Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has thrown down the glove at China over the two countries rival interests in Central Asia, announcing plans to form a 'Eurasian Union,' whose borders will encompass much of China’s northwest and give Russia power over China’s access to Central Asian markets and energy supplies. The proposed map – which bears a suspicious resemblance to that of the former Soviet Union – has so far met with derision in China.
Up until now, Putin’s call has been reported as a challenge to the EU. The Financial Times reports:
‘All this comes just as European Union attempts at closer integration with its eastern neighbours are faltering. Even if coincidentally, Mr Putin’s article appeared just days after an EU summit in Warsaw that aimed to relaunch an initiative to draw six former Soviet republics into its embrace, known as the “Eastern Partnership”. It was a damp squib.’
This is missing the point: the countries already signed up for the union, Belarus and Kazakhstan, give the project a decidedly Eastern orientation, and Russia is much more concerned about Chinese influence in the landlocked region than the distant calls of Europe and the United States. A new report from SIPRI this week argued that Sino-Russian relations are weakening as China seeks a diverse portfolio of energy suppliers and is changing from an arms buyer to a competing manufacturer. Both countries have extensive Central Asian borders, and have strong interests, with China seeking energy suppliers and control over potential bases for militants from the Muslim region of Xinjiang.
Two chapters from a new book from the American National Bureau of Asian Research address the 'Great Game' in Central Asia and conclude that armed with infrastructure projects and deep pockets for loans, as well as the world's largest market for fossil fuels, China looks like it will have much more to offer over the long term than Russia.
But, Putin likely hopes, by offering market access and political support now, Russia can get these countries 'locked in' to a deal that will make him the gatekeeper for China’s energy projects and political dealings in Central Asia. An economic or even currency union with Russia at its core would guarantee his continued relevance in an Asia that now looks like to be dominated by China in the coming century.
Is this project likely to succeed? Not to the extent Putin is hoping. C. Enders Wembush, in the NBR report, writes that Central Asian states are increasingly 'designing their own strategies to pursue objectives that are sometimes shared but sometimes in conflict with their Central Asian neighbours. The Central Asia they see—as well as the character of the competition enveloping it—is not foremost the Soviet Central Asia of yesteryear.' They’ve learned to profit from working with both of the region’s large powers, and are unlikely to accept a deal that will restrict their ability to deal with China.
So far, it seems, China is unconcerned about getting locked out of Central Asia, at least to the extent that it’s represented by its media. Coverage of the proposed union has ranged from indifferent to mocking. As one headline put it: ‘Putin announces “Eurasian Union,” expert responds: Not expecting much.’