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China In Eurasia Briefing: The Limits Of The Russian-Chinese Partnership


While ties remain strong at the top between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, they look far different on the ground in parts of Russia. (file photo)

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

China won’t be an economic lifeline for Russia as it grapples with Western sanctions from its invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, as a recent report from RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service found, fallout from the war could see Chinese investment all but disappear from large parts of the country.

Finding Perspective: Chinese investment has been stalling for years in Russia’s Bashkortostan -- a Russian republic located some 1,300 kilometers east of Moscow.

While ties remain strong at the top between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, they look far different on the ground in more rural parts of Russia.

RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service found a litany of projects green lit over the years that exist only on paper and are currently derailed by a range of setbacks -- from budget issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic to local protests over lax environmental standards for investments to sweeping Western sanctions against Russia following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Western sanctions, which are already showing signs of scaring off Chinese investors from the Russian market, could further impede the already troubled projects in Bashkortostan and other parts of the country that are far-removed from the technology and energy sectors that traditionally attract Chinese capital.

Why It Matters: There are few reasons to be optimistic about Russia’s economic future.

Beijing has been quietly enforcing Western sanctions and moving cautiously to avoid any violations.

But while China is unlikely to prop up the Russian economy, it is expected to make opportunistic moves -- such as buying up discount oil and acquiring new market space left by Western companies who have withdrawn from the country -- once it becomes clear how to better comply with the sanctions.

As Vsevolod Spivak, an economist from the Russian city of Ufa told my colleagues: “The attractiveness of the Russian economy has obviously already fallen. But China is one of the few countries whose government is [willing] to enter the empty niches of our market, despite [the] risks.”

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● Despite the economic roadblocks, Chinese officials continue to pump up their warm ties with Russia. Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, defended them in a recent op-ed in the National Interest and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng assured Andrei Denisov, Russia’s ambassador to China that they would continue their “strategic coordination.”

● Beijing believes that the war in Ukraine serves as a welcome diversion for the United States, which would otherwise have its attention set fully on China, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Financial Times.

● While Russian propaganda networks went into overdrive to spread conspiracy theories over atrocities committed by Russian forces in the Ukrainian village of Bucha, experts at the Alliance for Securing Democracy found that Chinese state-run media and officials helped to amplify their efforts.

Expert Corner: War In Ukraine And The Power Balance In Central Asia

Readers asked: “Will the war in Ukraine lead to more countries in Central Asia turning away from Russia and toward China?”

To find out more, I asked Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center:

“Central Asia is already seeing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as proof that Moscow is not the source of stability that it was for years, and is instead, a source of risk for the region. So these governments will try their best to diversify their ties and distance themselves as much as possible from Russia, especially when it comes to economics.

“When it comes to more sensitive areas, like security and political ties, China is the main alternative that comes to mind, so China will definitely be able to increase its influence and better pursue its interests.

“But we also shouldn’t overestimate China’s real influence in domestic politics in Central Asia. This isn’t something that can be created overnight. Even if China wants to replace Russia in Central Asia -- which it doesn’t -- it doesn’t have the tools to do that. China doesn’t have the same level of understanding in the region as Russia does and there isn’t the same analytical or expert community that has its finger on the pulse of Central Asia.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. An 'Inadvertent Empire'

China’s outsized sway in Central Asia is the focus of the recently released Sinostan, a new book from Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, who argue that, while the region is becoming more attached to China, it is happening with little central direction from Beijing for how to wield this newfound influence.

What You Need To Know: “The ‘inadvertent empire’ idea was born out of the fact that, when we looked on the ground, we could see that China was the most consequential player,” Pantucci told me during an interview, “but it was equally clear that there wasn't anyone in Beijing that had a strategic vision.”

This characteristic of Chinese power in Central Asia is important to keep in mind as the war in Ukraine changes the political landscape across Eurasia. Russia has traditionally been the main external player willing to step in and deal with the region’s problems, especially when it comes to security.

But with the war showing no signs of slowing down, it’s uncertain if Moscow could continue to play this role, or if it would be welcome to do so by countries in the region. Moreover, it doesn’t look like China is eager to supplant it.

“The story of China's increased influence will only [grow] now,” Pantucci said. “But one main question is what happens when problems erupt. I don't know if China would be willing to step up to fix things.”

2. Special Delivery

Serbia received a semisecret delivery of a sophisticated Chinese anti-aircraft system amid growing Western concerns about an arms buildup in the Balkans, Mila Durdevic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

What It Means: The arrival of the FK-3 medium range anti-aircraft systems from China comes at a time of high tensions in the region following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Belgrade has close relations with both Moscow and Beijing and looks to also balance its ties with the United States and the European Union.

But there are fears in the West that the arming of Serbia by Russia and China could encourage the Balkan country toward another war, especially against its former province of Kosovo, which proclaimed independence in 2008.

Serbia is treading carefully amid the war in Ukraine. Belgrade voted in favor of UN resolutions that condemn Russian attacks, but it has refused to join international sanctions against Moscow.

One outcome of this maneuvering, according to the Belgrade Center for Security Policy’s Vuk Vuksanovic, could be Serbia leaning more heavily on China.

“It is an indicator and confirmation that, when all eyes are on Russia and when Serbia is under pressure to lower its ties with Moscow, China has become Serbia's primary partner in the east,” he said.

3. The View From Vilnius

My colleague Sashko Shevchenko from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service sat down with Laima Andrikiene, the chair of the Lithuanian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, for a wide-ranging interview.

Here are some notable excerpts as the conversation touched on Chinese foreign policy, Lithuania’s diplomatic spat with Beijing over opening a Taiwan trade office, and relations between China and the EU.

On The Taipei Trade Office: “Lithuania is not going to move backwards, we will move forward, and our representative office in Taipei will be open in the coming months. We already have our premises for our office [and] we are in the process of selecting the person to run that office. So, we are looking forward to our cooperation with Taiwan, our investments and trade, and joint-research in different fields [because] we know that it will be successful.”

On China’s Economic Pressure Against Lithuania: “From what I understand, the Chinese are well aware that we did not violate any rules of the [World Trade Organization] or [our] agreements signed with [Beijing]. So the [legal] case about China's pressure against Lithuania, which is tabled by the European Commission on behalf of the European Union, is not only revealing about [China], but about the reality for us and the [EU]. We are ready to cooperate with China, but we will never ever allow China to dominate [us.]”

On The Changing Mood About China: “If you compare Chinese investment in Lithuania [with] how much Lithuanian businesses have invested in China, [you’ll see that] small Lithuania invested 10 times more in China than they did in our country. So we were pioneers [and] are again in a way. For years, we were focusing on China, but it was the wrong approach…now we are building Chinese-free supply chains because they are using this tool against us.”

Across The Supercontinent

Wind Power: As conversation in Europe shifts to finding alternatives to relying on Russian energy, wind renewables are an attractive option. Although, as my colleagues Milos Teodorovic and Mila Durdevic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service report, that could mean navigating a complex web of Chinese investment.

Broken Bonds: The head of the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that their Chinese counterparts have suspended scientific cooperation and frozen joint projects over sanctions fears, RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports.

A Less Great Beyond: Amid a flurry of sanctions against Russia’s economy, its space industry is also suffering as it is cut off from vital foreign-made components. This could lead to a greater dependence on China, which is already pulling ahead of Russia when it comes to space, Konstantin Sergeev from RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports.

Down But Not Out: After Imran Khan was ousted via a no-confidence vote, Pakistan has a new prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, who has long-standing working ties with Beijing. My colleague Abubakar Siddique looks at what’s next for Khan, Sharif, and the South Asian country of 220 million.

The Xinjiang Picket: A Kazakh court fined activist Baibolat Kunbolatuly after he had previously been detained outside the Chinese Consulate as part of long-standing pickets demanding the release of ethnic Kazakhs from internment camps and prisons in Xinjiang, Ayan Kalmurat from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.

One Thing To Watch

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its growth forecast for China this year to 4.4 percent, well below what Beijing aims to achieve, as widespread lockdowns from COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increase pressure on the world’s second-largest economy.

This is the second time that the IMF has slashed its forecast for China in three months and it means that Beijing won’t meet its 2022 growth target of 5.5 percent, which could create further challenges for China’s leadership in a year when Xi is seeking a third term in office.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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