Will history repeat itself? How regional dynamics are shaping Russia-China relations

By – Rushali Saha 

The heavily publicized camaraderie between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—at a time when U.S.-China strategic competition threatens to divide the world into Cold War type ‘spheres of influence’— has captured global imagination. Despite what the warm rhetoric may suggest about the relationship being based on shared values and common world views, ultimately their relationship is governed by a pragmatic assessment of shared interests, evolving largely as a response to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Washington’s latest foreign policy move to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan will inevitably impact China-Russia relations, possibly to their detriment as it holds the potential to exacerbate the existing cracks in their ‘uneasy entente.’

As global powers rush to fill the strategic vacuum that emerged in Afghanistan in the wake of America’s hasty withdrawal, China and Russia have already professed their commitment to work together to “prevent foreign forces from interfering and destroying” Afghanistan. While in the short term this works well for both countries which are looking for avenues to engage with the Taliban, it is hardly sustainable in the long run. Although China and Russia may share the common ambition of pushing Washington out of Asia, when it comes to Central Asia, there is less in common to hold them together. To be sure, both countries have worked out a rather convenient ‘division of labor’ which allows Beijing to focus on broadly economic activities under the rubric of BRI, while securing the political and military influence of Moscow. Yet, in the anarchic world of international relations, such an artificial distinction hardly survives. 

BRI, Central Asia and Afghanistan 

Projected as a “transcontinental long-term policy and investment program”—Central Asia plays a prominent role in Beijing’s geo-economic calculations due to its strategic location as the main land corridor in BRI, abundant natural resources, making it a prominent long-term investment destination. However, the militant activity in Central Asian countries together with the growing Sinophobia, is a major cause of concern for Beijing as it threatens its own economic investments in the region. To address this, China has adopted a two-way approach; increasing arms sale to Central Asian governments— which between 2015-2020 accounted for 18% of the region’s total arms sale— while also increasing security coordination and cooperation with regional government. Taking a leaf out of the Russian playbook—China is now using its own Private Military Companies (PMC’s) to protect and defend Chinese economic investments and infrastructure sites in Central Asia, where the PMC’s have been granted an expanded role in size and importance than in other regions. 

Although Russia has been involved in Chinese-Central Asian military cooperation since the end of Cold War—which they continue through the Shanghai Cooperative Organiation (SCO) —China’s increasing security presence is likely to disturb the uneasy entente characterising Russia-China cooperation in the region. Given Russia’s own economic miseries, military burden sharing with Beijing may seem lucrative, especially if Beijing successfully prevents the infiltration of terrorists and radical groups into Central Asia, but this economic incentive is unlikely to pacify the historically induced chronic insecurity and inferiority complexes that characterize Sino-Russia relations. The increasing fragility of Russia’s economy, and the need to present a united front to challenge Western authority, makes overt expressions of fissures within the Sino-Russian ‘alliance’ unlikely— nevertheless analysts have identified moves such as Kremlin’s invitation to link up with Eurasian Economic Unit as a move to contain Chinese influence in Central Asia.   

Any discussion on Central Asia’s politics is incomplete without factoring in the “Afghanistan factor.” Bordering three Central Asian nations—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan— the internal dynamics in Afghanistan inevitably have a profound effect on regional stability at large, due to the unique geography of the region. Parallel to China extending its influence in Central Asia, Beijing has also emerged as an important actor in Afghanistan in recent years—not only in terms of economic influence, but also political and diplomatic support. This places Beijing in a favorable position to dominate the affairs of what S Friedrick Starr famously described as “Greater Central Asia” back in 2008, which inevitably would diminish Russia’s influence in the region. Arguably it is too soon to predict how Chinese foreign policy will play out in post-American withdrawal Afghanistan, but reports indicate that Beijing is seriously considering BRI extension to Afghanistan. A possible option to integrate Afghanistan to BRI is through railway from Central Asia, but it remains unclear and comes with its own set of challenges

In tune with the larger currents of Sino-Russia relations, at first it may seem that Russia is strong supporter of BRI. Indeed, President Putin once described BRI-EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) and EU coordination as an “integration of integrations”—later dropping EU, and replacing it variously with ASEAN, SCO etc. However, an independent study examining the coverage of BRI in major Russian newspapers between 2013 and 2019 reveal that Russian’s view on BRI is much more polarized, with some voices being especially suspicious about China’s intentions and ambitions. Yet another study which interviewed “Moscow-based political elites” reveals the more “alarmist” reaction among them, rather than one of optimism. Fundamentally, the artificial linking up fails to obscure the fact that EAEU and BRI have fundamental different economic rationales where the former is based on the principle of free movement of goods, services, finances and labour, whereas the latter is a series of infrastructure projects. 

Conclusively, it is evident that Afghanistan plays an important role in China’s own Central Asia calculations and U.S. withdrawal provides an opportune moment for Beijing to consolidate its presence in the larger region, which will not be without consequence for Moscow’s traditional position. At this juncture, it is worth recalling the famous quote often attributed to famous American author, Mark Twain—“history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Until now the “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Russia has survived due to the latter’s tactic acquiescence to China taking the lead in economic affairs of the region, but with the changed regional and international dynamics it remains to be seen if the historically induced mistrust in Sino-Russian relations will resurface or stay at bay. 

Rushali Saha is currently serving as a Research Analyst at the Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Previously she served as a Research Associate at the Center for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. She holds a masters degree in Politics with International Relations from Jadavpur University. She graduated summa cum laude from the same university with an undergraduate degree in political science. Her research interests include the evolving geopolitics of Indo-Pacific, with a special focus on India’s foreign policies in the region.


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