Conventional wisdom holds that best friends make the worst enemies. Should China keep this saying in mind regarding its relationship with Russia?
Currently, enmity between the two partners seems a remote possibility, especially after President Vladimir Putin praised Beijing openly at the recent Russian Energy Week conference. However, despite the harmonious public pronouncements, Sino-Russian rapprochement may not be able to completely conceal the emerging irritation of Russian elites toward Beijing.
Professor Alexander Lukin’s latest article in the Washington Quarterly notes this change. Back in 2018, his book “China and Russia: The New Rapprochement” discussed the promise of Sino-Russian cooperation. In contrast, Lukin now frankly admits that “any possible changes in U.S. policy will probably prove less of a deterrent to further Russian-Chinese rapprochement than will Russian concerns over China’s growing assertiveness.” He argues that “the peak of Russian-Chinese rapprochement has probably passed.”
This is not an uncommon view among Western scholars or pro-Western Russian experts. However, Lukin belongs to neither category, and his background gives special symbolic weight to his argument.
Lukin served in the Soviet Foreign Ministry and the Soviet Embassy in China, and was vice president of the Russian Diplomatic Academy. None of these positions would have been possible if Lukin were a pro-Western liberal. On the contrary, his past posts indicate his profound connections with the Russian diplomatic establishment. In a series of interviews with Russian sinologists conducted by the Carnegie Moscow Center, Lukin was one of the few experts able to say how frequently top Russian officials read sinologists’ works (the answer: not frequently at all).
Meanwhile, Lukin enjoys high prestige in China. He received a medal from then Chinese President Hu Jintao for his “Outstanding Contribution to the Development of Sino-Russian Relations,” as well as a medal from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on its 10th anniversary for his role in the SCO’s founding and development. He also holds the post of chair professor at Zhejiang University. Again, all of these honors suggest that Lukin is both active in Chinese diplomatic circles and generally friendly toward China.
Thus, arguably, Lukin’s view may represent a certain shift in the thinking of some Russian elites, who cannot voice their concerns publicly due to the necessity of maintaining the superficial harmony of Sino-Russian relations. If Lukin’s critique is correct, beneath the surface, Russian elites are worried about China. While there are many factors at play in the relationship, one of the most concerning for Russians is China’s rising influence in Central Asia.
Russian trade and investment in this region pales in comparison with China, but both great powers may welcome a prosperous Central Asia, which in return benefits them with less terrorism or extremism. However, recently China’s soaring power in Central Asia has been diluting Moscow’s economic and military institutions, which were built to reintegrate this region with Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Economically, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been overshadowing the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Despite an agreement on linking the two projects, Beijing and Central Asian members prefer to negotiate on a bilateral basis, essentially undermining Russia’s EAEU leadership role. As Benno Zogg argued, compared to the economic power of China, “particularly the volume of funds for infrastructure in the framework of the BRI, Russia and its rigid, protectionist, and politicized Eurasian projects pale.”
In this context, it is notable that in June 2020, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not attend the BRI online ministerial-level conference convened by Beijing, but sent an ambassador-at-large in his place. It was the first time Russia had sent such a low-ranking representative to a BRI conference; Putin himself previously attended two BRI summits. Lavrov’s lack of participation could be excused by the continued pandemic disturbances, but it may also subtly allude to Moscow’s dissatisfaction with Beijing.
More crucially, the general assumption that Moscow is primarily responsible for security in Central Asia has been altered as well. Currently, Beijing has been not only offering weapons and military training to Central Asian states, but is also sending the Chinese army there. The China-built military base in Tajikistan is intended to defend Chinese national interests in Xinjiang, not diminish Russia’s role in Central Asia. Yet, according to Alexander Gabuev, neither Beijing nor Dushanbe consulted with Moscow on the base initially – despite the fact that Tajikistan has been Russia’s military ally since 1992, as a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Moscow’s later acquiescence might have signaled its waning determination to stand up to Beijing in Central Asia. Moscow’s security role in Central Asia is still greater than Beijing’s, but that dominance is beginning to erode.
That said, Russia’s soft power in Central Asia remains ubiquitous, thanks to natural historical ties and linguistic advantages. Russian TV shows and pop culture are prevalent in Central Asia, while the local public barely knows any modern Chinese artists. More critically, during the last two years, there have been more than 40 campaigns against “Chinese expansion” in Central Asia. According to the Central Asian Barometer, 35 percent of Kyrgyz and 30 percent of Kazakhs have a negative attitude toward China and its policies. These factors indeed help maintain Russian influence in Central Asia.
However, China’s education-focused diplomacy may shift this scenario in the long run. Beijing initiated a 10-year education plan for Shanghai Cooperation Organization members, including four of the five Central Asian nations. Under the plan, 30,000 government scholarships will be offered and 10,000 Confucius Institute teachers and students will be invited to China.
This approach has been working. Based on research by by Julie Yu-Wen Chen and Soledad Jiménez Tovar, Central Asian university students have faith in Beijing’s rising influence over Moscow and the majority of them think that China offers more benefit than harm to Central Asia. Niva Yau has reported that in Kyrgyzstan, some schools offer free and compulsory Chinese language classes from fifth grade. Many pupils Yau talked to were persuaded by a positive image of China. This shift may look negligible now, but the geopolitical influence could be far-reaching and profound.
In other words, Russian elites have cause to be worried about the trajectory of China’s influence in Central Asia. Nevertheless, as Lukin argued, the pressure that the United States and the West are putting on Russia is far a more powerful policy motivator than China’s growing strength. Thus, in short term, Russia’s foreign policy is unlikely to change. However, in the long run, it may be fundamentally unacceptable to the Russian psyche and domestic nationalism if Russia becomes a junior partner in Central Asia. After all, this region symbolizes Russia’s glorious past as a superpower.
Should China surpass the U.S. as the world’s biggest superpower in the future, the global balance of power would shift dramatically, affecting Russian foreign policy. In that case, all bets would be off. As Dmitri Likhachev, a prominent Russian intellectual of the 20th century, stated, Russia is a historically unpredictable nation with a long tradition of making abrupt changes.