China and Russia are 'engaged in a contest for primacy in Eurasia'
One of the major byproducts of Moscow pulling toward Beijing will be "expanded" cooperation in Central Asia, according to Alexander Gabuev, a senior associate and chair of the Russia in Asia-Pacific Program at Carnegie Moscow Center.
"It is Inner Asia - Afghanistan, Mongolia, and the five post-Soviet states of Central Asia - that is likely to see the most impact from the deepening of Sino-Russia integration," writes Dmitri Trenin, the director of Carnegie Moscow Center, in a paper on the Sino-Russo entente.
"What is likely to emerge is a trade and investment zone covering all of central, northern, and eastern Eurasia. With China as its powerhouse, this area can be called Greater Asia - from Shanghai, its business center, to St. Petersburg, its outpost at Europe's doorstep."
Already we've seen several Beijing-led and Moscow-endorsed notable initiatives such as the Silk Road Economic Belt, the development of the Northern Sea Route, a high-speed rail link that will connect Moscow to Beijing, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
"Putin's vision of a 'greater Europe' from Lisbon to Vladivostok, made up of the European Union and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, is being replaced by a 'greater Asia' from Shanghai to St. Petersburg," writes Trenin.
However, despite the infrastructure projects and political cooperation, it's not all smiles in Central Asia.
"Mutually useful and apparently friendly with each other, the 'has-been superpower' and the 'wannabe great power' are engaged in a contest for primacy in Eurasia," writes Anita Inder Singh, a visiting professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi, in The Diplomat.
"As Russia turns its strategic axis eastwards it is struggling to maintain its influence in Central Asia - while China is moving westwards with the intent of becoming a great Eurasian power."
The tension arises out of the fact that China's become the main moneylender in Russia's backyard (which is composed of states that were formally in the Soviet Union that have been heavily integrated with Russia since the 1991 collapse.) At the same time, financially strained Russia can't offer the same "largesse and investment" as Beijing.
And China's investments in Kazakh energy "annoy Russia," according to Singh, and Turkmenistan (the fourth-largest holder of gas reserves) "seeks new report routes to minimize its dependence on oil pipeline in Russia."
Singh adds that the post-Soviet states "fear that Russia could use the EEU to bully them and make them dependent on a collapsing ruble," writes Singh. (Notably, we've already seen Kazakhstan reject Russia's single currency proposal.)
But this split between political and economic doesn't always line up nicely. As Cooley points out, Russia has "quietly opposed or dragged its feet on nearly every major economic initiative" that China's proposed within the SCO.
"Russia is reluctant to further empower China, even in a multilateral setting, as it prefers instead to promote its own regional economic architectures," such as the Eurasian Economic Union or the Russian-Kazakh Eurasian Development Bank, according to Cooley.
"Beijing in private has grown frustrated with this Russian reticence, but, undeterred, China has continued its economic activities bilaterally," he adds.
"Within the SCO, Russia enjoys an informal co-leadership role alongside China. Beijing also respects Moscow's red-lines on establishing political alliances and military bases in the former Soviet space," Trenin writes in his paper on the Sino-Russo entente. "This contrasts starkly with the Western policies of NATO and the EU enlargement in the former Soviet borderlands in Eastern Europe.
"A submissive Russia will give China more resources to prepare itself for the ultimate struggle for great-power status in Asia-Pacific. Russia may become a space for Chinese 'pilot schemes' to test the global governance models (most notably in finance) that Beijing wants to promote."
In any case, there's always more than meets the eye when it comes to Russia and China's political partnerships.
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