Russia’s Chinese neighbourhood

I recently spoke at the Sino-European forum co-organised by ECFR/Centre Asie and CICIR about the EU-Russia-China triangle. While thinking about the non-existent triangle I ran into the proceedings of another ‘strategic dialogue’ – between Russia and China. And the following exchange of views on Russia’s desire for a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space caught my eye.  One of the Russian participants (Alexey Arbatov) asked the following question (page 19):
“A certain part of Russian political elite thinks that our central objective should be the re-establishment of the Soviet Union in this or that form, the establishment of uncontested Russian domination in the post-Soviet space. This is not what the leadership thinks, but in political circles, the media, in political parties, and the parliament such a desire is very strong… My question is what is [your country’s] attitude to such a policy line? Would your attitude towards such a foreign policy direction be positive of negative?

The reply: “We understand that Russia has special interests in this space, and that Russia tries to preserve its influence, but only if this takes the form of a civilisational community, because these states are still independent states… Russia should treat these states as independent states from a legal point of view, and from the point of view of international norms.”

Lecturing Russia

Then another Chinese speaker started to ‘lecture’ Russia (page 3):

[in order to strengthen the cooperation between Russia and us the following things are necessary:] “First, is to elaborate new norms of international relations – move beyond spheres of influence thinking. Our countries should jointly create new norms of interstate relations that correspond to contemporary trends… more specifically mutual trust, benefits, equality, consultations, respect for the diversity of civilisations, a strife for joint development. The essence of these is mutual equality, respect, good neighbourly relations, pragmatic cooperation and peaceful co-existence, non-interference, common security and development. These new norms are qualitatively different not only from hegemonism and monopolism, but also from traditional spheres of influence thinking, which presupposes a desire to control and pursue relations based on inequality with small states. It also presupposes xenophobia… a controlled sphere of influence unavoidably provokes the dissatisfaction of the states of the region concerned and the resistance of other states. At the end of the day this damages the interests of the dominant state itself… And if such thinking is directed against strategic partners, neighbours, that are developing mutually beneficial cooperation in the region, then I think that this is entirely wrong. In reality when it comes to energy issues in Central Asia such a clash already happened…”

One might think this is Americans or Europeans lecturing (again) Russia again about the post-Soviet space.  I personally found striking just how similar is the Chinese discourse on its shared neighbourhood with Russia to the EU’s discourse. So here is Russia’s sphere of influence project squeezed between two neighbouring centres of power unwilling to accept a Russia sphere of influence neither East, nor West.

The end of the post-Soviet space

Certainly, some still have the illusion of a Russian sphere of influence. A Harvard-based Russian scholar argues that: “Though currently in a much-diminished state, a Russian sphere of influence is not simply the ambition of Moscow’s current leadership, it is geopolitical reality. Through its position on the Eurasian landmass, Russia controls many of these countries’ links to the outside world, including critical pipelines, railroads and ports. Russia also remains the destination for most of the region’s labor migrants and is the origin of large volumes of remittances, amounting to as much as 25-30% of some receiving countries’ GDP.”

Not exactly and not anymore. China is already a fast-growing economic and political actor in the post-Soviet space. And not just in the states of Central Asia which are very keen to play between Russia and China and diversify their energy exports to China (Turkmenistan just finished building its first gas pipeline to China). One curious recent news is a Chinese offer of a $1 billion for Moldova which dwarfed Russia’s offer of $150 , IMF’s assistance of $590 millions and US’s $262 million under the Millennium Challenge Account. Today, the EU is a bigger trading partner than Russia for Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Certainly, Russia is a very influential actor in the post-Soviet space and this will remain so. But having influence and having a sphere of influence are two very different things. Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Ukraine-Moldova-Belarus are not the post-Soviet space of the 90s anymore. This is something, Russia, China, the EU and the US will have to learn to live with.