The informal alliance forged this month between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping demonstrates the global political potential of the seemingly unrelated issues between Ukraine and Taiwan.
At the same time, it is a serious threat in Asia and Europe for the United States and its various allies. China has no particular interest in Ukraine and cannot openly support Russian attempts to seize the territory. However, this may embolden Putin who otherwise lacks foreign friends. Meanwhile, it may also appear to be strengthening Beijing’s hand by increasing the cost to the United States, Japan and others in defending Taiwan.
However, the alliance of mutual benefit is also a reminder of the weaknesses of both sides, both internationally and in their efforts to support the empires created by the Qing and Romanov dynasties. For China, which had no friends in Asia other than Cambodia and Pakistan, it was partly a response to the Quad (United States, Japan, Australia, India group) and the Australia- United States-United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Russia needed an anti-Western friend to try to offset the ill will generated by its threats against Ukraine.
Natural resources are one of the main issues that bring them together. China wants this relatively close gas supply. Russia wants to reduce its dependence on exports to Europe. Another is the desire for stability in Central Asia, which means cooperation against the spread of Islamist ideas, a goal he shares with the current rulers of those states. And second, he wants to use the money and implied threats to keep the lid on Turkish identity that could tie Central Asian aspirations to those of the oppressed Uyghurs (and some Kazakhs) of once almost all Turks from Xinjiang.
Russia meanwhile, as evidenced by its zeal to save President Tokaev’s government in Kazakhstan from an uprising, is seeking to maintain what influence it can among the states that became independent only 30 years ago after centuries of Russian then Soviet occupation and colonization. The large Russian minority in Kazakhstan – and the ever-present threat of Russia claiming the part of northeastern Kazakhstan where Russians are the majority – acts as a powerful brake on former President Nazarbayev’s stealthy process of Kazakhization.
Old enmities have for now been put aside by China. Beijing remained silent that the Qing Empire lost huge amounts of territory to Imperial Russia, land now in Russia and also partly in Kazakhstan. One loss was in the same so-called “unequal treaty”, the Peking Convention of 1860, which expanded British territory into Hong Kong through the addition of the Kowloon Peninsula. Undoubtedly, this claim of Chinese revenge could be revived in the future if circumstances so require.
Meanwhile, the Russians, while tending to support Putin’s nationalism towards Ukraine and Europe, continue to worry about their grip on the sparsely populated Far East adjoining much more populated Chinese territory, and even Sakhalin’s proximity to Hokkaido in Japan. (Sakhalin was also once part of the Qing Empire)
This extends to his military status. A deal with Xi means Putin can ferry troops from his eastern borders to his western ones. But this reminds us that Russia as a whole has only 145 million inhabitants in a huge country with multiple borders and also many minorities (20% of the population). Putin has spent heavily modernizing Russian forces, including its naval capability in Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk. But it has more to lose than gain from China’s acquisition of Taiwan. Meanwhile, they both wonder where their common neighbor, nuclear-armed North Korea, is headed.
Despite all their claims of mutual interests, whether in space cooperation or against Western liberalism and so-called “color revolutions”, China is aware that Russia’s global influence is modest, especially in Asia. Its traditional friends, notably India and Vietnam, have moved closer to the United States for fear of China.
Meanwhile, still on the sidelines, another former imperial power seeks to expand its influence: Turkey. The loss of vast territories by the Ottoman Empire to Imperial Russia and its Slavic associates – notably Bulgaria – in the 19th century is still relevant. Many of these regions still have predominantly Muslim populations, which now counts for a Turkey under President Erdogan that is less secular than any of his Republican predecessors.
Erdogan’s relations with Europe are strained by his authoritarian tendencies and the realization that Turkey will never join the European Union. Thus, he seeks to extend his influence in the Middle East, and becomes aware of his Turkish cousins in Central Asia for whom he can appear as a model of development. Meanwhile, he remains a member of Russia’s enemy, NATO, and is determined to limit Russia’s influence in the Middle East.
Three months ago, the Cooperation Council of Turkish-Speaking States changed its name to the more direct Organization of Turkish States. It unites Turkey with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with Turkmenistan and Hungary as associates. It has no political role so far, but Turkey, more developed and as populous as the other members combined, clearly has the potential to use its linguistic, ethnic and religious affiliations to expand its influence in Central Asia.
Turkey itself has a migrant population of Uighurs and has raised the issue of Uighurs in Xinjiang with China. Compared to Russia, let alone China, the Turkic peoples may seem of minor importance. But they occupy vast areas and are growing in number as the number of (ethnic) Chinese and Russians has begun to decline.