China Pushes Into Russia’s Backyard
Xi’s visit to the SCO, with a stop in Kazakhstan, signals a desire to increase Chinese influence
That China’s President Xi Jinping is making Kazakhstan his first visit to a foreign country since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic must be food for thought in Moscow. Xi was on his way to Uzbekistan for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and there will most likely meet President Vladimir Putin and be seen to strengthen China’s ties with Russia.
It is a sign of weakness for both countries that they currently seem to need each other so much. But clearly, Russia’s need is greatest, particularly in the aftermath of its humiliation in Ukraine. That Xi has chosen this moment to go to Kazakhstan is evidence of a desire to increase China’s influence in a country which, because of its long borders and large Russian ethnic minority, has always been seen to be closer to Moscow than other central Asian states.
However, the Kazakhs have distanced themselves from Putin’s Ukraine invasion and see China as a balance. Kazakhstan has its own worries about revanchist Russian eyes on the part of northeastern Kazakhstan where ethnic Russians are a majority. Another sign of Russia's declining position in central Asia was the agreement between China and Kyrgyzstan to build a railway linking the two which would connect to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and then on to Iran and Turkish railways to Europe and the Mediterranean, an alternative to the existing China-Europe route through Kazakhstan and Russia.
China is keen to develop economic ties which would make it difficult for Kazakhstan to show support for its oppressed Turkic cousins, the Uighurs of Xinjiang.
Xi’s Han-domination-obsessed China is forever conscious that until the collapse of the Soviet Union and its independence in 1990 Kazakhstan’s population was just 39 percent Kazakh, while 38 percent were Russian. Now, Kazakhs are 70 percent and Russians just 18 percent. In Xinjiang, the Han population is about 42 percent compared with about 48 percent Uighur. Just as most Russians arrived in Kazakhstan in the 20th century, so most Han arrived after the Communist revolution. Demographics has followed the flow and ebb of political power.
The SCO originated as a China-led attempt to stabilize central Asia in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, the appearance, not major, of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, and the rise of Turkic consciousness in the wake of the independence of the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz.
For Russia, however, it is not only a reminder of how quickly its empire to the south and east collapsed, a reminder of the ever-changing map of the great Eurasian land mass. But maybe also of the possible vulnerability of what is left. Southern expansion and Christianization only came to an end in the 20th century. But having lost most of central Asia and much of the Caucasus, Russian Asia now consists of a vast area, mostly of forest, steppe, and tundra from the Urals to the Pacific.
The population of Siberia is just 21 million, and that of the Russian Far East is just 8 million. These are almost mostly ethnic Russians but meanwhile, large populations of Tartars and others at least nominally Muslim and other minority peoples predominate in large parts of Russia between the Ural mountains and the Volga river.
Putin’s reliance on troops from the fiercely independent Chechens of the Caucasus is another reminder of the continuing vulnerabilities of a shrunken empire. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the leader of the independence movement brutally crushed by Putin two decades ago but now a Moscow ally, has been openly critical of the Russian generals on whose side his people have been fighting.
As for China, the flowering of nationalism may, sooner or later, lead to cries for the return of the lands the Manchu empire ceded to China in the 19th century – which include those in the very same “unequal treaty” of 1860 by which Britain acquired much of Hong Kong. As it was the relatively minor border agreements reached between China and Russia between 1991 and 2005 met criticism in China. It is very hard to imagine that China will forget bigger losses such as those which include the major cities of the Russian Far East, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok.
Since its founding, the SCO itself has seemed to grow in importance. India and Pakistan joined in 2017, Iran is joining now and Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Belarus may do soon. Additionally, it has acquired a number of so-called Dialogue partners ranging from Cambodia to Egypt. It is an impressive list and China likes to see this Eurasian grouping as “showcasing new forms of international relations.” Specifically, it lacks any western nation, notably all of Eurasia west of Belarus, and South Korea.
But this negative attribute reveals the lack of common purpose the bigger it gets. Although Indian prime minister Modi is attending the summit in Samarkand, in this forum, India struggles to be the equal of China and Russia, and a brief hello with Xi hardly balances Modi’s membership of the Quad, the maritime-focused counter to China, nor his efforts to limit Chinese inroads into Indian markets. India can show independence from the west and gain some economic and arms benefits from not criticizing Russia over Ukraine. India is well enough aware of Russia’s weakness to keep too many eggs in that basket but it can try to use the SCO, whose summit it is scheduled to host in 2023, to boost its own status vis a vis western groupings and China-focused ones like the Belt and Road.
A year ago, when meeting in Tajikistan, the SCO was mainly preoccupied with the situation in Afghanistan. But nothing in the way of a common approach emerged then or since, and Iran’s membership will add to the complexities of the Taliban and its foreign relations with SCO members.
In Samarkand, once the most important and beautiful city in central Asia, the main business will be the optics, with Modi trying to be the equal of the Xi-Putin meet and Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi putting in a debut appearance.
Just reading the first few paragraphs already showed me that the US and EU are in panick!! It may seem that Russia and China are in defensive mode but watching how the two major economies are desperately trying to use the media to create gloomy picture of Russia and Chine, only confirm markets that the future is in Asia ....