Belt and road: can China and Russia extend their Central Asian coexistence to the South Caucasus?

Posted originally to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on 5 July 2022.

Rather than challenge Russia’s dominance over Central Asian security affairs, China has largely used it as an umbrella to advance its Belt and Road Initiative in the region. But can China and Russia extend this model of coexistence to the South Caucasus?

At first glance, it would seem so. China’s interests in the South Caucasus, just as in Central Asia, are oriented on the belt and road – the South Caucasus can be China’s shortest east-west route to Europe – and focused on business.

Similarly, Russia seeks to preserve the enhanced military presence and diplomatic influence it secured in Azerbaijan and Armenia with the treaty that ended their war in late 2020. Moscow’s motive, also as in Central Asia, is the preservation of Russian dominance in the former Soviet Eurasia.

However, the geopolitics of the South Caucasus makes it harder for Beijing and Moscow to share space there, compared with in Central Asia.

With regard to maintaining Eurasian hegemony, geography makes the South Caucasus a more sensitive region for Russia than Central Asia. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia have far more geographical access to non-Russian lands than Central Asian countries do.

Thus, unlike their Central Asian counterparts, they have been able to forge lasting economic bonds with other, non-Russian, powers. Moreover, it is usually Russia’s Western rivals that run the South Caucasus’ prime integration schemes, such as the European Union’s Eastern Partnership.

Russia generally resents foreign-induced changes to former Soviet Eurasia’s security and economic architecture, but the stakes are especially high in the South Caucasus because of the region’s West-leaning economic policies.

In this context, Moscow might feel uneasy at the prospect of the South Caucasus serving as a hub for Chinese-EU trade via the belt and road.

Russia lacks a strategic motive to support the expansion of China’s presence in former Soviet regions if it does not help in its rivalry with the West. China’s refusal to join US and EU sanctions on Russia after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 gave Moscow reason to concede space to the initiative – which was then unfolding in Central Asia – as a quid pro quo to encourage more Chinese solidarity against Western pressure.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that Russia is more politically, financially and economically reliant on China than before, owing to the West’s unprecedented sanctions campaign against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in February. It is unlikely to openly oppose Chinese proposals for projects in the South Caucasus, or anywhere else for that matter.

Yet, Russian consternation about the belt and road will still weigh on China’s South Caucasus policy. Beijing tries hard to present it as an inherently neutral, “win-win” project that does not seek to disturb the geopolitical status quo in the regions on its route.

In this context, China can be expected to avoid challenging Russia’s strategic goal of controlling the South Caucasus. The 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which gave the role of guarding key post-war transport routes between the two adversaries to Russian border guards, is a prime example of this goal.

Russia also uses its military presence in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to threaten Georgia’s main road and railway infrastructure if it feels Tbilisi is getting out of line.

To China, this situation makes the South Caucasus more of a minefield than a region eagerly awaiting its integration into the Belt and Road Initiative.

It is a toss-up whether Beijing’s best approach to the region is to lie low or leverage its trade and financial importance to Moscow to diplomatically engage it on the South Caucasus and probe for signs of Russian flexibility. For now, considerable uncertainty remains with regard to how Chinese and Russian interests will mix in the South Caucasus.

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