Western media and political institutions tend to describe China and Russia as something of an anti-Western bloc. More autocratic than Western governments — and more skeptical of open institutions and a free press — China and Russia often side with each other in international disputes against European and American interests.
While this characterization isn’t entirely wrong, it overlooks the competition and suspicion between Moscow and Beijing. Today the Sino-Russian rivalry is back in the spotlight, thanks to a recent Chinese proposal for an anti-terror alliance in Central Asia, which does not include Russia — and raises the possibility that tension between the two countries will grow in the coming decades.
For centuries, the region had been a source of strategic insecurity for both China and Russia, but more so for China, which was regularly on the receiving end of raids from Central Asian tribes. By the mid-18th century, both empires’ efforts to establish more control over the region — and also security for themselves — had borne fruit, as Russia brought Siberia under its control, and Qing-dynasty China established settlements in Xinjiang, which literally means “New Border Region.” While this permanent presence managed to mitigate the threat they faced from local tribes, it also put the two Eurasian empires on a course of competition and rivalry with each other in Central Asia that has endured to the present day.
For most of the period since, Russia has been more powerful than China, sometimes significantly so, and it grew accustomed to its “top-dog” role in the region, eventually extending its influence into control of the Central Asian Republics, and even Mongolia, during the Soviet period. Now the shoe is on the other foot, as re-emergent China continues to assert itself in a big way, worrying Moscow.
China’s proposed anti-terrorism alliance is the latest iteration of this kind of “Great Power Foreign Policy.” If formalized and constituted, the alliance would focus on sharing intelligence and coordinating monitoring and military efforts among China and Central Asian governments. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have expressed interest, and early talks have been proposed with other republics as well. The relative absence of details so far suggests that many sticking points could arise and torpedo the whole proposed enterprise, particularly since Chinese diplomacy has sometimes been ham-handed and overreaching when dealing with countries China regards as junior partners in a project.
That said, the proposal follows China’s recent $70 million grant to Afghanistan to help with anti-terror efforts, as well as broader Chinese commercial diplomacy in the region, notably involving Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative, designed to link up Europe and China overland through Central Asia. None of these efforts explicitly involve Russia at the top tables, so to speak. This omission of Russia from the proposed alliance is especially notable given that both countries have been involved in a major treaty group in Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for the last 15 years. This organization, at least on paper, is designed to engage in exactly the kinds of activities that Beijing is now attempting to undertake without Russian involvement and in an entirely new entity.
Possible terrorist activity from local Islamist groups is a real problem in the region; indeed, Islamic State has recently made more efforts at expanding to the region and has put Beijing more firmly in its crosshairs. This complicates any Russian efforts to claim that the alliance is merely a ploy for China to expand its influence. Central Asian peoples, mostly Turkic, are not part of the ethnic or cultural majority in either country. Nearly 25 million of them live in Russia and China, and are not especially well-integrated into local society, producing no small amount of resentment and tension. Ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang have tried to mobilize and agitate against Chinese rule before, and it’s possible that they will again, given Beijing’s harsh treatment of them. The Chinese security presence in Xinjiang has increased substantially, leading to what amounts to martial law in certain parts of the province. A permanent Chinese security presence in Central Asia would be merely an extension of this.
What makes these Chinese efforts at diplomacy and alliance-building in Central Asia especially notable is that they come at a time when Beijing is starting to throw its weight around with global diplomacy. Earlier this year, China finalized arrangements to establish its first overseas military base, a naval station in Djibouti — where the United States and Japan, among others, are already present. These developments come on the heels of a massive shakeup in the People’s Liberation Army, which involves trimming land forces and giving the armed forces a more explicit role to protect Chinese national interests around the world, rather than purely on national defense. This pattern of Chinese behavior is not lost on Moscow, which has been historically very uncomfortable with foreign involvement in what Putin often calls Russia’s “near abroad,” including Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
A major “X factor” in any possible Sino-Russian showdown in Central Asia is the United States. After nearly 15 years of military involvement in Afghanistan, the United States has a great deal of direct interest and experience in the region’s security, and may yet decide to weigh in or engage with the new Chinese efforts, should they come to fruition. The alliance could also provide a unique diplomatic venue for the United States to cooperate with Russia, if it considers Chinese efforts more suspect than Russian ones in the region, or indeed possibly the converse, with China and the United States jointly resisting Russian pressure. It could also set the stage for a “Mexican standoff,” if Washington decides it isn’t comfortable with either country’s presence there.
Ultimately, though, the Chinese alliance remains at this point a proposal. Russia, China and the United States often need each other as much as they distrust each other in foreign policy. For that reason, they may choose not to square off in Central Asia — at least for now.