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China Increases Influence in Russia’s Backyard as ‘Strategic Partnership’ is Tested

Last year China overtook Russia to become Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade topping $41 billion. In Central Asia, it is Beijing, rather than the West, that has the capacity to end the era of Russian dominance

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they pose for photos during their meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan on 3 July. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they pose for photos during their meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan on 3 July. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

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Unable to achieve any of its strategic goals in Ukraine, Russia struggles to preserve its allies in Moscow’s zone of influence.

Although several Central Asian and South Caucasus former Soviet republics seek to strengthen economic, political, and even military ties in the West, what seems to worry the Kremlin is the growing Chinese presence in the strategically important region.

Nominally, Russia and China are strategic partners. According to their leaders, the friendship between the two countries “has no limits, and there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. In reality, Moscow and Beijing are geopolitical rivals who often have diametrically opposed interests. Bogged down in Ukraine, and heavily dependent on China, in this relationship the Kremlin plays the role of a junior partner.

From left: Chinese President Xi Jinping, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pose for a photo at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation states leaders’ summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 4 July. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

During the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, taking place on 3-4 June, it was obvious that Beijing, rather than Moscow, is seen as the de facto leader of what is often described as “the world’s least known and least analysed multilateral group”.

Despite the fact that leaders of several countries came to the Kazakh capital to attend the event, only Chinese flags fluttered in the streets of Astana on July 2, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arrival.

Upon landing at the airport, Xi was welcomed by his Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, while all other SCO leaders – including Russian President Vladimir Putin – were met by the Kazakh Prime Minister Oljas Bektenov.

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Officially, Xi came to a state visit to Kazakhstan, which is why he received a warmer welcome than other heads of states. Still, as the Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilienko told Byline Times, out of 10,000 people who came to Astana for the summit, more than half of them are Chinese.

Byline Times was one of few Western publications covering the event where leaders of China, Russia, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, as well as Belarus – the SCO’s newest member – came to discuss prospects of multilateral cooperation. Given the meeting was behind closed doors, and independent journalists did not have the opportunity to ask questions, it is difficult to conclude what the outcome of the summit was.

From the Kazakh perspective, allowing journalists to get too close to Putin, who is known to keep at least 20 feet of social distance, would be a risky move. Any unpleasant questions to the Russian leader could have a negative impact on relations between Moscow and Astana.

Given that the Central Asian nation shares a 7,000-km border with Russia, and is a member of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Organisation (CSTO), as well as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), it did not have much choice but to make sure Putin feels comfortable in Astana.

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Indeed, Kazakhstan is known for its balanced “multi-vector” foreign policy. Despite being Russia’s ally, and having close economic ties with China, Astana also seeks to develop closer relations with the West.

It is geography that forced Kazakhstan to adopt such a strategic geopolitical approach. Bordering two giant neighbours – Russia in the north, and China in the south – it sees the European Union and the United States as a counterbalance to Moscow’s and Beijing’s political, military, and economic ambitions in the energy-rich country.

Despite its geographical size – being the largest country in Central Asia, and larger than all of Western Europe – Kazakhstan has previously not been recognised for its political influence on the global stage. But this perception seems to be changing.

The SCO summit was an ideal opportunity for the former Soviet republic to strengthen its role in the international arena. It also sought to position itself as a “middle power”, acting as a buffer and a stabilising force between major foreign actors operating in Central Asia.

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For Putin, on the other hand, it was an ideal opportunity to meet with Xi for the second time in less than two months, and to trumpet Russia’s “fully fledged partnership” with China.

In Astana, he also met with his “dear friend” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although Turkey is not a member, but a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Erdogan likely came to Astana to increase bilateral ties with Kazakhstan – a member of the Turkey-dominated Organisation of Turkic States – and also to once again invite Putin to visit Ankara.

Although prior to the Russian presidential election, held in March, the Kremlin hinted that Putin could travel to Turkey “after the vote”, his first foreign trip after taking office was to China. It is entirely possible that the Russian leader could not be sure that his “friend” would not “betray” him again, have him arrested, and send him to The Hague where he could face a war crime trial. Although Erdogan, during the meeting in Astana, once again invited Putin to visit NATO-member Turkey, it remains unclear if the Russian leader got “security guarantees” from his Turkish “friend”.

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One thing is for certain: Putin used the summit in Astana, as well as meetings he held with Erdogan and leaders of other countries, to show to his audience in Russia that he might be isolated from the West, but not from the rest of the world.

In reality, Putin is having a hard time preserving Russian influence in its own backyards. Last year China overtook Russia to become Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade topping $41 billion. Thus, in Central Asia, it is Beijing, rather than the West, that has the capacity to end the era of Russian dominance.


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