Perizat RISBEK KIZI
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Sino-Russian partnership in Central Asia gained a more perspective and comprehensive dimension. According to many observers, Russian-Chinese relations in the region have been characterized by an informal division of the sphere of influence, with Russia leading military and security issues and China acting as an engine of economic growth, particularly within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.
It is important to point out that China and Russia are linked to different interests in Central Asia. With the US and NATO military forces leaving neighboring Afghanistan, Russia and China are increasing their aid to Central Asian countries to strengthen their borders. While many analysts argue that China’s increased activation in Central Asian security could lead to hostility or conflict between the two powers, relations between Moscow and Beijing continue to evolve dynamically, thanks to coordinated regional security efforts.
In this context, The Asia Today brings to your attention the views of Central Asia expert Chinara Esengul to learn more about the current state of Russian-Chinese relations in the region.
Ms. Esengul, as we know, Russia and China, the main foreign actors in Central Asia, are constantly deepening their cooperation in the political, military and economic fields. How do you evaluate the general situation of Russian-Chinese relations in Central Asia today?
Relationships are very good; I can say the best level of the relationship to date. The main task for these countries is to protect the pace of developing cooperation and trust-based relations. In 1996, Russia and China have signed a partnership agreement, but lately, it has often been stated that it is necessary to go further and form an alliance or union. However, both countries think that the “strategic partnership, not an alliance” formula is optimal. I also think that this is the best option for the relationship that corresponds to do geopolitical and economic trends of the modern world. The Union, in turn, foresees a strength rapprochement and tougher standards against each other. China and Russia will only be able to accept such a rapprochement if relations with the West deteriorate.
Recently, China’s increasing mobility in the security of Central Asia is also on the agenda. Therefore, according to some political experts, Beijing’s policy may be the reason for the Sino-Russian geopolitical rivalry in the region. Do you think China is pursuing a coordinated policy with Russia or are there contradictions?
First, we need to clarify what we mean by “security” and how we understand the possible roles external actors can play in terms of national or regional security. The simplest definition of security is the state of being protected from external and internal threats. In my opinion, China is interested in increasing the potential of the Central Asian countries to fight the “three evil forces” – terrorism, extremism and separatism. In this context, China provides technical support and conducts joint exercises with SCO member countries. I think that this policy of China is compatible with Russia.
As for internal threats in Central Asian countries, China is not included there. Whereas, Russia, as we all know and observe, has an influence on the domestic political agenda of the countries, especially when it comes to the role of the Russian language and the position of the Russian-speaking population in the countries of the region.
So which factors can explain the lack of “direct competition” between Russia and China in Central Asia?
The most important factor that prevents “direct competition” is the understanding that competition with each other will weaken these countries. This is what the West, especially the USA, wants. It is clear that the more opposition there is in US-China, US-Russian relations, the closer China and Russia will be to each other. Another factor is the complementarity of roles, with Russia as the region’s “security guarantor”, while China acts as the basis for economic development.
Ms. Esengul, what role do you think the bilateral partnership between Russia and China has played in stabilizing the Afghan crisis?
The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan thanks to the support of China and Russia. However, I think that China supports the domination of the Taliban more than Russia in order to implement its economic projects within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Especially the most ambitious project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is estimated to be worth 62 billion dollars by 2020. This is China’s serious investment and for this, it must secure the stability and loyalty of the regimes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given the historical closeness of the relations between the Taliban Movement and Pakistani power structures, it is clear that China and Pakistan will work with the Taliban as much as possible to ensure that the Taliban fulfil their obligations and ensure the security of China’s strategic economic projects.
Russia will support the Taliban regime, especially in the international arena, together with China, for example, to lift sanctions against the Taliban. At the same time, Russia will try to get maximum assurance from the Taliban regarding the control of the activities of other radical terrorist organizations that pose a threat to Central Asian countries such as DAESH. In this respect, Russia will play a leading role in the field of security and in the political-diplomatic dimension. China will also focus on ensuring the implementation of its economic projects that will have a positive impact on the socio-economic situation in Afghanistan.