States are hardly ever friends for the sake of friendship. Cooperation and exchange of warm words are possible only if interests align.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, his first foreign trip after securing his third term as the helmsman of the People’s Republic, drew widespread attention amidst the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
As much as Xi and President Vladimir Putin may consider each other friends through an interpreter, the Sino-Russian partnership is one of convenience. However, any hope that the Sino-Russian Entente will fracture as it did with Russia’s Soviet predecessors should be dismissed immediately.
There is no better region to observe this reality than where the two powers meet: Central Asia.
Russia and China in Central Asia
Whether the Central Asian republics like it or not, Russia and China are geographical fixtures in the region. The Sino-Russian relationship has been summed up by the phrase that “Moscow holds the gun and Beijing the wallet.”
Undoubtedly, this dynamic has changed since Russia initiated its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. With its attention drawn towards Ukraine and countering the influence of what Putin calls the American-led “Collective West,” Russia’s ability to play its traditional role as a security guarantor in Central Asia has been challenged.
Moreover, China’s growing economic influence in the region cannot be dismissed, as it has come at the expense of Russia.
Yet despite the present and growing asymmetries between Moscow and Beijing, their partnership will remain formidable not solely because of mutual amity but due to external geopolitical pressures.
If we were to view Russia and China as a single “Eurasian Bloc,” it is fighting a full-scale war in the West and pressure in the South China Sea contained by the first island chain cordon of American-aligned states. These pressures will push Moscow and Beijing together.
Any incompatibilities that exist or may arise in Central Asia will be overlooked to resist the greater challenger towards their multipolar world order. Until pressure is lifted from Russia or China, searching for rifts within this Eurasian Bloc will be an unproductive hobby.
Being ‘Soft’ on China
Policymakers in Washington should consider this current reality and stop terrifying themselves with the “Moscow-Beijing Axis.” They can take a page out of President Richard Nixon’s detente with China that capitalized on the Sino-Soviet split.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, there were undoubtedly hopes that a reverse Nixon strategy could have been applied toward Moscow; this option has definitely been made impossible with the current regime after the International Criminal Court issued its arrest warrant for Putin.
Even if Washington realizes that detente with China may be the only option left, current and succeeding administrations will be criticized for being “soft” on China, making this direction political suicide.
Central Asian Republics
Perhaps a third option exists. The United States and its Western allies could begin making genuine overtures to the growing “non-aligned” states of the current Western-Eurasian confrontation. Where it will be most acutely felt for Russia and China would be an expanding presence of additional powers in Central Asia.
Moreover, the governments of Central Asia are eager for alternatives to break out of the dichotomous choice between their northern and eastern neighbors.
Kazakhstan has demonstrated this by pursuing its “multi-vector” diplomacy, while Uzbekistan has pursued widespread reforms under Shavkhat Mirziyoyev.
It was no surprise, then, that Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the two leading Central Asian republics during his trip to the region. An important outcome of his visit was the announcement that the Biden administration would provide an additional $25 million to the Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia.
However, this pales compared to the amount Beijing has invested in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Without trying to reduce Eurasia into a chessboard where a “great game” can be played, events in this geopolitical space cannot be ignored. Opportunities are widespread, and policymakers, not just in Western capitals, can benefit from providing countries in Eurasia alternatives, lest they find it themselves.
The Iran-Saudi detente brokered by Beijing is a symptom of the trend that these countries are finding non-Western alternatives.
A split is not inevitable, but the consolidation of Eurasia by Moscow and Beijing will be if too little is done too late.
Nigel Li is a contributing writer to the Taipei Times and discusses international affairs on his blog A Singaporean in Moscow.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
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