Sino-Russian Alignment in Reality: The Case of Central Asia
Mollie Saltskog and Paul Wasserman
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday, January 29, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, when unveiling the latest U.S. Worldwide Threat Assessment report warned that “Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is closer than it has been in many decades,” The statement and report has spurred heated debate over the nature of Sino-Russian relations and President Trump’s disdain of the Intelligence Community, and its implications for U.S. national security. Much of the analysis takes a macro perspective, discussing what the Assessment tells us about the future of the 21st Century world-order.
When it comes to China and Russia’s foreign policy, however, a Beijing-Moscow axis in practice is a much more complex reality, marred with competition in each state’s traditional spheres of influence. Central Asia exemplifies the intricate Sino-Russian relationship and illustrates that while there are significant short-term opportunities for cooperation and shared goals in attacking an American-led world order, a long-term alignment is hindered by fundamentally different strategic objectives. In short, on the ground, the explanation cannot be simplified as Russia and China in complete lockstep against the United States.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – remained to varying degrees within Russia’s close sphere of influence. Ever since its lengthy military conquests in the 19th century, Russia has historically viewed Central Asia as its backyard. Today, Russia remains heavily invested as the security guarantor, with Russian bases located in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In fact, reports suggest that in August 2018, Russian aircraft based in Tajikistan conducted a cross-border airstrike in northeastern Afghanistan against suspected Taliban militants. Given Russia’s recent history of terrorist attacks, Moscow has focused efforts on preventing terrorist safe havens in Central Asia.
Since the collapse of the USSR, Sino-Central Asian relations have been characterized by a mutual desire for security and stability. China views the Central Asian states as pivotal in the fight against the ‘three evils’ - terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism - and fears that any instability in Central Asia could destabilize China’s west, which would not only threaten the “One China” dream, but also China’s gateway to Eurasia and energy security. Rolling out the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia serves these Chinese interests and provides an economic incentive for the Central Asian States to crack down on China’s ‘three evils’ While the success of BRI hinges on Beijing furthering its political and economic interests in landlocked Central Asia, China’s growing influence in the region threatens Russia’s long-established sphere of influence.
For now, Moscow and Beijing have opted for a marriage of convenience in Central Asia: Beijing foots the majority of the bill for economic development, while Russia dominates the security sphere. Indeed, this arrangement stems from a mutual desire to exclude the West. For Moscow, Chinese influence in Russia’s perceived backyard is the lesser of two evils—better Beijing than Washington.
Still, the marriage is not without its looming troubles: Chinese-funded natural gas pipelines through Central Asia provide the former Soviet Republics with a market and transportation network that cuts out Russia. Just as Moscow laments the loss of influence in Eastern Europe, growing Chinese economic and diplomatic clout threaten to displace Russia’s role in Central Asia. For a country that so clearly cares for its perception as a great power, losing influence in its ‘near abroad’ is yet another sign of its diminished stature.
The areas of competition in Central Asia between Beijing and Moscow are only likely to increase in the coming years, especially as China will start to infringe on Russia’s security sphere. BRI not only brings benefits, but also serious security challenges: threats to infrastructure and Chinese personnel from non-state actors and terrorist organizations, growing anti-Chinese sentiment, corruption, and organized crime to name a few. Central Asia is a hotbed for all of these security challenges. A failure on Beijing’s part to protect Chinese interests abroad will be viewed as a failure of President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to assert influence on the international stage.
In light of this, Beijing is increasingly privatizing its security efforts in Central Asia and along the BRI. Most recently, Eric Prince’s private security contractor, FRG, has agreed to open a training camp in Tumxuk, a town in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, 100 miles from the Kyrgyz border as the crow flies. Beijing has also taken a more aggressive leadership role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), by pledging to train 2,000 SCO-member states’ forces in counterterrorism tactics. For Moscow, and its regional Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), this is a worrying sign of shifting allegiances.
Historically, Russia and China have been competitors, with territorial disputes ranging back hundreds of years. For much of the 20th century, China was treated as the lesser communist power by the Soviet Union. Today, Russian and Chinese foreign policy strategies starkly diverge: the former using increased aggression abroad to gain political favor at home, while the latter is ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’—patiently and methodically trying to build an image as a peaceful and responsible global player.
Indeed, the case of a Sino-Russian entente, as outlined by Coats, will be in terms of countering what is perceived as U.S. unilateralism, interventionism and attempts by Washington to constrain Beijing and Moscow’s aspirations. Like the report points out, such alignment will especially take place in the sphere of Science and Technology—democratization of space, cyber threats, emerging technologies, and big data—and military modernization. When opportunities arise to counter U.S. influence, the Sino-Russian marriage of convenience will flourish. A recent example is Syria: as the U.S. prepares to withdraw, China is ready to step in to help Assad, Russia, and Iran with post-conflict reconstruction.
However, when the U.S. does not serve as a common foil to unite China and Russia, the durability of cooperation is harder to envision. In Central Asia, as America’s presence in Afghanistan and Syria begin to wind down, counter-terrorism and security are left as the remaining confluences of interest for China and Russia. Yet, with approaches to countering violent extremism that infringe on each other’s spheres of influence, their different foreign policy objectives make long-term cooperation difficult to envision.
All opinions are authors’ own and do not reflect the stance of affiliated organizations and individuals.