Posts Tagged ‘China-Russia’

Almost caught up, but then will invariably get behind, another short piece for the South China Morning Post inspired by events in Ukraine, this time trying to tackle the obsession in the west about China’s support for Russia.

How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

  • The US and EU’s condemnation of Russia and repeated calls for their allies to do the same reflects a world view in which democracies stand united against autocracies
  • In reality, drawing battle lines is far more difficult when interests and values rarely align
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The single-minded focus on China’s friendship with Russia misses the far wider range of supporters around the world that Moscow has been able to muster. It is this wider web that really highlights the difficulty the US and Europe will have in marshalling international support to condemn Moscow’s actions.

The myopia reflects the difficulty in playing the complicated game of three-dimensional chess that is international geopolitics, where relationships are coloured by shades of grey and focus on interests rather than values.

There is no doubt China has chosen to side with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine. But it is important to note that this choice has been carefully couched as not being against Kyiv, but in opposition to the US and Nato’s missteps in causing the problem in the first place by antagonising Moscow.

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Beijing’s choice is also the result of a calculation that Russia remains a critical ally in China’s wider confrontation with the West.

This framing may anger the West, but it is one that Ukraine seems willing to (at least in public) accept. In recent comments, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, described China’s position as “neutral”, while saying that Ukraine’s leader was expected to talk to President Xi Jinping soon.

China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the invasion, and there is every chance that this economic relationship will pick up where it left off should stability ever return to the country.

Such commentary stands in contrast to Kyiv’s views on India, the other Asian giant that has stood behind Moscow. As the invasion unfolded, Western leaders called on New Delhi to stand behind them in condemning Russia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government declined, leading Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha to declare he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s stance, calling on New Delhi to be “much more actively engaged, given the privileged relations India has with Russia”.

Few who had been paying attention would be surprised by India’s position. The country’s military-industrial relationship with Russia is a long-standing sore in US-India relations, fuelling concerns about defence and intelligence transfers.

Neither New Delhi nor Beijing, however, are outliers. Both have chosen to abstain in United Nations Security Council votes. And, in the wider UN General Assembly vote demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, they stood alongside South Africa, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, a range of African powers and much of Central Asia in abstaining (only a few predictable powers like North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea joined Russia in voting against the resolution).

South Africa even sought to follow up on the vote with another focused solely on the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, omitting any refence to Russian action.

But there is further complexity within these positions. While Central Asian powers chose to abstain from the UN vote, both the Uzbek and Kazakh governments have chosen to openly reject recognition of the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow has recognised, while also appearing to more actively reach out to Ukraine.

This seeming stand against Russia is one that flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s decision early this year to call on Russian forces to support the government in the face of mass protests, and the Uzbekistan government’s reliance on Russian security to help bolster their border with Afghanistan as the republic’s government collapsed last year.

Looking beyond UN voting, Russia also appears to have a number of friends in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has openly sought a closer relationship with Moscow, in large part for the same reason as Beijing – as a bolster against a confrontational relationship with Washington.

But, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both also shown support for Russia while snubbing Washington – a choice that is driven by a concern about reliability of US alliances and irritation at condemnation of their own actions (their conflict in Yemen) by the West.

The reality is that international relations are grey. Countries are driven by interests that are both short and long term. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow. The one immutable truth in international relations is that nothing is permanent.

But this is a critical problem for a West that is seeking to build a binary world of autocracies versus democracies, painting this as the defining struggle of our time. It also reflects a core tension within the approach being driven by Washington, where there appears to be a desire to create an alliance of democracies alongside a shifting constellation of coalitions focused on outcomes.

While, in theory, this is not impossible – countries are often willing to maintain contradictory policies while focusing on interests – it becomes difficult when a single-minded obsession with one adversary clouds everything else.

While American and Chinese strategic thinking may be centred on a world in which the other is the main adversary, to the rest of the world, this narrative is more complicated. And these complications do not always hold across interests, and may in fact undermine each other in crucial ways.

There is no easy way to thread this needle. But maintaining a resolute focus on interests rather than values is a disappointing place to start. This is not going to be appealing to those who want to see a world of like-minded allies or democracies ruling the waves, but is more likely to reflect the brutal reality of geopolitics, where values are not as transcendental as we might like to believe.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He is co-author, with Alexandros Petersen, of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

A piece for my UK institutional home RUSI, exploring China’s relations, links and role to the current conflict in Ukraine. Suspect going to be an issue which is going to come up increasingly over the next few months, but the overriding China-Russia relationship does not feel like it is going to change much.

China’s Soft Shoe on Ukraine

Hard geopolitics dominates China’s view of Russian action in Ukraine.

Main Image Credit Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pictured in 2016. Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the West, China’s views on Ukraine have largely been seen through the lenses that people want to interpret China’s actions. Some fear Beijing will use the opportunity to do something in Taiwan, while others instead suggest that this will lead to a fissure between China and Russia as Moscow tests the international order, recognises breakaway states and causes economic chaos – all things that logically irritate Beijing. Yet all of this stands apart from the fairly blank and often confusing response we have actually seen, where Chinese officialdom initially made statements which lacked internal coherence and seemed aimed at pleasing everybody, and then latterly took a posture of blaming the US. Beijing has aligned itself with Russia from the outset, though it has repeatedly softened its line to reflect a genuine concern about a potential catastrophic escalation, a desire to appear to be trying to do the right thing, and a likely genuine wish not to actively encourage Russian adventurism.

Go back in time to 2014, and Chinese commentators were more circumspect in their response towards Russian action in Crimea. While they did not leap up to praise and support, they did not condemn, and instead offered commentary that seemed to suggest that they at least understood Moscow’s underlying concerns. From Beijing’s perspective, events in 2014 were an extension of the problem that Chinese (and Russian) officials refer to as ‘Colour Revolutions’, a refence to the toppling of authoritarian regimes by public uprisings that can be traced back to the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003. That event precipitated a similar uprising in Ukraine a year or so later (dubbed the Orange Revolution), and was followed by a similar government overthrow (dubbed the Tulip Revolution) in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This chain of events then seemed to slow until 2011 and the Arab Spring, which brought a similar wave of public protest and authoritarian overthrow across the Arab world, and even touched on China’s shores in the very limited ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

While Beijing was not ecstatic about the redrawing of borders on the basis of ethnicity and the recognition of breakaway provinces (a precedent they always fear will be used against them), it could see where Moscow was coming from and worried about the wider consequences of the Euromaidan protests that culminated in Russia’s actions in Crimea. Additionally, it had little interest in condemning Russia, an important neighbour and ally whom it recognises has a very different view on how independent former Soviet countries actually are. Back in 2014, China was preoccupied with many other issues – including a domestic terrorist problem which appeared to be getting out of control – and saw little value in becoming entangled in a fundamentally European problem. In a comment which echoes precisely what is being said today, then Chinese UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi stated that Crimea posed a ‘complex intertwinement of historical and contemporary factors’.

This stood in stark contrast to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, Beijing was irritated that Moscow had chosen to launch its incursion right when Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games (by contrast, the 2022 Winter Games had notably ended at around the time Putin decided to take action against Ukraine, suggesting at the very least a sense of diplomatic timing by Moscow), and actively worked to block Russian attempts to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to support what Moscow as doing. Led by the unassuming and consensus-driven Hu Jintao, China was a power that still framed itself as rising and eager not to make waves. In what could be read as a thunderous rebuke by the then usually mute Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed ‘concern’ about Russia’s recognition of the two states.

Cut forward to today and Beijing seems much more willing to rhetorically champion Moscow’s perspectives. In earlier statements, it appears to have tried to maintain a line which avoided praising Russia, acknowledged some legitimacy in its concerns and at the same time upheld the UN charter and its calls for the protection of national territorial integrity (a nod to Ukraine’s perspective). But in fact, Beijing said very little. Echoing 2014, MFA spokesman Wang Wenbin stated that from Beijing’s perspective there was ‘a complex historical context and complicated factors at play on this issue’.

But things sharpened rapidly. While these same narratives remain present, a more aggressive tone towards the US came in when spokeswoman Hua Chunying took over the regular MFA briefings. ‘A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral’, she said. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made explicit reference to Russian concerns about NATO expansion, suggesting it as an explanation for the conflict.

While it is no longer surprising to hear such fiery rhetoric from the formerly staid MFA, it is a clear step further than Beijing was willing to go last time. What has changed is not the partnership with Russia, which has remained a constant and strengthened during the past decade and a half, but rather the relationship with the US, which is the principal vector through which Beijing views international affairs.

Viewed in this light, the response to Ukraine becomes shaped by the wider geopolitical context that Beijing sees. There is a substantial economic relationship between Ukraine and China, with China overtaking Russia as the country’s biggest trading partner in 2019. But it is not something that is irreplaceable from China’s perspective, and there is nothing to say that China will not be able to pick up quickly in economic terms after the Russian invasion, no matter who is left in charge. Reflecting China’s willingness to accept a relatively high risk threshold in Ukraine, PowerChina agreed in late 2020 to undertake the construction of the largest wind farm in Europe at a cost of around $1 billion in the divided Donetsk region of Ukraine, near where separatist rebels controlled territory (and presumably now at the heart of the conflict). This highlights Beijing’s willingness to undertake difficult investments, which doubtless the government in Kyiv would have appreciated. It is notable that while India’s tacit tolerance of Russia has generated anger from Kyiv, there has been less comment about Beijing’s very similar messaging, although it is reported to have generated some anger towards China on the ground.

But it is highly doubtful that China will prioritise bilateral trade and investment with Ukraine over its relationship with Russia. It is equally unlikely that Beijing will decide to join the West in a chorus of condemnation towards Moscow. The wider negative geopolitical consequences fly in the face of the grand joint communique issued by Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met at the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing. While it is the source of great speculation whether Putin informed Xi when they met of what was being planned, the idea that China now feels played in some way seems unlikely. That the vast Chinese commentariat (and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) were unaware of what the leadership knew is unlikely to be a reflection of a systemic lack of knowledge, but rather suggests a closed centre around Xi that chose not to share information. Xi may have calculated that the Russian conflict would be brief, that it was not really his problem to worry about, and that it was not his place to judge what Putin saw as simply a ‘domestic’ issue.

China may not appreciate the chaos that Russia’s actions engender, but it will also conclude that there is little it can gain from trying to rein Moscow in, except to lose a partner in its confrontation with the US. In fact, there is every chance Beijing will benefit from this situation, gaining a stronger hand over its bilateral relationship with Moscow as Putin alienates large portions of the globe and sees Russia cut out of the international system. And in some parts of Chinese considerations, there may even be some thought given to the benefits that Russia’s actions might bring in terms of creating a wider distraction, exposing fissures between Western allies, providing lessons for future confrontations and more broadly creating an opportunity for China to look like a more stable actor on the international stage in contrast to Russia.

None of this is to say Beijing is pleased with being associated with a bellicose pariah, and there is no doubt that China’s calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict are genuine. Doubtless, there is some concern about the Chinese students who appear to be stuck in Ukraine. But it is also clear that hard geopolitics is prominent in China’s thinking, and its willingness to support Russia trumps such concerns. Moreover, Beijing, like Moscow, believes that things blow over. In what is almost a complete turnaround from 2008, in December last year an image emerged of the Ambassador to Syria for the breakaway Georgian Republic of Abkhazia meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Damascus, Feng Biao. The full content of the encounter is not clear, but it was a source of friction between Tbilisi and Beijing. Reflecting continued Chinese curiosity in the region, a Shanghai news outlet recently had a reporter visit, something that was reported in light of the recent Russian recognitions in Ukraine.

A final point to note is that there is little reason why Beijing would feel it is being isolated on the international stage alongside Moscow at the moment. Watch the UN meetings in the run-up to Russia’s invasion, and India’s statements echo China’s refusal to condemn Moscow. Both voted the same way (alongside the UAE), choosing to abstain on the UN resolution condemning Russian action, while Indian finance officials are reported to be examining ways they can circumvent Western sanctions to continue to trade with Russia. Chinese banks have also been exploring ways of limiting their exposure, but the larger food, finance, technology and energy deals signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing earlier in the year highlight a deep economic relationship that is unlikely to change. Neither Beijing nor New Delhi appear eager to follow Western sanctions, although China is more forthright in condemning the use of the tactic. New Delhi may have subsequently done more to try to reach out to the Ukrainian side, but it has continued to avoid any sense of condemnation towards Moscow.

China and India may in other contexts be in violent conflict with each other, but they appear unified in being unwilling to jettison their relationship with Moscow in favour of Ukrainian or Western appeals. And given their collective representation of over a third of the planet’s population, this provides all three countries with adequate cover to wait and see how things develop, while keeping a cold eye on realist geopolitics.

More very late posting, this time from January for the Straits Times looking at how China was impacted by events in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year. Seems a world away from what we are facing now, though there is clearly a link that runs through Moscow.

China’s Kazakh Concerns

China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the secure and predictable neighbour that it was, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

When Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vision in 2013, he started it with a speech in Astana, as the capital of Kazakhstan was then called.

In an expansive speech, Mr Xi articulated the importance of Kazakhstan within his broader vision of Chinese policy across the Eurasian landmass.

The Kazakh government appreciated the speech and the wider concept, so much so that a year later then President Nursultan Nazarbayev articulated his own national economic strategy called Nurly Zhol (bright path), which built on the Chinese ideas and projects. 

China and Kazakhstan would grow and prosper together. The Kazakhs benefited from Chinese trade and investment while Beijing appreciated having a stable “soft authoritarian” success story on its border. This intertwining highlights the importance of Kazakhstan to China, and explains the consequent horror with which Beijing watched the chaotic way in which the country welcomed in the new year. 

Chinese strategists were not alone in being shocked at the chaotic scenes that have played out over the past couple of weeks. Central Asia watchers both within the region and beyond were equally surprised by the turn of events, which began as demonstrations against a fuel price hike and escalated into violent clashes with hundreds reported dead and injured.

STABILITY AND PROSPERITY

Most used to see Kazakhstan as the most stable and prosperous country in what is still described as the post-Soviet belt that surrounds Russia. The government was an almost perfect articulation of the concept of “soft authoritarianism”, in which a strong authority dominated the country but left a certain space for political discourse, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a free (but controlled) media. 

The main reason it was able to do this was the massive wealth accumulated by the government, thanks to its large mineral and hydrocarbon reserves. 

These were exploited by numerous foreign companies, including Western ones.  Chinese firms have long looked at Kazakhstan as an important opportunity. Soon after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) stepped in to exploit oil fields in Atyrau on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In order to get the oil back to China, it built China’s first direct oil pipeline which stretched from Atyrau back to China covering more than 2,300km of the empty Central Asian steppe. This was only the first of numerous hydrocarbon projects. 

And it was not only a story of oil and gas. Mining company Kazakhmys, which dominates Kazakhstan’s rich copper reserves, received loans of around US$4.2 billion (S$5.7 billion) from the China Development Bank. The company would regularly take some parts of its loan facilities in yuan, something the Chinese bank appreciated as it helped with its wider strategy of trying to get the Chinese currency in wider global circulation, as well as ensuring that Chinese firms were used as contractors. 

Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, and in November last year started a joint venture with Chinese firms to produce nuclear fuel – a key part of China’s national energy strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. Kazakhstan is also a major target for Chinese agribusiness eager to take advantage of the vast underpopulated territory. 

According to Kazakh Invest data, there are some 20 million hectares of arable land (roughly the size of the United Kingdom) and another 180 million ha of meadows and pastures. This is very attractive to a country like China, with its booming population of middle class consumers looking for bountiful cheaper food options. 

Shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak, Kazakhstan opened a new market in Wuhan, where its products were sold. This became an early victim of the pandemic.  Kazakhstan was also a crucial first way station in the BRI. As mentioned, this was the country where Mr Xi first articulated his vision, even though elements of his ambitious trans-continental network were in existence long before the concept was announced. 

Kazakhstan had long sought to develop its rail and road links to China, eager to access its markets.  In the early 1990s, then President Nazarbayev had encouraged opening up his markets and rail routes to China, keenly sending his representatives to a Eurasian rail connectivity conference hosted in Beijing by then Premier Li Peng in 1996. 

For China, the Kazakh connection was useful more as a path on the way to more prosperous and populated markets in Russia and Europe. Either way, the two countries saw mutual advantage, with the Kazakhs getting infrastructure and transit fees, while China had a smooth path across the Eurasian heartland. 

Yet all this was thrown into question these past couple of weeks. The unexpected chaos in Kazakhstan caused concern among investors around the world. 

Western consultancies with large offices in big cities Nur-Sultan (Astana’s current name) and Almaty (the biggest city in the country) suddenly lost communications with them during the Internet outages amid the protests. Chinese firms were slightly more insulated from these disruptions, as most of their in-country staff were based at remote locations near oil fields or mining concessions.

PASSIVE BUT POINTED RESPONSE

While the riots look to have been put down, questions remain over stability in Kazakhstan and how China will manage this relationship going forward. At the moment, the response has been fairly passive, though pointed.  In a message to Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the wake of the violence, Mr Xi talked about “colour revolutions”, highlighting the degree to which China was concerned about the instability in the country. 

This was an allusion to Western interference, referring back to the series of government overthrows seen in the former Soviet space in 2004, when Ukraine underwent a so-called “Orange Revolution”, Georgia a “Rose Revolution” and Kyrgyzstan a “Tulip Revolution”. For the Russians and the Chinese, these uprisings were widely seen as being linked to American-sponsored NGOs. 

For Beijing, the “colour revolutions” as well as the “Arab Spring” are like deadly viruses – something to be kept out lest the “bug” of public uprising catches on in China too. 

Yet, notwithstanding these concerns, China has done little in trying to help stabilise the situation. Instead, it has sat back and applauded as the Kazakhs called on Russia to step in and help bring stability under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led alliance of six former Soviet states. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did offer “law enforcement and security cooperation” to help the country oppose interference by “external forces” – a narrative which echoed the explanations offered by the Kazakh government for the unrest. But these are likely just words. There is little to suggest the Kazakhs would take the Chinese up on the offer. 

This is in part because it is not clear what China would really be able to contribute that would be needed by the Kazakhs. There are also sensitivities at a public level about the relationship with Beijing. China has always struggled with an underlying sense of Sinophobia in the country. 

Earlier attempts by Chinese agribusiness to rent land in Kazakhstan had led to protests against the government for selling the people’s national patrimony to foreigners. Back in 2010, protests and violence erupted in Zhanaozen over a dispute between workers and a local CNPC affiliate, leading to at least 14 deaths. There have also been repeated lower-level clashes in the country between Chinese workers and locals. 

More recently, Covid-19 has made things even more awkward. While the Kazakhs have been keen to keep the borders and trading going, the Chinese have made entry to China very difficult. Although goods were coming out of China, they were not going back into the country. 

This had led to problems in Kazakhstan, in terms of sellers struggling not only to get their goods to China but also through it to other markets. Lianyungang, a city in Shandong, is heavily used by Kazakh sellers eager to gain access from their landlocked country to global markets. The Kazakh economy, already suffering from the effects of Covid-19, now found that the BRI, which was supposed to be about free-flowing connectivity, suddenly went only one way.

WORRIES AHEAD

All of this sets the context for how China is going to have to manage future relations with Kazakhstan. It is clearly happy that Russia had stepped in to help stabilise the situation, but the Kazakh government still has a lot of work to do in resolving bigger entrenched problems such as a glaring income divide, corruption and elite power contests. 

China is unfortunately a part contributor to these issues. Its investments have tended to engage with the elites, with locals feeling cut out. While Mr Tokayev will undoubtedly want to maintain the strong economic relationship with China, it will now have an added layer of concern to it from the Chinese perspective, and he will have to juggle his desire to keep Beijing happy while finding himself needing to answer to his local population in a more timely manner than before. All of which is likely to mean China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the entirely secure and predictable neighbour that it was. 

The bigger problem for China is that if this is the case in Kazakhstan – the starting point of the Belt and Road chosen in large part for its stability – where else might their current assumptions be wrong

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and the author of the forthcoming Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Been very busy with other things of late and have entirely failed to post. As a result a short backlog has accumulated, while some bigger projects and issues elsewhere have kept me rather busy. Anyway: catching up now starting off with a piece for the South China Morning Post on China-Russia relations over events in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Crazy to think how far we have come now with everyone’s attention firmly on Ukraine.

Why China won’t lose sleep over Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Suggestions of China-Russia rivalry for power in Central Asia miss the mark. In reality, while both are active in the region, their roles are more complementary than competitive

Russia is the de factor provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone wants to tap

The outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan has awakened the question of Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia. The assertion of Russian hard power is interpreted as being an example of Moscow getting the upper hand, to Beijing’s detriment.

Yet this analytical framework is unhelpful in really understanding the situation or the nature of the current China-Russia relationship. Beijing and Moscow have no reason to clash with each other over Kazakhstan. Rather, they will play the situation to their advantage and further freeze out the West from the Eurasian heartland.

China and Russia’s broad interests in Kazakhstan are the same. Both want a stable country that is in their collective economic and military thrall, and ideally with looser ties to the West.

China has the upper hand in economic terms, but this is partially because Kazakhstan is rich in the raw materials needed for the Chinese economy. In contrast, Russian firms see Kazakhstan as a state in which they can ply their trade, and to which they have easier access thanks to the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

In strategic security terms, Russia has long had bases in Kazakhstan. The arrival of Russian forces under a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) banner is new – both in terms of Russian deployments in Kazakhstan and in a first for the CSTO. But it is not clear how or why this might be a challenge to China.

Beijing has not expressed an interest in deploying its forces in Kazakhstan. China and Kazakhstan have done training exercises together, but these have been limited and done either bilaterally (mostly on counterterrorism questions) or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia is also a member.

Beijing has pressured the Kazakh government to do something about dissident networks of Uygurs, and it has in the past sought to get permission for its private security companies to operate in the country. While the Kazakh government was willing to accede to the first request, they were unwilling to let Chinese private security firms in.

None of China’s activity has been about competing with Russia. China is consistently focused on its specific interests in Kazakhstan.

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Where there was a possible overlap in competition with Russia was on military sales, with Chinese firms having sold high-end weapons to the Kazakh government, like drones, some air and missile systems, as well as technological surveillance and communications tools. It is, of course, possible that these arms sales are depriving Russian companies of contracts, but Kazakh purchasing is done on the basis of quality and price, rather than Beijing trying to edge Moscow out of Kazakhstan.

In fact, China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions. In the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.

On the economic side, Russian companies are active in Central Asia, but cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, whose appetites are on a different scale.

Similarly, the almost bottomless Chinese consumer market is something that Central Asian producers are increasingly keen to have access to. The entire economic geography of this region is being pulled towards China not because of geopolitics, but because of its sheer economic weight.

The “Silk Road economic belt” strand of the Belt and Road Initiative, which cuts through Central Asia, also ties Russia into China’s wider vision of global prosperity. Consequently, Moscow has little interest in complicating it; rather, it is focused on ensuring it benefits as well.

The point being, this is not a competitive relationship. Beijing and Moscow are both active in Central Asia, but are different actors on the ground. Russia is the de facto provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone (including Russia) wants to tap.

Seeing this through the lens of competition suggests that Beijing would rather be the one who is stepping in to provide security guarantees, and that Moscow is somehow going to push China out economically. There is little evidence in either capital that this goal is in play. Rather, they both seem happy to operate in parallel, playing a supportive rhetorical role and staying out of each other’s way.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The question is in the medium to longer term – when China starts to worry about being dependent on Russian security guarantees.

At the moment, Beijing seems comfortable. But, at some point, this thinking may change. In many other places, China has increasingly started to try to provide its own security guarantees, and there is no reason to think this might not also take place in Central Asia.

On the other side of the coin, the tipping point for Russia is likely to be when Chinese economic investment into Central Asia starts to turn into unfettered Chinese economic influence and power in Russia directly.

But this concern appears to be receding, as Moscow seems to increasingly welcome and open up its economy to Chinese investment and connections – in large part due to tensions with the West.

But none of this is about Kazakhstan. Rather, this is about China and Russia’s larger posturing and view of their respective roles in the world. Within this context, Beijing is happy if Moscow is going to play a role in tidying up what looks like an increasingly messy bout of political infighting in Kazakhstan, while Moscow is pleased to be seen as the regional security guarantor.

In contrast to many other situations involving China, this is a win-win for them both.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

Another post from last month now to catch up on, looking this time at the question of how China and Russia might or might not be cooperating in Afghanistan for the excellent Nikkei Asia Review. It is a broader question which merits closer examination, and should the time emerge I hope to be able to dig into it. Some of the questions raised have touched on elsewhere and will feature in my upcoming book.

What are China and Russia up to in Afghanistan?

A coordinated pattern of engagement is starting to emerge

Members of the Taliban delegation, including its head Abdul Salam Hanafi, Afghan acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and representative of the Taliban political office Anas Haqqani, attend a media briefing following international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Wednesday.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

When Russia hosted a meeting with senior Taliban leaders in Moscow this week — after both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sent junior deputies to an earlier G-20 leaders’ meeting on Afghanistan — it raised the question of whether this is part of a broader strategic plan for how Beijing and Moscow plan to work together on the world stage.

Afghanistan represents something of a paradox for both China and Russia. Though fearful of the large American military presence that was on their doorsteps, Moscow and Beijing were secretly happy that Washington was taking responsibility for the security situation on the ground.

Now, irritated at the mess the U.S. has left behind, China and Russia have decided that the way forward is to engage with the Taliban and explore options together. Both engaged publicly with the Taliban long before Kabul fell, and both have left a substantial diplomatic presence since the Taliban took over. At the United Nations, Russia and China have both pushed for Taliban sanctions to be lifted, something highlighted during this week’s Moscow Summit.

China has strengthened its small base in Tajikistan, undertaking a number of bilateral exercises with Tajik special forces, and the Russians have bolstered the Tajik armed forces as well as strengthened their own 7,000-strong military presence there and participated in larger regional exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

But it is hard to tell how many of these actions are coordinated, with some reports hinting at Moscow’s frustration at the lack of cooperation with Beijing on the ground in Tajikistan. At the other end of the scale, both have engaged in regular large-scale joint military exercises on Russian soil, including regular exercises overseen by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian security pact that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

This year’s SCO Peace Mission counterterrorism exercise was specifically referred to as relevant to Afghanistan in the Russian media. Chinese media was more circumspect about the links to Afghanistan, but few could miss the connection. It was made particularly explicit during meetings, held shortly before Kabul fell, between the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military grouping that brings together a range of former Soviet forces.

On the ground in Kabul, there are some divergences. Early on, China and Russia worked together both out front and behind the scenes to try to influence the Taliban government to be inclusive. Russia now seems to have stepped back, while Beijing has leaned in, with China’s ambassador to Afghanistan making loud declarations of aid, then holding a floodlit ceremony at the airport to celebrate its arrival and then present it to his Afghan counterpart.

China has also proven willing to entertain Taliban entreaties for investment. Chinese companies responsible for two large mining projects that had come to a standstill under the previous government are now — at the Taliban’s urging — exploring whether they can restart operations. Discussions are also underway to reopen an air transport corridor with China to facilitate the export of pine nuts, though it is unclear who is going to subsidize the transport costs.

Moscow has not sought to match or offer assistance on any of these actions, instead deciding to restart a parallel international engagement track with the Taliban and other regional partners (including China) and pushing to get the US and west to foot the bill for any reconstruction. This is a way of trying to again influence the Taliban to moderate their behavior and actually build an inclusive government of some sort.

Both Beijing and Moscow recognize that this is going to be a more stable structure, but it seems Moscow is more willing to actually try to do something about it.

The multipoint proposals that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi put on the table at the G-20 summit earlier this month were a largely repetitive statement of the obvious: no terrorists from Afghan soil, humanitarian support, no sanctions against the Taliban government. Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov’s contribution showed a far more nuanced and targeted understanding of what needs to be achieved. His tough but engaging diplomacy reflects his long personal history on the issue.

What is missing from all of this is clarity of what division of labor that might exist between Beijing and Moscow. China appears to be publicly hugging the Taliban tighter, while it seems that Moscow is keeping them at one remove.

In turn, Moscow appears to be leading when it comes to the international engagement and recognition that the Taliban crave. On the ground, it is Russia that is providing hard security guarantees in Central Asia and leading on the military exercises. But ultimately it is Chinese investment that everyone is looking for — even though money has been limited, with the spigot unlikely to open up very soon.

It is possible that this is also an echo of the roles that China and Russia see for each other on the world stage. Beijing will use its financial resources to win friends and influence while Russia plays the aggressive leader willing to take risks and provide security backstops.

Russia can benefit from leveraging China’s potential as an investor to get the Taliban to act, while Beijing can step behind Russia when it comes to sharper points of difference. To use a musical analogy, maybe Moscow is the showy frontman while Beijing is providing the deep bass backup that keeps everyone dancing.

Another piece from a busy week, this time in the Spectator looking at China and Russia’s growing possible cooperation on the world stage. Not a title I would have chosen to be honest, as the article is more about cooperation than competition, but there we go. The trigger is Belarus in particular, but there is growing evidence that Beijing and Moscow are working in growing confluence. It is very hard to tell what cooperation actually looks like, and there are a few projects I am working on at the moment which explore this question in various different contexts.

Before posting that, however, am also adding a link to a really interesting discussion I participated in with RFE/RL’s excellent Majlis podcast on the impact to Central Asia of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with host Muhammad Tahir, his excellent colleagues Salimjon Aioubov and Bruce Pannier, and the always impressive Alex Cooley.

Why Russia and China are competing to woo Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin (Getty images)

Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko has been roundly condemned following the arrest of Roman Protasevich, but he still has one ally. Lukashenko spent the weekend at Sochi, on the Black Sea, where he was hosted on president Vladimir Putin’s yacht. The two leaders greeted each other with a hug. After dolphin spotting, the pair wrapped up a deal on the release of a $500 million (£350m) loan to Belarus which will help blunt the effect of fresh western sanctions. The announcement followed a celebration in Minsk earlier in the week for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist party, where ambassador Xie Xiaoyong lauded the bilateral relationship between China and Belarus. 

As ever, Beijing and Moscow are stepping in to support a regime falling foul of the west. China and Russia have long acted in a sort of harmony together on the world stage. They back each other up in the UN Security Council, and have a similar outlook on the world, fearing messy democratisation driven by western governments and NGOs. 

But underlying this is a tension; the two countries have a common aim, yet they still distrust each other. Russia, in particular, fears the way the scales in their relationship have increasingly tipped in Beijing’s favour. Beijing, in turn, worries about Moscow’s reliability, fearing it might abruptly turn westward. 

There are also tensions in China and Russia’s choice of allies. Russia has long been an arms supplier to countries like Vietnam and India who both have contentious relationships with China. Beijing has increasingly developed relationships with numerous former Soviet states, slowly winning over their economic favour to Moscow’s detriment. But both China and Russia are increasingly lining up together behind powers that are falling into conflict with the west.

Belarus is the latest example of this. As the UK, EU and US all pile in with sanctions, Moscow speeds up loans and Beijing emphasises its Belt and Road investment. Another recent example can be found in Myanmar. In the wake of the military junta’s coup in February and the subsequent crackdown, the EU, UK and US weighed in with sanctions. China’s response was to lobby regional bodies like ASEAN to not condemn the coup, demand that their companies operating in Myanmar be protected from assault and get approval for a $2.5bn (£1.8bn) natural gas project. Russia followed with more focused military support; Russian generals were among the few foreigners attending the national military day parade soon after the takeover, while Russian deputy defense minister was the first senior foreign official to visit the country in the wake of the coup. 

Other autocratic countries like Iran have long been supported by both China and Russia. While it is a remarkably delicate economic dance (all are ultimately, to varying degrees, fearful of the secondary impact of the aggressive US sanctions on Tehran), the security politics and dynamics have always worked closely together. The three have cooperated closely in intelligence terms, sharing experiences and information about their common foe: the Americans. Iran, Russia and China have held military exercises together in the waters of the Gulf; all three are ardent supporters of Syria’s despotic president Bashar al-Assad.

As for their responses to Covid-19, Russia and China have also been quick to co-ordinate their messaging. Both have highlighted western failings and made great hay of their collective push to offer their vaccines around the world. 

Their messaging more generally is also increasingly similar to each other’s. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long perfected the art of dissimulation and a nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach when commenting on international affairs. Deny everything and accept nothing is the usual approach. This is a playbook increasingly emulated by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose so-called ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is, in fact, a carbon copy of Kremlin megaphone diplomacy. Broadcasting marginal western voices as though they are reflective of the mainstream, pushing back on every assertion made that can appear derogatory and denying verifiable facts vehemently are also useful tools. All of these rhetorical methods are ones that used to be alien to the traditionally staid and bland Chinese MFA, but are now a regular feature of their repertoire. 

This growing coordination is new and is reflective of a relationship that is getting closer. While previously, it was possible to find and pick at fissures in the Sino-Russian relationship, these gaps are closing and the more salient question now is the degree to which they might be coordinating their actions. 

Their goal seems not only to bolster each other, but also to gradually strengthen a network of strategic alliances around the world which will support them in their broader confrontation with the west. Once a leader falls foul of the western alliance for whatever reason, Beijing and Moscow quickly step right in to fill the vacuum. While this might seem to be bringing them more unreliable and expensive allies than useful support, it is, in fact, strengthening their hand by giving them more cards to play and expanding the network of nations that stand behind them rather than the west. This means more votes in the UN and other international institutions, and validating their strongman approach to governance on the world stage. 

Beijing and Moscow are no longer simply an axis of convenience. Increasingly they are developing an alliance of autocracy whose sole purpose is to challenge the western order.

Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

New piece for the South China Morning Post, exploring the shifting Eurasian dynamics around China. My manuscript looking at China across this space is now with the publisher, so should be landing sometime in the near future.

There is no new cold war, the West is just losing influence in Eurasia

Is there a new axis between China, Russia and Iran against the West? Not quite. Beneath the surface of the anti-US alliance, there are undercurrents of hostility and scepticism. Across Eurasia, there is also a reluctance to take sides

Raffaello Pantucci

Published: 1:00am, 31 Jul, 2020

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A global conflict like the Cold War needs two sides. To the West, a new axis between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran appears to be taking shape. Drawing on the common thread of anti-Americanism, this alignment strengthens the sphere of influence that China has been building across Eurasia.

But in these very places where China has been most actively cultivating allies, underlying fears and concerns consistently undermine Beijing’s approach. Still, the arc of these relationships continues to bend in Beijing’s favour, and little the West offers by way of confrontation has been able to entirely break it. We are seeing less a new bifurcation than a gradual freezing out of Western influence.

The China-Iran-Russia coalition has been a long time in the making. Most recently, it has been expressed in attempts by Moscow and Beijing to protect Tehran from American sanctions. Bilaterally, China and Iran are in the process of signing a 25-year strategic agreement, while China and Russia are parroting each other’s narratives of the United States and advancing similar conspiracy theories about the source of Covid-19.

The three recently established, with Pakistan, a new grouping to focus on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops. None of this is especially new, as it builds on a long history of cooperation between the three. According to some reports, they may have shared intelligence to take down US intelligence networks within their countries; late last year they held joint naval exercises.

Military sales between the three are substantial, and they have cooperated diplomatically at the UN to stymie Western goals. Yet this coalition masks deep tensions at the official and public levels. Chinese companies may seem willing to step into contracts abandoned by European firms in Iran, but until recently they were more fearful of US secondary sanctions than the importance of China’s relationship with Iran.

As for Russia, its detention of a prominent Arctic academic on accusations of spying for China hints at an undercurrent of hostility in the countries’ hard-power relations.

Iranian officials have complained publicly about China’s Covid-19 information, while Russian officials have targeted ethnic Chinese for racial profiling amid coronavirus fears. And while Russia and Iran might be fighting on the same side in Syria, neither trusts the other’s long-term intentions in the Middle East.

At the public level, scepticism about China is prevalent in both Russia and Iran. With conspiratorially minded audiences, it does not take long to find voices wary of Chinese economic influence. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is trying to ride this wave, ahead of next year’s presidential election.

This translates more widely into other geopolitical relationships that cut across the loose coalition. Both Moscow and Beijing have close relationships with Saudi Arabia, which theoretically contradict their alliance with Tehran. And both Moscow and Tehran have close relationships with India, China’s foil in Asia with whom it is currently locked in an aggressive land confrontation.

But there is a ruthless pragmatism at work across the three countries and the broader region. The heart of Eurasia is increasingly a Chinese-dominated space in which the cold logic of realism reigns supreme. The idealism advanced by liberal Western democratic powers is being crowded out by China’s pursuit of economic prosperity above all else.

And it is striking to see how this logic applies even to relationships in which China seems more bent on confrontation. In Kazakhstan, there appears to be a low-level information war with China, with instances of nationalistic Chinese reporting on Kazakhstan causing friction at an official level. Yet, the two countries continue to want to work closely together.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi still seems uncertain as to how far he can push tensions with China. His decision to ban Chinese mobile apps seems toothless at best, even as his officials continue to actively participate alongside Beijing in multilateral forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Russia-India-China grouping.

And while he may have rhetorically moved towards the so-called Quad and Washington, his long-term future remains bound to Beijing, a reality he can hardly change, notwithstanding the current Indian media narrative.

And even if India did shift dramatically and aggressively against China, it is not clear that this would create a Western democratic bulwark within the region. Quite aside from India’s historical hedging strategy with regard to the West, Russia and China, there are concerns about India’s treatment of its Muslim minorities.

Some of India’s Muslim-majority neighbours have escalated these concerns, though they have a habit of doing so only when it suits their interests – much like how the issue of Xinjiang is raised selectively.

This is the reality of the situation in the heart of Eurasia – a complicated mess where idealism is in the rear-view mirror. There is a continuing narrative of a new cold war, but this time, the non-Western bloc is not a clearly unified structure.

Although Russia and Iran are close enough to be willing to overlook their differences in favour of China, theirs remains a skin-deep alliance. In the region, even among the like-minded powers that would more naturally fall on the American-led side, there is a confused picture – and no one really wants bifurcation.

We are not entering a new cold war, just seeing the gradual freezing out of the West in the Eurasian heartland.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

And now finally up to date with my latest piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at some of the geopolitical questions flowing around China, broader geopolitics and the COVID-19 mess. Covers ground not dissimilar to my earlier piece for the Telegraph though focused in a different direction. Has already received some anger online and was reproduced in a Singaporean local Today. In other media work, earlier piece for ORF on Kashmir and the UK and my last RSIS piece on the Maldives were both picked up and reproduced by Eurasia Review, while spoke to the Independent about recent UK terrorism numbers release and last interview in CTC Sentinel with Lord Evans was written up by the paper.

How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Forget Pax Sinica, China’s medical outreach is struggling to attract new friends. And even though Russia and Iran, its closest allies, may be on the same page, underlying tensions remain. There is a global leadership gap but Beijing is not filling it

Raffaello Pantucci

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The world is grasping for an understanding of how the geopolitics of the coronavirus will play out. One dominant theme is that China is mendaciously riding the media waves to paint itself as a saviour dispensing medical equipment.

Yet, it is hard to see how Beijing is benefiting from its medical diplomacy, with opprobrium from every direction. Even given China’s close alliances with Iran and Russia, it is possible to see tensions emerging.

It is not at all clear that China will come out of the virus crisis as the rhetoric winner, notwithstanding the frantic narrative seeking to paint it that way.

Given the energy that China appears to be putting into promoting and pushing its medical diplomacy, it is surprisingly hard to uncover much evidence of a positive reception. While news stories speak of Chinese doctors and equipment arriving in stricken European states, it is difficult to find many news stories trumpeting China’s magnanimity.

Those who do speak of it positively tend to be the ones who already hold a positive view of China. The bigger narrative that seems to have caught on of late, however, is that much of the Chinese equipment appears to be faulty. It certainly does not seem that China is winning many new friends with its medical diplomacy.

Where China is finding resonance is in the predictable places, but even this is with caveats. The almost comical conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US military weapon has, unsurprisingly, found resonance in both Tehran and Moscow.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the theory on his Twitter feed, while Russia’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, defended China’s work on the virus and helped to propagate narratives espoused by Beijing.

Yet, singing from the same hymn sheet about the virus has not swept away the underlying tensions. For example, Sinochem is refusing to buy oil from Russia’s Rosneft after the US warned of sanctions if it did so.

At the same time, Chinese purchasers have bought record volumes of Russian oil from other suppliers, taking advantage of record low prices to fill strategic reserves.

Iran may still be supplying energy to China, but some calculations have concluded that Tehran is doing this for zero income, given that it is paying off earlier Chinese investments. This is hardly magnanimous action on Beijing’s part to strategic allies in difficult positions.

The coronavirus has caused tensions between the three nations. Russia was one of the first countries to close its borders to China (doing so at the same time as Italy and before the United States), while reports from Iran suggest that its outbreak, which started in Qom, may have come either from businessmen travelling back from China or Chinese workers.

In Russia, there have been reports of East Asians being attacked, while Moscow bus drivers were told to report it to the police if they found a Chinese person on board.

We are seeing a classic dance play out here, with all three powers playing the same game of rhetoric (deriding Europe and attacking America), while the realist dynamics churn on relentlessly below the surface.

There is little evidence that the coronavirus has changed the dynamics between the three, nor that it has bolstered China and its axis of convenience on the world stage.

Some fear that in some ways Beijing’s displays of medical diplomacy will permanently reshape the international order. Yet, the reality is that the most damaging impact to the international order comes from the absence of leadership in Washington.

Some European capitals have been slow to respond to the pandemic and walked when they should have run, but the truth is that few expected the European Union to lead the world in responding to this crisis. The EU remains confounded by its fundamental governance contradictions.

But none of this means that China can credibly fill the vacuum. Rather, a vacuum continues to exist, and is only being made larger by the fumbling response from US President Donald Trump and his administration. This is the acceleration that is happening in international geopolitics. Power is ebbing away while others desperately thrash around for influence.

Yet no one is able to fill it, creating a confusing order where rules and behaviour are increasingly incomprehensible, where state leaders and their spokespeople lie, and we refuse to acknowledge goodwill and impressive gestures for what they are. The cynicism is obvious, but the absence of something better means such narratives are gaining greater attention.

China has undoubtedly used its medical aid politically, but ultimately this is not going to shape the new world order. We may not be seeing an end to an American-led order in favour of Pax Sinica, but we are witnessing a rebalancing of the two.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London