by Elzbieta Maria Pron.

Putin’s come back to presidential power in Russia has been widely reported in international media. The czarist-like inauguration provoked comments on the renewed image of Russia. Putin’s unexpected resignation from G8 Summit participation shed light on Moscow’s new line of foreign policy for the coming six years. And while on the surface, everything around the Moscow-Beijing axis seems to be working soundly, Russia’s most recent behaviour towards close neighbours signals challenges toward Chinese interests.

For the past 20 years China and Russia have developed multi-dimensional collaboration through bilateral and multilateral channels. They conformed to a common stance at the United Nations Security Council on a number of international issues. China and Russia have also shared leadership roles in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001 in order to respond security threats in Central Asia and further regional economic and energy cooperation. The SCO has also functioned as a mechanism allowing both countries to further their multilateralism, and for China to enter the regions to its West.

By 2012, the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan seem not only to be the ‘soft underbelly’ of Russia, but increasingly of China too. Russia has sought for consolidation of its political and military influence in the region, while allowing China to further its economic interests in the 2000s. Over the past 20 years, China has emerged as the main trading partner, infrastructure constructor and developmental aid provider for Central Asia. The 2010s seem to have come with a major shift in Russia’s objectives.

The leitmotif of Putin’s foreign policy is ‘to position Russia on the international stage as a centre of gravity in Eurasia’ (as put by Lilia Shevtsova from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Since 2010, the Russian presence in the region has surpassed political and security spheres and aimed at recovery of the economic links once existing in the Soviet space. The Customs Union (CU), created in 2010 by Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus has been met with scepticism from the international experts’ community. Nevertheless, the recent addition of Kyrgyzstan to the CU confirms that there has still been room for increased Russian presence in economic and energy sectors. Kyrgyzstan has benefited as the only Central Asian WTO member state, a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods to other republics and the CU will hinder this cooperation.

As announced by his cabinet, Putin’s first presidential trip abroad will be to Belarus, and then only followed by the official visit to China. While the latter will take place around the SCO annual summit in early June 2012, the Belarusian can be seen as a consolidation of the CU and a step towards the creation of the Eurasian Union. Both unions undermine the economic interests of China in Central Asia, imposing trade barriers on imports from China and hampering trade flow. They are built on the legacy of ‘good, old times’ as well as the China threat theory that is widespread in Central Asia in addition to a lack of other possible allies suffering from financial crises.

Interestingly, the press releases in Chinese news and from the Xinhua agency provide scant commentary on Putin’s policies. They are limited to Russia-US tensions surrounding the G8 meeting and laconic notices of the incoming SCO annual summit. Such behaviour is compatible with the Chinese official line of praising Russia’s leading role in Central Asia and the Russian-Chinese strategic, friendly partnership. But with Putin on the offensive towards Central Asian markets, the hearts and minds of Central Asians will not be without impact on Chinese economy and Chinese national interests.

Elzbieta Maria Pron is PhD candidate at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Comments

  1. An interesting piece. I am not sure though that resignation is the right word for Putin’s non-attendance at the recent G8 summit. He sent Medvedev to represent Russia in place of him this time. Resignation would mean something quite different. A snub to the US, perhaps. But what evidence is there that this constitutes resignation?

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