The rising tension between China and Russia
The war in Ukraine has brought the China-Russia relationship into sharp relief. China’s seeming willingness to tolerate behaviour which directly contradicts a series of principles that Beijing has sought to advance in international relations has left everyone scratching their heads about the nature of the partnership. The old assumption, often described as playing out in Central Asia, was that China was doing the economics and Russia the security. Yet, travelling around Central Asia my co-author and I Alexandros Petersen found that the dynamic is far more complicated, with Beijing increasingly making its presence felt in the security domain while continuing to value the geostrategic relationship it has with Moscow. The relationship is one that defies the simple narrative often painted in the west, and we found this repeatedly on the ground in the Eurasian heartland that binds the two powers together.
A trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2013 illustrated the reality of this dynamic vividly. We had noticed the Chinese businessman in the queue for the plane. Stuck in Bishkek’s underwhelming waiting lounge with little else to do, we wandered over to strike up a conversation. Intrigued to find a foreigner who spoke some Mandarin, he told us about his work as a manager/engineer for the China Rail company. While he was vague about exactly what project he was working on, he was very keen to impress us with how well connected he was where we were going in Dushanbe. He showed us pictures on his phone in which he was standing next to a tall and severe-looking Tajik security official in his full dress uniform. Then a young Kyrgyz man in army fatigues came over and started speaking Chinese, saying he appreciated the opportunity to practice. He told us he recognised the severe-looking officer in the pictures.
The Kyrgyz officer had learned his atonal but fluent Mandarin on an 11-month training course in Nanjing. He was particularly keen to tell us about the brothels and night markets he had found. He had been sent on the course along with several mid-ranking officers in his border guard unit—the whole programme was sponsored by the Chinese government. The Chinese businessman chuckled at this strange encounter with all these Mandarin-speaking foreigners, and we separated to board the plane, though of course not before the obligatory selfies were taken.
The encounter was one of our earliest insights into the depth and complexity of China’s security relationship with Central Asia. When we started researching the country’s role in Central Asia, the abiding narrative (that has only recently started to change) was that the Chinese were all about economics and trade. With the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, this was redefined as being principally about infrastructure and extractives—getting the region’s rich hydrocarbon and other resources back to China. But at no point did we get much of a sense that security was a part of the story. Rather, most analysis pointed to a bargain—unspoken or not—between Beijing and Moscow whereby China did the economics and Russia the security. But this seemed an odd conclusion. In the first instance, our entire sense of why China was interested in Central Asia was predicated on a domestic security concern. China wanted Central Asia to be secure, open, connected and prosperous, so that its own part of Central Asia, Xinjiang, would also be prosperous and therefore stable. Ultimately, China’s thinking about Central Asia was based on the goal of security at home.
There was also a very hard edge to this concern. China is concerned about militancy, both within Xinjiang and across the border in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats, businesspeople, and visiting dignitaries had been targeted over the years in Kyrgyzstan by groups it assessed—in some cases correctly—as being linked to militant Uyghurs. In 2016 the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a car bomb. The subsequent investigation revealed a network with links to Uyghur groups in Syria. When we pressed Kyrgyz security officials for answers about the attack, they dismissed it as not having links to international terrorism, pointing to it as an instance of local “political” violence linked to a specific grievance against the Chinese rather than anything else (earlier this year, the US government linked it to a larger Central Asian militant group with a footprint in both Afghanistan and Syria).
While there was little evidence back then of similar networks in other countries, China was nevertheless concerned about the possibility of such threats as well as about other groups that might emanate from Central Asia to threaten Xinjiang or China directly. In the wake of the attack, there was considerable concern from the security community in China around the potential for similar incidents in Tajikistan as they surveyed the security environment in Central Asia, both from the perspective of threats as well as local capability to manage them.
Second, as we uncovered the deep levels of distrust that existed between China and Russia in Central Asia in particular, it seemed very unlikely that Beijing would simply abrogate its security interests in Central Asia to Moscow. The Chinese officials and experts we met repeatedly expressed their disdain for Russia, while at the same time maintaining a convivial public demeanour. Moscow’s management of the post-Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union was treated in Beijing as a textbook case of how not to manage such a change. In Moscow we looked on as, at a prominent event in 2017, one of China’s top Russia watchers wowed an audience of cynical Muscovites with his fluent Russian, peppered with humour and Dostoevsky quotes, as he talked about the relations between the two great powers.
Over lunch afterwards, a Russian friend praised the Chinese academic’s linguistic skills, joking it was better than theirs. Yet, a short year later we saw the same academic in Beijing before an audience of European experts in which he lambasted Russia and complained about how difficult they were to work with. He said China felt forced into a relationship with Russia because it was rejected by the west. Beijing would far prefer to be close to Europe. We heard the converse repeatedly in Moscow over the years. Both were clearly playing to their audiences, but it nevertheless highlighted a deep underlying mistrust.
The Sino-Russian relationship may be strategically important to both, and it has grown closer in recent years through collective confrontation against the west, but they do not trust each other. The Sino-Soviet split in earlier times casts a long shadow. “Frenemies” is the best characterisation we were able to come up with at the time (though it still feels unsatisfactory), where the two see themselves as important strategic allies, but fundamentally worry things may one day turn adversarial. This was repeatedly reflected in discussions we had where it did not take long, in any bilateral engagement, to find that the counterpart in front of us would complain about the other who was not present. Russians were always quick to complain about the Chinese, and after a little prodding the Chinese would reciprocate.
This tension was visible in our various engagements as well as publicly. Discussions around bilateral deals were always contentious and occasional spy dramas would play out in the press. In 2020, a story emerged of the Russian FSB arresting prominent academic Professor Valery Mitko, president of St Petersburg Arctic Social Science Academy. A former navy captain, he was accused of selling secrets about Russia’s submarine fleet to Beijing. A year or so earlier, a similar story had played out in Kazakhstan, where a prominent academic sinologist who had advised the new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his dealings with China was arrested for selling state secrets to Beijing. A former KGB officer, Konstantin Syroyezhkin was given a ten-year sentence and stripped of his citizenship, meaning he faces deportation to Russia upon completion of his time in prison. All this merely serves to illustrate once again the close relationship that Russia has with the region, and how this competition can sometimes hit up against China.
The debate about Huawei and whether Russia should use the company in the construction of its own 5G network was a good articulation of the tension at the heart of the relationship for Moscow. On the one hand, Russia (and its intelligence agencies) feared letting China into their digital and tech infrastructure, but on the other hand, they felt somewhat limited in their options. As we were told in Moscow, “look who is actually sanctioning us.” They might not trust the Chinese, but they recognized at a strategic level that they are on the same page as Beijing rather than the western capitals producing the alternatives to Huawei, meaning Moscow would have to go with the Chinese option.
It seems illogical that Beijing would, in turn, rely on Moscow to guarantee the security of its growing assets and interests in Central Asia. Given Beijing’s particular concerns around Xinjiang and the importance of this to the Chinese Communist Party and their control over China, this logic seems even more flawed, illustrating why the simplistic assumption that China does economics while Russia does security does not work. Nor is it visible on the ground in Central Asia. The reality was articulated perfectly to us during a visit to Bishkek where, as we were doing the rounds of the think tanks and ministries, we were repeatedly given the line that China did the economics while Russia did security, only for an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to turn to us and say, “well, in fact, the Chinese did just build a new headquarters for our border guards.”
It has been fascinating to watch Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the military domain, grow over time. From a power that was largely passive in security matters, it became a power increasingly flexing its muscles, developing a security footprint that not only served to advance China’s direct and narrow interests but increasingly seemed to be aimed at embedding China within the region’s security apparatus in the long run. What officials in Moscow had assumed was solely theirs has been eroded over time. Afghanistan notably lurks like a menacing shadow for Beijing in the background of their concerns about Central Asian stability. From providing border support and equipment, to language training and Covid-19 aid—China’s military relationship with Central Asia is as ascendant as in every other area. The old implicit bargains between Beijing and Moscow are increasingly being tested, with events in Ukraine likely placing even greater pressure on them.
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