Influential theories and ideals have shaped global politics in different ways. Mackinder’s Heartland theory, which transformed the fate of Central Asia, is one of them. After igniting Great Game between Russia and the United Kingdom, the idea of Eurasian landmass as the heartland of the world ultimately resulted in Second World War owing mainly to Hitler’s quest for lebensraum in the Aryan homeland of Central Asia. After the breakup of Soviet Union, Central Asia, due to its prime geographical location and rich hydrocarbon resources, again became a flashpoint of Great Power politics between Russia and the United States. Realpolitik of Putin successfully kept United States at bay. Putin sold ‘Changed Russia’ for a while but the Ukraine crisis finally let the cat out of the bag. Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions on Russia changed Kremlin’s role in the world in general, and in Central Asia in particular.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the deterioration of its relations with the West obliged Kremlin to drift closer to Beijing. Russia and China have come to a realization that if they want to maintain their standings in the region and keep Western powers out of Central Asia, they must accept the stakes of each other in the region. Even though, many ambitions of the two countries are not mutually shared. But they are willing to stress on the similarities and ignore the differences. The developments in global politics since 2014 contributed in strengthening the relations between Russia and China. Improvement in this bilateral relationship has made China the only choice for Russia to counter its isolation.
In the past, Moscow and Beijing shared tense relations owing, mainly, to conflict of interests. With independent Central Asia and its booming economies in the 1990s, Beijing wanted to establish a free trade zone in the region on the line of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as Central Asia was a lucrative consumer market for Chinese exports and the rich energy source it could provide for Chinese industries. Russia continuously resisted this Chinese move as a free trade zone in Central Asia would be flooded by the low-priced goods from China in the markets which were already saturated with low-end Chinese goods. This would effectively eliminate Russia’s economic dominance over the region. After crippling American and European sanctions on, and subsequent economic plunge in, Russia, appeasement of China seems to be the only viable option for an isolated Russia.
But, it does not mean that Russia is willing to hand over Central Asia to China on a silver platter. Russia has its own economic ambitions in the region, contrary to European observers who tend to downplay its economic influence in favour of its political clout. After Ukraine crisis, Russia is strengthening its economic ties with the Central Asian Republics. “Turn to the East” is the new economic policy of Russia to combat the loss of Ukrainian market and the American and European economic sanctions. “Turn to the East” is not a new economic policy of Russian economy; it has been in operation in some form since 1990. According to IMF’s Annual Spillover Report (2017), Russia is now substituting Ukraine as principal market for Turkmen natural gas. Now, Turkmen exports – mostly natural gas – constitute the largest share of exports from any other country to Russia. It is more than 9 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Turkmenistan. Russia is looking for a transport channel that would not only replace Ukraine but would also keep Central Asian States dependent on Russia.
But, China is already constructing an energy route for Central Asia. The new big thing in the region is the Chinese project of One Belt, One Road (OBOR). The OBOR consists of Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The SREB is a land trade corridor that will start from Chinese city of Xian and will reach Rotterdam in the Netherlands through CARs, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria and other European Union countries. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is a naval route starting from Chinese city of Fuzhou and ending in the Italian city of Venice. The OBOR is significantly focused on Central Asia as President Xi Jinping announced the project during an address at Nazarbayev University in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, in September 2013.
Despite its growing alliance with China, Russia has its own plans. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – previously the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia that became the EEU on 1st January 2015 – is an instrument for Russia to strengthen its economic ties with the CARs. The membership of the EEU was increased to five after the inclusion of Armenia (2 January 2015) and Kyrgyzstan (12 August 2015). Russia wants to extend this union to all Central Asian states. Ukraine, with which Russia had prime economic relations, was on the verge of signing the EEU treaty when the Ukraine crisis flared up. After this prolonged crisis, the EEU has fundamentally become a major driving force for economic integration between Russia and CARs by the establishment of diverse actors as well as institutions. The CARs are already integrated with Russia economically at a significant level. It is ironic that trade within the CARs is not so strong. Economically backward states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan look up to Russia for trade and economic assistance.
Turkey and Pakistan are two alternative routes for the transportation of Central Asian energy supplies. Russian cooperation with Turkey in the Syrian civil war and her recent effort to bring peace in Afghanistan can be analyzed in this perspective. If Russia opts for Pakistani route via Afghanistan, it would be in line with China’s OBOR which envisages energy channel from Middle East to China. But peace in Afghanistan keeps alluding major regional actors. Besides, it is unlikely that the United States would accept any Russian role in Afghanistan after Trump’s New Afghan Policy, announced in August 2017. Turkey would be a more feasible route for Russia as it would pass through Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – a Russian ally and fellow member of the EEU. Therefore, Russia has been engaged in resolving Nagorno-Karabakh conflict lately. Mediterranean energy route would be a divergence between Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia.
Although Chinese respect Russia’s position in the region, they are not going to play second fiddle to Moscow. China can bypass Russia by providing CARs with access to sea via Pakistan. China hopes to connect the CARs with Pakistan through its own Xinjiang region as it would not only provide China with cheap energy but would also give it a leverage to control Central Asian energy. Russia, on the other hand, is also cautious of Chinese moves. Integration with the CARs is China’s dream. Despite her efforts, even the SCO could not be transformed into a platform for developing greater Eurasian integration in the future. The OBOR project is not a free trade zone – it takes China closer to achieving this goal, though. China continues the talks to establish free trade zones with the Central Asian states, but keeps on stressing that the purpose of the SREB is not economic or political domination of the region. As Xi Jinping put it, “We do not seek to dominate regional affairs or establish any sphere of influence. We stand ready to enhance communication and coordination with Russia and all Central Asian countries to strive to build a region of harmony … [w]e need to vigorously enhance practical cooperation and be good partners of win-win cooperation.”
The New Silk Road project has several purposes for Beijing. It is a plan for boosting economic growth of China by increasing exports and for enhancing its access to resources, especially those of energy, and providing support to important domestic industries. Beijing will provide financial aid to countries traversed by its railroads and will develop their transport and communications infrastructures – in many cases taking repayment in the form of local resources.
But thing are not so simple as Chinese put it. The introduction of new directions to economic flows has created many strategic problems for the Central Asian countries. The trade with Beijing has become so crucial for countries like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan that it might jeopardize their economic and political independence. Take the case of Turkmenistan, for instance. China is the principal destination for Turkmen exports, especially of natural gas on which the Turkmen economy relies. The country’s economy would be devastated if China halts imports from it for any political agenda. Even Chinese exports to region show the vulnerability of the CARs. Cheap Chinese goods have become the need of these countries and suspension of their export would compel the governments to make political compromises.
Will Russia resist China’s expansion in its backyard?
Russia has been isolated; therefore, it turned to China. But, Beijing does not have this kind of compulsion for maintaining this bilateral relationship. This aspect gives China leverage over Russia. Nonetheless, Beijing is carefully treading the course as it does not prefer to use the leverage it has in form of a better economic and political stature. Albeit the disequilibrium in terms of power, cooperation and conciliation is keeping Russo-Chinese relations warm as both countries are focusing on similarities rather than differences. To maintain good relations, Russia is bearing up the increased economic presence of China in the region. With the nationalist President Putin in power, Moscow will resist any foreign encroachment in its near-abroad as it did in Ukraine when it felt that its interests were in jeopardy owing to the increasing influence of the European Union and NATO in Ukraine. Simply put, Russia considers China a lesser evil.
Moscow encountered every move of Beijing aimed at seeking economic integration within Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russia, itself, is a member of SCO, then why it is not ready to establish a single market under its auspices? Russia sees institutions like the EEU and the Russian-Kazakh Eurasian Development Bank as a preferred choice for economic dealings with the CARs. The Chinese proposal to create an anti-crisis fund worth $10 billion during the financial crisis of 2008-09 under the framework of SCO met opposition and refusal by Moscow. The provision of investment for infrastructure in Central Asia was the reason behind Chinese action. Russia’s willingness was not there when Beijing proposed the transformation of the SCO into a regional trade area. In 2012, China called for the establishment of Regional Development Bank at the SCO summit held in Beijing. Russia opposed this proposal too.
Russia is now more concerned with the Middle East rather than the Central Asia. Many observers believe that Russia has adapted itself to Beijing’s economic clout in Central Asia in order to focus more on the Middle East and Europe. Increased Russian interference in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, as well as its aggressive posturing toward Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, has increased Russian commitment in this part of the world. Russia needs Chinese help – or at least a tacit approval – in her ventures in the Middle East and Europe. On the other hand, the OBOR would connect Central Asia with Europe via Turkey and Iran, the two countries closely aligned with Russia in power struggle in the Middle East. Russia is keener to see herself as a power-broker rather than economic powerhouse. Chinese are not interested in changing political landscape of Central Asia as it is dominated by autocracies favoured by China. Chinese have learned from experiences of other rising powers that political hegemony results in conflicts. And, China is unwilling to fight unless it has to – like in South China Sea.
What will happen in Eurasia hinges on the Russian and Chinese ambitions, manifested in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative, respectively. If Beijing and Moscow opt for absolute advantages and continue with their current cooperation, they will dominate the region and will keep the US and other Western powers at bay. But if the zero-sum game prevails, both countries will involve in a battle for protecting their respective interests. There is potential for reconciliation between the EEU and the OBOR but it would take compromise and willingness on the part of both sides to cooperate. Pakistan is an important part of the OBOR and it is also drifting increasingly toward Kremlin in the face of US-Indian cooperation. Islamabad is also seeking to expand its trade relations with the CARs. So, relations between Russia and China particularly in Central Asia are a matter of significant importance for Pakistan. As Mackinder had stressed that Heartland of Eurasia, Central Asia would decide the fate of the world, the future of Eurasia will be heralded by the outcome of the New Great Game between Russia and China.