As Russia reasserts itself in its former Soviet backyard, the summit of an obscure Asian bloc in China offered a timely reminder that Beijing also has regional leadership aspirations—and, unlike sanctions-hit Moscow, can boast deep pockets too.
The summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) gathered a motley crew of Asian leaders in Shanghai on May 21st, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and presidents from post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as leaders from diverse countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia.
Central Asia was well represented, with four of its five leaders attending. Neutral Turkmenistan stayed away: It is not a member of CICA, a talking shop set up in 1999 at the initiative of Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev—who used this summit to propose rebranding CICA into the Organization for Security and Development in Asia.
The summit took place against a backdrop of heightened Russo-US tensions over the Ukraine crisis and Sino-US sparring over a military-hacking affair and, more broadly, over China’s geopolitical aspirations in Southeast Asia. All that fueled expectations that mutual antagonism with Washington would cement closer Sino-Russian ties.
“For Russia, China is today a natural geopolitical ally in the formation of a world order in line with China’s interests,” Aydar Amrebayev of the Almaty-based Institute of World Economy and Politics told EurasiaNet.org.
Security was high on the agenda, with China calling for a new Asian security framework dictated by Asian states rather than outsiders (a swipe at the USA) and Putin urging a “security architecture” guaranteeing “a real balance of forces and harmony of interests.”
Yet the summit yielded no real sign of Beijing and Moscow setting aside old rivalries to build a meaningful new alliance – though, in the 11th hour, Putin and Xi Jinping did set them aside long enough to clinch a long-awaited $400 billion gas deal.
Russian gas supplies to China will supplement supplies from the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, which already pump their gas to China.
Central Asian leaders did not come away empty-handed: Bishkek received $30 million for road building, and Astana clinched $1.5 billion in loans.
Putin is pushing for regional economic integration through the Eurasian Economic Union, an ambitious free trade zone whose foundation treaty is due to be signed by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus in Astana on May 29.
But the sight of China dispensing economic largesse as its economy powers ahead offered a sharp reminder that Central Asia tends to look east to Beijing for economic inspiration rather than north to Moscow, whose ailing economy is being further weakened by Western sanctions.
As Amrebayev put it: “If China is the engine [of the world economy], we are trying to jump onto the footboard of the departing train.”