China cajoles Russia not to fret over Central Asia

China cajoles Russia not to fret over Central Asia

Chinese are trying to reassure Russians who, having seen Chinese President Xi Jinping hold the first China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an last week, are worried that Moscow will lose control in Central Asian countries it used to rule.

A Kremlin official and a Russian defense columnist have recently expressed concerns about the loosening ties between Russia and five former Soviet Union countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (C5).

The comments came after Beijing promised to offer 26 billion yuan (US$3.67 billion) of financial support and grant assistance to the five countries in the region.

Chinese commentators said Russians should not be over-worried as China is only taking care of C5 “on behalf of Russia.”

Meanwhile, Chinese and Russian officials on Wednesday signed a set of agreements on trade and sports cooperation during Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s visit to China.

Xi told Mishustin China and Russia will continue to offer each other “firm support on issues concerning each other’s core interests and strengthen collaboration in multilateral arenas,” Xinhua news agency reported. During his meeting with Premier Li Qiang, Mishustin said the Sino-Russian relations are at an unprecedented high level.

When China still had its zero-Covid policy last September, Xi visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and met face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was his first foreign trip since the pandemic broke out in early 2020. 

On May 17, C5 presidents arrived in Xi’an, the starting point of ancient China’s Silk Road to Europe, and attended the China-Central Asia Summit on May 18-19. They were received by Xi with a grand ceremony. 

Since then, Mishustin has been promoting a proposal for Chinese investment in 79 projects worth about US$165 billion across energy, mining and agricultural sectors in Russia. The details of the plan have not been available, even after Xi and Putin on March 21 signed a joint declaration to boost diplomatic and economic ties.

Color revolutions

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a media briefing on May 17 that Central Asian countries are well aware that “neither the West nor anyone else” will be able or willing to compensate their losses if they choose to break ties with Russia. 

“We assume that our partners also understand that the potential losses from the curtailment of ties with our country would be immeasurably greater than the effect of the notorious secondary sanctions,” she said.  

Chinese and Russian officials sign a set of agreements on trade and sports cooperation on May 24, 2023. Photo: Xinhua

A Henan-based writer says the words “anyone else” mentioned in Zakharova’s speech obviously refer to China. He says Russia may be worried that C5 is walking away from it but this is totally unnecessary as China only wants to connect with neighbours.

“Central Asian countries will not lean towards the West only if they can choose to cooperate with China,” a Hebei-based columnist says in his article. “China can help Russia safeguard the Central Asia region.”  

He says United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan in late February and Uzbekistan in early March to promote the so-called C5+1 system and offered US$25 million to improve the region’s trade and education. He says the US may promote “color revolutions,” like the one in Ukraine in 2004, in Central Asia.

New military bloc

The debate seems endless. On Tuesday, Russian defense journalist Roman Skomorokhov published an article titled “China takes over Central Asia,” saying that Xi openly offered to form a military bloc with the post-Soviet states, some of which are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Skomorokhov says Xi promised to provide Central Asia with 26 billion yuan of financial support, which is quite decent if it is used to buy Chinese weapons.

He says China today has economic power and military strength while some members may eventually leave the EAEU and the CSTO if a new C5+China military bloc is established.

He says such a trend will not pose any military threat to Russia while the dissolution of the EAEU does not mean Central Asian countries will abandon Russia. However, he doubts whether the Chinese are strong enough to handle the region’s new military bloc and infrastructure projects alone.

“Perhaps Skomorokhov is jealous about the close relations between China and C5, and his bitterness is just overwhelming,” says a Jiangsu-based writer in an article published on Wednesday. “His strange view may represent that of some Russians. It may not be hostile against China but it reflects Russia’s current feelings of helplessness.”

He says it’s normal for Russians to feel upset since their country fell from a superpower to bcome a second-grade nation that struggles to win Ukraine.

He says China must maintain a smooth channel to obtain oil and gas from the Middle East via Central Asia, in case the US suddenly blocks China’s maritime routes.

Moscow at war can’t cover all bases

A consultant to multinational corporations who specializes in Russia and requested anonymity told Asia Times the Kremlin wants to maintain its leadership in Central Asia but it is impossible to do so under the current circumstances.

He claims Moscow is far from being happy that Beijing is doing its job in Central Asia but it cannot complain because China’s economic support is desperately needed.

The expert says the Kremlin understands that China wants to avoid forming any sort of Sino-Russian military alliance, at least for now, and understands that Beijing desires to maintain an economic relationship with the West. He says it’s not likely that Russia, China and C5 will jointly form a new military bloc within the short run.

He says China might consider “sort of an alliance” with Russia but only in case of a direct and serious threat from the United States allied with Japan. The anonymous source says the Russians also don’t need such a formal alliance. He adds that both China and Russia want to have freedom of action in view of the fact that the national interests of both countries are far from the same.

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Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3