China’s increasing influence in Central Asia – historically regarded as Russia’s backyard – is no threat to Moscow, according to the Russian ambassador to Beijing.
In a wide-ranging interview with the South China Morning Post, Andrey Denisov denied there was a growing anti-Chinese sentiment among the Russian public and said the two countries should combine their resources instead of competing with each other.
China’s engagement in Central Asia was mainly economic, he said. Rather than a threat, Russia regarded Beijing as a force to boost regional economies.
“China is active in the economic field in these countries, which are … areas of traditional interests for my country and traditional engagement,” he said. “Chinese engagement [in Central Asia], as far as I understand, does not hurt Russian interests.”
Denisov said Russia wanted to see more integration between the China-led “Belt and Road Initiative” and the main Central Asian economic and security groups.
These include the Eurasian Economic Union – a grouping of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security alliance made up of Russia, China, India Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
“China has financial resources. China can move and transmit excessive capacity in some branches of industries to these areas,” Denisov said.
“It is a complicated task. China and Russia cannot just compete, but can combine efforts.”
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He also dismissed concerns of a growing anti-Chinese animus as Chinese investment increased in Russia’s far east.
Opposition to a Chinese bottling plant in Lake Baikal – which resulted in a court ruling that the local government’s permit for its construction was illegal – was triggered by environmental concerns, he said.
The US$21 million project was to have been built by AquaSib, a Russian firm owned by a Chinese company called Lake Baikal Water Industry in Daqing, a city in China’s Heilongjiang province.
“People are not unhappy with Chinese investment at all, people are unhappy with environmental problems. That exists in all countries,” he said, while conceding that some local people in the lake area were unhappy to see foreign equipment and workers there.
An online petition against the plant garnered more than a million signatures, suggesting that historical Russian anxieties about Chinese expansion may continue to affect relations between the two countries.
Some analysts have questioned whether the friendship between the two governments may be overshadowed by growing public worries in the face of China’s increasing business presence in Russia’s far east.
Analysts are also closely watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Asia pivot” after his attendance at the East Asia Summit in November.
Putin became the first Russian head of state to attend the forum – made up of Asean leaders and eight of their dialogue partners – since the country became a full member in 2011.
His presence was widely seen as a sign of Russia’s interest in expanding its influence in Asia, particularly among the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where China is currently competing with the US for influence.
Denisov said Russia was looking to convene a fourth summit between Russian and Asean leaders given the effectiveness of the gatherings, which have occurred annually since the first meeting with the 10-member bloc at the Russian resort of Sochi in 2016.
Russia also had its own ideas to foster integration in the region, he said.