The Sunday Guardian|May 28, 2023

While Russia faces increasing international isolation, it has a wealthy and willing trading partner in China


So now we know. While Moscow is engaged in its futile attempt to take over Ukraine, Xi Jinping is doing his utmost to sneakily spread China’s influence in Russia’s backyard. So much for that famous “friendship without limits” between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. This friendship is turning out to be as phoney as Xi Jinping’s smile.

This is not to say that both sides haven’t gained substantially from their trading relationship. At a time of increasing international isolation, Russia has a wealthy and willing trading partner, providing it with an economic lifeline by buying its energy at heavy discounts. Trade between the two countries has surged since the start of the invasion. On Tuesday, Russia’s Prime Minister Mishustin said bilateral trade could reach $200 billion this year, up from $190 billion in 2022. Russian energy shipments to China are projected to rise by 40 percent this year, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency. Already in the first three months of this year, trade between China and Russia reached $53.8 billion, an almost 40 percent increase on the same period in 2022.

While Russia is concentrating on security provisions in its relationship with China, Beijing is primarily focused on economic development. The relationship is therefore more one of expediency, each side legitimising the other internationally with ties which are largely defined in opposition to the West. But this is not friendship in the traditional sense. A true friend doesn’t take advantage of the other’s weakness, as Xi Jinping is clearly doing to Vladimir Putin in Central Asia.

All was revealed at the China-Central Asia Conference which concluded on 19 May in Xi’an, in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. The Chinese president and leaders of the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, signed a declaration outlining their support for each other as Beijing looks to strengthen ties with its neighbours from the former Soviet Union. This was the first such meeting in person; the previous two had been held virtually. The summit marked the 31st anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and the former Soviet republics, countries that traditionally have been within Russia’s sphere of influence. In recent years Beijing has been increasingly active in Central Asia, and with Moscow now heavily preoccupied with its prolonged and so far unsuccessful war in Ukraine, Beijing is poised to secure its lead in the region once and for all.

The choice of Xi’an for the conference was particularly significant. Previously known as Chang’an, the city marked the eastern end of the ancient Silk Road. Today’s “Silk Roads” include the highway linking China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as the China Tajikistan highway. There’s also an important natural gas pipeline linking Central Asia with China. During ancient times, camel trains were the form of transport; nowadays it is freight trains and non-stop flights.

Recognising the huge potential of cooperation, the six countries agreed to comprehensively increase the scale of trade and expand collaboration in emerging fields such as digital trade and the green economy, which will include infrastructure development and engineering construction. There was also an agreement to accelerate the construction of a cross-border railway connecting China with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Cross-border freight volume will significantly increase, as will trade in agriculture and livestock products. To promote people-to-people bonds, Xi invited his guests to participate in China’s Cultural Silk Road programme.

It’s now ten years since Xi gave a speech at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University for the first time proposing the building of a “Silk Road Economic Belt”. Starting in Central Asia, this later became known as the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s sprawling and controversial international development programme, “Over the past decade”, Xi reflected in his recent keynote speech, “China and central Asian countries have worked closely together to fully revive the Silk Road and actively deepen future-oriented cooperation, steering our relations into a new era”. China’s trade with the five countries reached $70 billion in 2022, up more than 100 times in the thirty years since diplomatic ties were established after the five countries declared independence from Moscow. Concluding his speech, in a clear warning to the West, Xi emphasised that “the sovereignty, security, independence and territorial integrity of Central Asian countries must be upheld, their people’s choice of development paths respected, and their efforts for peace, harmony and tranquillity supported”.

Although this was seen as a direct jab at the West, it could also have addressed recent suggestions that Russia still exercises sovereignty over territories in northern Kazakhstan. Last August, a controversial post appeared on former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s VKontakte (VK) social network account, calling Kazakhstan an artificial country, and accusing its authorities of genocide against Russians. “Russia is getting ready to undertake the next move to restore the borders of our homeland”, he claimed. Although Medvedev quickly took down the post, feebly claiming that his account had been hacked, the damage was done.

Medvedev’s post reminded Kazakhs that they have a long border with Russia, stretching almost 5,000 miles. Along it on Kazakhstan’s side, are towns with big populations of ethnic Russians, which offer plenty of scope for Vladimir Putin to stir up trouble by playing on ethnic grievances, just as he did in eastern Ukraine. There’s growing anger among Kazakhs at the war in Ukraine, with many fearing that their country might be Russia’s next target. No wonder the country’s leaders are keen to strengthen their country’s ties with China, ties which offer plenty of rewards with no threat to its sovereignty.

It’s not only Kazakhstan. Increasingly all central Asian States have come to see a future for themselves outside of Russia’s sphere of influence, and China is a power these governments believe they can rely on. Having infused billions of dollars into the economies of the region’s five states, Beijing has positioned itself as a guarantor of the existing order in the region, a role that includes balancing against Russia. Knowing that they can bank on Chinese support, Central Asian states have dared to take several careful, but nevertheless bold foreign policy moves. In June last year, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev openly refused to recognise Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine as independent states, explicitly rejecting Putin’s justification for the invasion.

Currently, Moscow is powerless to stop Beijing’s incursion into its former territories. Russia’s ongoing aggression against its western neighbour is driving active discussion in its eastern neighbourhood about decolonisation, a topic that would have been considered taboo just one generation ago. Many in central Asia now recognise that prolonged continuation of Russian influence has had serious consequences for political and social life, and they have turned to China as a step towards more autonomy.

So much, then, for “friendship without limits” between Moscow and Beijing. Xi’s efforts to go behind Putin’s back will come as no surprise to that master diplomat and realpolitik foreign policy strategist, Henry Kissinger, as he reaches 100 years of age. As one of the architects of the policy that pitted America and China against the Soviet Union, he has frequently expressed doubts that China and Russia can work well together. While Xi and Vladimir Putin see Western attempts to spread democracy as an attempt to de-legitimise themselves, and both share a suspicion of the United States, Kissinger believes that they have an instinctive distrust of one another. “I have never met a Russian leader who said anything good about China”, he said in a recent interview. “And I’ve never met a Chinese leader who said anything good about Russia. They are not natural allies”. Indeed they’re not. Theirs is not a “friendship without limits”, it’s more a “marriage of convenience”. And we all know how these end. John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.

This story was featured in May 28, 2023 of The Sunday Guardian

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