Russia, China and Central Asia. Some Aspects of Geopolitical Jealousy
Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
List of speakers

On May 14-15, the third Russia-Kazakhstan forum was held in Nur-Sultan. Over the course of the two days, the Valdai Club, in partnership with the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations, held five sessions with the participation of experts from the two countries. It turned out to be extensive, interesting and fruitful. 

China’s Rise: prospects and challenges 

It was important for Russian and Kazakhstani experts to “synchronise their watches” in light of the latest (US-Chinese) events, and talk about the changes that China’s well-known rise has generated. The violent reaction of the United States in the form of the trade war vividly demonstrates the Chinese-centric fears of the former hegemon, and indeed of the West as a whole. Russia and Kazakhstan view the rapid rise of China a little differently, although, as the forum revealed, not without some trepidation. 

China means a lot to Russia and Central Asia. After the Crimea-related events of 2014, China became the only major power that did not turn away from Russia. A pivot to the East is now seen as one of the main vectors of Russian foreign policy.

The Kissinger-style game of preventing the rapprochement of China and Russia became evident as a strategy long before the Ukrainian crisis. In the Western media, even now you can see articles about the urgent need to normalise relations with Russia, on the condition that it chooses not to converge with China. A concept is being developed that can be called the Non-Aligned Movement 2.0. It suggests the emergence of a bipolar world with the opposing sides being US and China. The other big countries should not have to join either side on the front lines; the best tactic is to remain neutral. 

The geopolitical jealousy resulting from the “too close” relationship between Russia and China is one experienced not only by enemies, but also by friends. For example, India, which recently joined the SCO, is unhappy with the Russia-China rapprochement. There is an opinion that Russia may lose its geopolitical independence in relations with other actors. 

Meanwhile, China does not flatter itself by talking about a “too close” relationship with Russia. Yes, they say, we are talking about friendship, about partnership, but not about a full-fledged alliance. Analysing the rapprochement between Russia and the West, many Chinese experts have expressed doubts about the reliability of Russia: now China is a friend for Russia, but if it normalises relations with the West, then at the first opportunity it will return to that direction. 

In turn, Russia for China is the frontman, removing chestnuts from the fire, while China quietly continues to grow. It was quite happy with the situation in the world after 2014, when all the negative US attention was focused on Russia. For China, it was a blow when the West targeted Beijing with its aggressive policies. After that, it became clear that China needs Russia on its path to global leadership. In Beijing, there is even such a concept that Russia is China’s strategic rear guard, and therefore Beijing’s attitude to Moscow will remain friendly for another ten to fifteen years, experts contend. 

In Russia itself, which is in the process of pursuing a well-known pivot to the East, everything is not so smooth. Scepticism about China manifests itself in both among liberals and in the conservative-patriotic camp of Russian public opinion. Incidentally, the Kazakhstani experts believe that the negative perceptions associated with a so-called “Chinese threat” are impressed upon Russia (including the media) by its Western “partners,” and from there proceed to Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet countries. 

Speaking about the benefits of cooperation with China, the Kazakhstani experts noted that Chinese investments in Central Asia within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative are very high. In recent years, the volume of exports of Kazakhstani products to China has increased; China has also become a focal point in terms of education. The problematic aspects of this relationship include: unfavourable conditions for the allocation of funds, an increase in public debt, as well as China’s use of economic pressure on its partners and the lack of transparency of its initiatives. In the end, many BRI-related projects simply do not meet the requirements of the states where they are implemented. The members of the expert panel could not recall a single country that could boast of an exceptionally positive experience cooperating with China.

So, the experts had to admit that within the framework of the BRI, the Chinese only do what benefits them. But, on the other hand, as one Kazakh speaker reasonably noted, why shouldn’t China be primarily concerned with Chinese interests?

Economic cooperation in Eurasia: trends and forecasts 

Central Asia is an “economic backwater”, and Kazakhstan is no exception, opined one of the Kazakhstani speakers at the Valdai Club economic session. Local businessmen do not strive for access to new markets, but they fight to divvy up the existing ones. No one works to pursue opportunities for export. Everyone thinks that a proverbial “elder brother” will arrive and somehow arrange everything. However, Russia, as an “elder brother”, does not actively consider the markets of the former Soviet countries in terms of expansion. In this situation, two phenomena are to blame: on the one hand, preconcieved notions, and on the other – powerful Eurocentricism. 

The hope is that within the framework of the EAEU, Russia will increase its economic influence, including through the expansion of the Union. In general, Russia’s Kazakhstani colleagues are convinced that the development of the EAEU completely depends on their northern neighbour.

Perhaps, as one of the Kazakhstani experts said, the intensification of economic cooperation will occur after the change of elites in the region. Another expert gently objected that it is better to remove the political component altogether from the interaction tools, since economic expansion, as we know, is much more profitable and causes far fewer questions among Western “partners.” The Russian experts ironically noted that there is nothing to worry about, because in Eurasia the political issues are being “economised,” and not vice versa, which, of course, slows down the process of integration, but makes it softer.

The development of the EAEU also suffers from the economic pressure that the West exerts on Russia. If there were no sanctions, cooperation within the framework of the Union would take on a new hue. The trade war between the USA and China could also have serious consequences for the development of Eurasia. 

With respect to economic cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan, there are three common problems and, accordingly, three areas for long-term development. The first is the stabilisation of the economy. Here Russia is moving more successfully. The second is the neutralisation of external shocks. The economies of both countries are equally affected. To counter these shocks, it is necessary to carry out structural reforms. The third is the development of a strategy of interaction with China. The worst thing that could happen to the region is if another front of the US fight with China opens there. 

A new social contract: values, identity and the transformation of social consciousness 

In light of the latest political events in the republic, the Kazakhstani experts practically did not talk about identity, but constantly returned to the issue of the transition of power, and attempted to link the departure of the nation’s former president with society’s request for change. 

According to polls, the society accepted the resignation of the first president calmly and without regret. Nevertheless, it was an important turning point: a de-sacralisation of power occurred; people realised that nothing terrible had happened with the start of the transition. 

A Russian expert said that the source of the problem of identity should be sought at the end of the last century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many new states emerged, and each was faced with the problem of building a new nation with its own political system. However, in creating a national identity, they lacked a notion of their future prospects. Eurasia completes this narrative. It can help in building a sense of national identity, both in Russia and in Kazakhstan, the expert believes. 

Kazakhstan-Russia media dialogue 

There is no media dialogue between Russia and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstani representatives said that despite the growth of the Kazakh-speaking population, the Russian media dominate in the republic. Of course, there is no “informational violence” on the part of Russia. But Kazakhstani media can’t win, when faced with the volume of Russian-language TV programmes. Russia is a window to Europe for Kazakhstan. 

The Russian participants in the session noted in turn that talk about Russian “pressure” and “violence” was not entirely correct. Russia uses successful Western formulas; Kazakhstan can also use successful Russian ones, or invent something of its own. There is no confrontation involved. 

Today, relations between Russia and Kazakhstan are not so much good-neighbourly as brotherly, the Russian participants of the Valdai session stressed. The Valdai Club forum in Kazakhstan has contributed to strengthen the dialogue between expert communities of the two countries. Will it continue? Time will tell.

You can read a summary of the first session (open to the media) on our website here. You will find more details about the Russia-Kazakhstan forum – 2019 in our social networks. We use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@ Stay tuned!