itself as the crossroads of Eurasia, where it is determined to balance competing external interests. “We are landlocked and remote from world markets, so we need better connectivity,” Timur Zhaxylykov, vice minister of economy and budget planning, told me on the sidelines of the ADB’s 2014 annual meeting, held in Astana. “Roads, rail links and pipelines mean we can have direct access to China, the second-biggest and fastest-growing market in the world,” he added, almost singing from Beijing’s hymnbook.
So if Putin’s dream of Eurasian integration is likely to fail, how much space does that leave for China to push its own agenda in Central Asia? On a hot morning in Bishkek, I put this question to Talant Sultanov, then the head of the national strategic studies think tank. “China has considerable economic power, but it does not want to annoy Russia,” he told me in a dingy Soviet-era building on Kiev Street. “Their leaders’ message is this: ‘We want our neighbours to be stable and prosperous, and that will be good for China. If we grow together, it will be beneficial for both sides. But we have no ambition to take over.’”
Central Asian countries are in a delicate position—economically reliant on China, but militarily dependent on Russia. Russia remains the only credible security force in the region: its troops provided stability in the wake of interethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan and they patrol Tajikistan’s porous border with Afghanistan, a hotbed of Islamic extremism and a haven for drug trafficking. The Moscow-driven Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has proven a much more effective security organization than the Beijing-backed SCO, which has few resources and limited relevance.
Culturally, too, Central Asia is much closer to Russia. This is true even at the eastern-most fringe of the old Soviet Union. Just thirty minutes from the Chinese border at Khorgos, the Kakakhstani town of Zharkent owes its relative prosperity to trade with the giant economy next door: its streets are lined with trucks and its bazaar filled with goods from China. Every morning, residents stream to the border to process shipments or work in the customs department. Yet even here, I could find no one who spoke Chinese. As they do across most towns in Central Asia, people spoke Russian in addition to their ethnic tongue. Kazakhs, Uyghurs and Slavs all share a Russified culture alongside their individual ethnic identities. One lesson from Zharkent is that Russia’s cultural tentacles run deeper in Central Asia than do China’s in large parts of Xinjiang, where few Uyghurs ever master the Chinese language.
For all China’s growing economic muscle, its soft power remains minimal. Beijing has opened Confucius Institutes across Central Asia and offered thousands of scholarships to its universities. In Osh, I visited the local Confucius Institute, housed on the top floor of a handsome, pillared Soviet-era building at Osh State University. It has 170 students, who file past a bronze bust of China’s ancient sage and through a red doorway decorated with red Chinese lanterns. But the proportion of Chinese speakers in Central Asia is still tiny. For more than 99% of its people, China and its language are entirely alien. This will take many decades to change, if indeed it changes at all.
The evidence was a summit in Moscow in May 2015, when Putin and Xi signed a joint declaration to coordinate the development of EEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt. Rather than setting out two competing visions, they agreed to build a “common economic space” in Eurasia that included a free trade agreement between the EEU and China. The new thinking in Moscow and Beijing is that the two projects should be viewed as complementary. For Chinese exporters, the existence of a single trade bloc running from the Chinese border all the way to the EU will save time and money along the Silk Road Economic Belt. For its part, Russia will look to China to help upgrade and finance its own infrastructure, starting with a 770-km high-speed rail line between Moscow and the southern city of Kazan. The project, which is expected to cost more than US$15 billion, will cut the journey time between the two cities from 12 hours to three and a half hours. Beijing is reportedly ready to back the line with a US$6 billion loan.
What Russia’s change of heart really shows is a new geopolitical reality: that, post-Ukraine, it needs China far more than China needs it. When Moscow signed a long-delayed US$400 billion deal to deliver Russian gas to Chinese consumers in 2014, it did so because it needed to find an alternative market to Europe. With its economy tottering under the pressure of Western sanctions, it was forced to look east for energy deals and political alliances. But the very public “friendship” between President Xi and President Putin is a tactical alignment based on mutual pragmatism, nothing more: China and Russia play up their common interests in public, but their “strategic partnership” is still pervaded by mistrust and rivalry. A former Kazakhstani diplomat, interviewed by the International Crisis Group, colourfully described the relationship between China and Russia in the SCO as a “dance of the mongoose and the cobra”.
At a bilateral summit in Astana in October 2015, China and Kazakhstan agreed to expand inter-military cooperation on common security concerns, such as combating terrorism. Kazakhstan’s defence minister told his Chinese counterpart that they shared a common desire to ensure stability in Central Asia. This was an intriguing development, because the bilateral relationship had previously only been about economic linkages. What it suggests is that Kazakhstan remains wary of Russia’s political ambitions, and is willing to upgrade its political relationship with China to hedge against further Eurasian integration.
China’s expansion into Central Asia over the past decade was primarily driven by economic opportunism rather than by diplomatic strategy—by the promise of oil, gas and new markets for Chinese goods. But Xi Jinping’s vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt marks a diplomatic step-change: China is now actively seeking to increase its clout over its western borders. In time, it is logical that China’s deepening economic presence will translate into greater political leverage, whether Russia likes it or not. This will surely test the China–Russia relationship, which Beijing’s ambassador in Moscow claims is now “as close as lips and teeth”—a phrase once used by Chairman Mao to describe China’s relationship with North Korea.
There is one caveat to this conclusion. Beijing’s position among the ruling elites of Central Asia is solid, but Chinese firms and the immigrants they bring with them are deeply unpopular—a state of affairs that recalls China’s position in Myanmar a few years ago. Until 2011, Beijing and state-owned enterprises were happy to work closely with Myanmar’s generals, and Chinese firms were set to build new roads, railways and power lines. But when the military junta was dissolved, popular protest was rapidly redirected at Chinese firms. With several major infrastructure projects cancelled or on hold, Beijing has yet to regain its footing in its former client state. In Central Asia, too, it must beware popular blowback. If Beijing’s authoritarian friends were ever replaced by populist regimes, China’s inexorable march westwards could grind to a halt.
This is an extract from China’s Asian Dream, written by Tom Miller.
Putin, by the Presidential Press and Information Office
Meeting with representatives of the Russia-ASEAN Business Forum ASEAN Business Forum, by the Presidential Press and Information Office