Russia has traditionally viewed itself as the direct successor to Byzantium—a great Eurasian empire linking the West and the East. Control of Eurasia’s continental heartland is one of the main pillars of Russia’s status as a great power. Therefore, Moscow was wary when Xi Jinping, speaking in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana in September 2013, unveiled the grand Silk Road Economic Belt project, later expanded to become the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Russia Embraces Belt and Road, but Aims for Greater Eurasia
For a while, Moscow seemed hesitant about how to respond to the BRI. The Kremlin’s calculus changed following the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and its ensuing confrontation with Washington and its European allies. As Moscow’s link with the West was severely impaired, it needed to strengthen bonds with the East. Thus, in May 2015, at their meeting in Moscow, Putin and Xi pledged to achieve a “link-up” between Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt. Two years later, Putin became the guest of honor at the One Belt, One Road Summit in Beijing.
Despite praising the BRI, the Kremlin is simultaneously promoting its own vision of “a larger Eurasian partnership,” or “Greater Eurasia”—a network of existing and emerging “integration formats,” among which China’s Belt and Road will be just one component alongside organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Union, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and potentially the European Union.
The Kremlin does not need to be reminded of its weak position in the realm of Eurasian trade and finance, or that, traditionally, Russia’s crucial strengths lie in the political-military and diplomatic realms. Hence, Moscow has always strived to be the chief architect of a Eurasian political and security order. The kind of political order that Russia envisions is essentially one of a concert of powers – a model hailing from nineteenth-century Europe – that puts a premium on the relations between a few major powers. These, in Russia’s opinion, are Russia itself, China, India, and – with some qualifications – Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. Making up the bulk of Eurasia’s population, covering the majority of the Eurasian landmass, and being in possession of immense military capability, these six players would collectively manage the security and economic affairs of the region. Russia, while aspiring to be the main security and diplomatic broker in this Concert of Eurasia, is content to defer to Chinese economic leadership. Moscow’s preference for a new Eurasian order is reflected in its diplomatic activism, such as its leading role in securing the admission of India into the SCO and its advocacy for the admission of Iran. It is thus not surprising that “Greater Eurasia,” comprised of Eurasia’s most powerful non-Western nations, is deemed the counterpoint to the Western-dominated world order.
Russia and China in Central Asia: So Far, So Good
Central Asia—the geographical heart of continental Eurasia—has long been predicted as the place where Russia and China would ultimately clash. Indeed, Beijing’s geo-economic penetration of Central Asia began long before the BRI, and China has already outpaced Russia in areas such as trade, investment, and infrastructure development. Still, Chinese trade and investment activities in Central Asia, whether or not conducted under the banner of the Silk Road, have in fact benefited, Russian interests. For instance, under the Silk Road scheme, Chinese cargo bound for Europe would first traverse Kazakhstan and then be transited through the Russian railway network. There is no feasible alternative route for Chinese cargo to reach Europe overland other than through Russia. While southern routes that go through the Caspian and Black Sea regions have been proposed, such routes which completely bypass Russia may never become operational or commercially viable. The alternative routes will have to pass through multiple customs borders, and the Central Asian countries involved have not yet been able to agree about technical and financial issues. Additionally, these routes will require cargo to cross the Caspian Sea, which will increase costs.
There is also the risk that Chinese economic expansion into the Central Asian “stans” will allow Beijing to exert political control over these countries. However, such a risk is mitigated by the extant Sinophobia present among Turkic Muslims of Central Asia, especially those who live in countries bordering China such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Beijing’s recent treatment of Turkic minority groups in Xinjiang certainly did not improve China’s image among these people. The Kremlin knows that countries in Central Asia will continue to cultivate strong relations with Moscow, even if only for the purpose of hedging against China. Such logic also applies to Mongolia, a nation which seems to harbor the highest levels of Sinophobia in the world.
While expanding trade and investment in Central Asia, Beijing has largely respected Moscow’s political primacy in the region—a fact greatly appreciated by the Kremlin. Today, China has become the main external contributor to the region’s economic growth, and Moscow is aware that, without China, Central Asia would be much poorer and thus more susceptible to radical Islamism—a menace which, in Russia’s view, is more real and dangerous than the threat posed by China.
The United States provides an extra impetus for Russia-China collaboration in the region. For Moscow and Beijing, the Islamist threat is often conflated with what they perceive as Washington’s nefarious intentions. While China suspects the United States of being interested in destabilizing Xinjiang, Russia accuses the United States of aiding the Islamic State to take root in Afghanistan, with the aim of “sowing disorder in Central Asia, Russia and other countries neighboring Afghanistan.”
The Kremlin has concluded that the main thrust of Chinese military-political expansionism is toward Southeast Asia and the Pacific rather than toward Central Asia and continental Eurasia more broadly. This is one reason why Russia feels relatively relaxed regarding China’s growing economic presence in its Eurasian underbelly. In fact, were China to ever attempt to increase its political influence in Eurasia, it would face strong resistance not only from Russia but also from other regional powers such as India and Iran. Incidentally, Russia has partnered with Iran and India to develop the North-South Transport Corridor which is designed to link the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, via Iran and Russia, to Northern Europe. Billed as an alternative to the Suez Canal, the corridor can be seen as a competitor to the China-centric Silk Road routes.
Leaving East Asia to China
It is important to distinguish Russia’s strategies toward continental Eurasia from those toward East (Pacific) Asia. For Moscow, the East Asian theater – to the south of the Russian Far East – is not a top priority. Although Moscow’s concept of “Greater Eurasia” nominally encompasses East Asia, the Kremlin treats Pacific affairs as a secondary concern. Even though this strategy has never been spelled out officially or publicly, the Kremlin appears to have refrained from counterbalancing China’s influence in East Asia, and may have even been aiding China’s hegemonic pursuits in the Asia-Pacific region. In terms of the major issues of East Asian geopolitics, such as those concerning the Korean Peninsula or the South China Sea, Russia tends to support China and has always displayed benevolent neutrality.
Moscow’s disinclination to counterbalance China’s rising influence is primarily due to the fact that the majority of East Asia lies outside the area of Russia’s vital national interests. Russia’s main policy for East Asia is of a purely defensive nature: keeping sovereignty over the geopolitically vulnerable Russian Far East. As long as Russia retains formidable military and nuclear power, its Far Eastern territories will be safe from the aggression of potential predators, be it China or anyone else.
By not opposing China’s ambition to reemerge as the suzerain of East Asia, the Kremlin expects China’s backing, or at least a show of benevolent neutrality, in areas of prime significance to Russia—such as the Middle East and Ukraine. In a way, China’s expansionism in East Asia and the Pacific region benefits Russia because it diverts American attention and resources from confrontation with Moscow in Europe. The Kremlin will not lift a finger to thwart China’s advance in the region. Moscow is prepared to enjoy the spectacle of the battle between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific region and is hoping to reap benefits from their epic competition.
Artyom Lukin has been Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia) since 2011. He is also Associate Professor of International Relations there. Lukin earned his PhD in Political Science from Far Eastern State University in 2002. His areas of research interest include international relations and security issues in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific; Russian foreign policy; and social, political and economic affairs in the Russian Far East. Lukin has authored multiple chapters, papers, and commentaries, in Russian and English, on Asia-Pacific international politics and Russia's engagement with Asia. His latest book (co-authored with Rens Lee) is Russia's Far East: New Dynamics in Asia Pacific and Beyond (Lynne Rienner, 2015).