In the regular drumbeat of arrests of alleged Chinese spies, one case last month stood out.
It did not involve the U.S. or another rival of China, but Russia, whose security services accused a prominent scientist of selling classified data on technologies for detecting submarines.
Meanwhile a court in Kazakhstan in October convicted the Central Asia nation’s pre-eminent China specialist of espionage, a move widely interpreted at the time as a warning against increased meddling by the superpower next door.
Both men maintain their innocence and if China is spying on Russia, Moscow is surely doing the same. Even so, the fact the two cases were made public suggests a more assertive China has become a concern for nations considered its partners, too.
Countries such as Russia, Iran and Kazakhstan need to still get the investment, trade and in some cases diplomatic support they want from Beijing, while preserving some economic independence and pursuing foreign policy goals that at times conflict.
“These are all fragile relationships,” James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said of the web of ties between China, Russia and Iran, plus Turkey. “They have been extremely good at finding common ground and managing differences, but it is very opportunistic.”
Most of the focus has been on China’s economic partners in the so-called Global West — from the U.S. to Europe to Australasia — as they roll back once enthusiastic engagements amid growing alarm at President Xi Jinping’s heavy handed response to COVID-19, including the emergence of so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy, plus Beijing’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
The U.K. recently reversed a decision to let tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. build parts of the nation’s sensitive 5G networks, and suspended an extradition treaty with Hong Kong. France and Germany are pushing for greater scrutiny of foreign — especially Chinese — investment in the European Union, which last year labeled China a “systemic rival.” Supply chains are being shortened.
There’s no such recoil among China’s strategic partners. Russia is working with Huawei on a 5G rollout. Iran is trying to close a deal that would pledge $400 billion of Chinese investment, as well as arms sales, in exchange for discounted oil, according to as-yet unverified leaks of the draft agreement.
Russia doesn’t feel threatened itself, because right now China can ill-afford to alienate a neighbor that’s an important military and resource power in its own right, according to Vasily Kashin, a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies.
Still, “Russia’s government and experts have of course noticed a significant change in Chinese diplomacy and behavior, which sped up during the last several months and especially during the COVID-19 crisis,” Kashin says, adding there’s potential for China’s greater risk-taking to create problems in Russia’s relations with third countries. “We’re watching.”
Take India, Russia’s biggest market for arms sales, where fighting along a disputed border with China led to the deaths of at least 20 Indian troops in June, the worst such incident in four decades. While that flare-up has since moderated, “it’s quite possible that the new politics on the Chinese side contributed to the behavior of Chinese commanders in the field,” Kashin says.
The clash was awkward for Russia, which hosted a virtual meeting of the three countries’ foreign ministers in an attempt to de-escalate the crisis. India’s Defense Minster Rajnath Singh then traveled to Moscow to press for acceleration of a $5 billion delivery of sophisticated S-400 air defense systems, currently scheduled for December 2021. China got its first S-400s in 2018.
Similar tensions apply in Vietnam, another long term Russian security partner, where state-owned oil and gas major Rosneft PJSC has a joint venture exploring waters inside Vietnam’s 200 mile (322 km) exclusive economic zone that are claimed by China. Last year, a Chinese vessel buzzed a Japanese rig that Rosneft had leased for the project.
There’s little sign any of this is poisoning the overall relationship between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two have a mutual understanding on their freedom to act with third countries, according to Alexander Lukin, a prominent Russian author on China and head of the international affairs department of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“But of course if it comes to a serious confrontation, that would not be profitable for Russia and it would have to choose,” Lukin said. Last week, India was preparing to move an additional 35,000 troops to the so-called line of actual control.
The still unpublished agreement with Iran, meanwhile, has triggered fierce controversy in Tehran. Opponents — including the former conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — accuse the government of selling off the nation’s sovereignty.
“On the surface, a more assertive China that’s willing to take risks in its relationship with the U.S. is good for Iran, it’s very good,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a London think tank. Even an empty promise of investments that might relieve sanctions pressure can be leveraged in the Islamic Republic’s dealings with the U.S. and Europe, she said.
At the same time, though, past experience suggests both that actual Chinese investment will fall dramatically short of any number pledged, and that Iran will do nothing that risks its autonomy, leaving both sides frustrated. “Ultimately, Iran needs strategic and economic diversification,” said Vakil.
Iran, India, Russia and Azerbaijan this year took two essential steps toward completing the long delayed International North South Transport Corridor — a Belt and Road-style initiative of their own — for a ship-and-rail cargo route from India to Northern Russia.
That corridor would also connect Kazakhstan, often described by China as the “buckle” in the Belt and Road initiative. Even so, the Kazakh government found itself on the receiving end of the wolf warrior diplomacy that has emerged from some Chinese embassies since the pandemic. Most recently, the embassy in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital, claimed an unknown pneumonia more deadly than COVID-19 had broken out in the country.
Tensions were already growing last year over what China saw as Kazakhstan’s harboring of some Muslims who had escaped across the border from Xinjiang’s Uighur re-education camps. Then came the arrest and conviction for espionage of Konstantin Syroyezhkin, a China specialist at the Kazakh presidency’s Institute for Strategic Research.
“Yes these are fellow authoritarian states, but they are also self-interested states,” said Parag Khanna, author of “The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century”. Recalling the urge to defect from partners in game theory, he said: “Everything seems stable until it is not.”
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