Staunton, August 23 – Both Russian and Asian analysts say that Moscow’s focus on Ukraine is allowing Beijing to accelerate the process of transforming both Russia east of the Urals and Central Asia into its “near abroad,” thus undercutting in the east the very policy goals Vladimir Putin has proclaimed in the west.
In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow analyst Aleksandr Knyazev said that “China, unlike present-day Russia with its Ukrainian problems and reactive policies, is living according to its own strategic programs in this regard and slowly but truly realizing them.”
In Tokyo’s “The Diplomat,” commentator Ryskeldi Satke argues that “Moscow’s projects in the [Central Asian] region are coming unglued just as the West steps up sanctions over the Ukraine crisis,” thereby reducing Moscow’s influence in a region that it has long viewed as its own “near abroad.”
But the most extensive discussion of this is provided by Mikhail Kalishevsky who argues that Russian “hatred of the West and the passionate desire of the Russian ruling bureaucracy to belong to something ‘Big’ and ‘Eurasian’ may lead to the completely logical result of transforming” Central Asia and Russia east of the Urals into “China’s ‘near abroad.’”
Emblematic of this shift was last week’s visit of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to Beijing and his agreement to develop a strategic partnership with China over the next five years, including Tashkent’s active support of Chinese projects like the Silk Road, Chinese rail and gas pipeline projects and the creation of an Asian Bank for Infrastructure Investments.
In large measure, Kalishevsky says, Russia has only itself to blame for this shift both in Central Asia and in Siberia and what is now the Russian Far East. Western sanctions and the recession in the Russian economy have reduced Moscow’s ability to develop these regions “almost to zero.”
To be sure, he says, Putin’s regime “especially recently as shown by the import ban on certain Western food products does not like to think in economic categories” and appears to believe that it can always defend its influence in Central Asia by other means, including military ones.
But China has stolen a march on Russia in that regard as well. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization which Russia hoped to dominate increasingly has become a Chinese operation. It has proclaimed its support for the stability of borders in the region. As a result, it could even happen that the countries of Central Asia might appeal for help against Russia!
Some Russians may view this as “impossible” because Russia and China are “allies.” But they should be aware that “in the Chinese language, there is no word for ‘ally.’ The closest in meaning term translates literally as ‘vassal.’” As far as China’s deference to Russia is concerned, they should remember that Beijing has pointedly refused to help build the bridge to Crimea.
Moreover, Kalishevsky points out. The Chinese are quite prepared to follow Moscow’s own policy of defending its co-ethnics abroad, a group that is ever more numerous in Central Asia and Russia east of the Urals. Beijing doesn’t even have to announce a new policy in that regard.
As the Russian commentator points out, Article 50 of the Chinese Constitution specifies that Beijing retains the right to defend ethnic Chinese living abroad. “As we see,” he says, it speaks not about “’citizens of the Chinese Peoples Republic’ but simply about ‘Chinese.’” And it can thus draw on “the attractive ‘legal’ precedent’” Russia has already provided.