Recent Earthquake in Northwest China Might Have Been Something More…

In the early hours of January 7, 2022, a significant earthquake registered a 6.6 on the Richter scale emanating from the northwest Chinese province of Qilian…

Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Qilian Shan is a mountainous, rugged terrain covered in glaciers and forms the Hexi Corridor, a region that historically linked China with Central Asia. It is in this mountainous region where the 6.6 earthquake was experienced. Interestingly, the citizens of the region only felt it slightly and in the dead of night. Officially, it was earthquake. But citizens in the distant Chinese province began disseminating (unsubstantiated) videos and photographs of Chinese military movements throughout the province before and after the event.

I say “event” because, if what’s being bandied about on Chinese-affiliated social media accounts is at all accurate, that the vibrations felt within the Earth around Qilian were not, as reported, earthquakes but were, in fact, deep underground nuclear weapons tests conducted by the Chinese regime, is at all true then there is a significant change in China’s geopolitical posture.

Here are some of the conjectures floating around on Chinese-affiliated social media accounts presently. Please take the time to scroll through, watch the videos, and use Twitter to translate the foreign language into English:

While this is hardly conclusive evidence of a surprise Chinese nuclear weapons test, China rarely announces to the world when they plan on conducting such tests. Heck, there is even great debate among China watchers as to just how many nuclear weapons China possesses and where they might be placed–let alone where and when these systems are tested.

If the Qilian “event” was actually a nuclear weapons test, that would mean that the test went on when most people in the region were fast asleep in their homes. It was likely not a well-planned event because a quake of that magnitude could have potentially exposed the people of Qilian Shan to radiation and other negative effects. And, while Beijing usually cares little for the well-being of their population, in the wake of everything going on both inside Hong Kong and with the destabilizing impact of COVID-19, the regime of Xi Jinping must take care not to upset the proverbial applecart too seriously in China right now.

So, if the Qilian quake was a nuclear weapons test, what gives? Why do it now? Surely, these tests should have been conducted a year ago when tensions between the Chinese government and the West were at severe highs.

But, what if this potential nuclear weapons test was not directed primarily at China’s long-term strategic rivals in the West?

What if this possible nuke test was a signal to a country much closer to Chinese territory, say China’s purportedly new best pal, Russia?

As I wrote recently in The Asia Times:

The Russian movement in Kazakhstan is a complicating factor for none other than Moscow’s best frenemy, China. After all, it is Central Asia that China has envisagedusing as a bridge between itself and the European markets for its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. For China successfully to complete its BRI program through Central Asia, it needs Russia out of their way. 

Continuing on with my assessment about Russia’s recent foray into troubled Kazakhstan, I assessed that…

That Putin used the Russian-created CSTO mutual defense alliance – which does not include China – to do it is also a signal to Beijing that Moscow is not about to abandon its traditional role as the godfather of Central Asia, no matter how much money Beijing is throwing at the Central Asian states for their BRI projects.

While Moscow and Beijing are closer now than they have been since the heady days of the Sino-Soviet alliance, they still make strange bedfellows. And Washington is completely misreading the situation if it doesn’t think Russia’s move is a blessing in terms of slowing the marriage of Chinese and Russian power. 

Putin is signaling that he intends to go his own way; he will work with Xi on certain issues but if left to his own devices, Putin will do what he wants – what he needs to do – to preserve Russian power in a part of the world that Beijing very much craves for itself. 

I know what you’re presently thinking: China has already voiced its support for Russia’s “stabilizing” actions in Kazakhstan and Central Asia more generally. Of course, Beijing would do this. Xi Jinping is a product of his culture and there’s no greater thing an Asian leader can do than to “save face.”

By moving as rapidly and with other Central Asian powers that once previously belonged to the Soviet Union in the form of the Russian-led Central Asian Treaty Organization (CSTO), China had little time to process what was transpiring. After spending years, cultivating ties with Putin’s regime, and at such a precarious time for China on the world stage, Beijing needs all the friends it can get–especially friends that have the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal and is viewed as a real spoiler to the United States in Eurasia. Whatever problems Beijing had with Moscow’s moves in Central Asia, a region that Beijing has coveted since the 1990s, it had to keep quiet so as not to highlight any cleavages in the budding Sino-Russian entente.

While some of you reading this may think that Beijing was nowhere near as flummoxed by Putin’s rapid advance into Kazakhstan–at a time when he was so gung-ho (at least publicly) about taking on the West over Eastern Ukraine–and that Xi’s invocation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) support for Russia’s actions is somehow proof that China welcomes Russian involvement in Central Asia, you are off-the-mark on this one, sadly.

You have to understand that most Chinese leaders believe Moscow is a declining state about to collapse; that all Xi must do is to properly manage Russia’s decline and be primed to pick the old bear clean when it is least expecting it.

Putin has long fretted that the sparsely populated (though resource rich) Russian Far East (RFE) is going to fall naturally to the Chinese juggernaut, as there are now more Chinese living just across the border (and many who are moving en masse into the sparsely populated RFE with no intention of becoming good Russian citizens).

What’s more, the Kremlin has been deeply concerned that it was losing access to Central Asia to China, a region that Moscow long preferred to view as its own exclusive sphere of influence–even after the Soviet Union collapsed.

This comes after my colleague at The Asia Times, Bertil Litner, argued in a fabulous essay entitled “Russia Arming Up China’s New Cold War Rivals”:

But as tensions bubble and rise between Asia’s two giants, Russia sits quietly, if not perilously, in the middle of the most volatile Himalayan border standoff seen in decades. China and India are the world’s top two buyers of Russian military hardware, and any border war would be fought with both sides deploying arms and equipment procured from Moscow.

Such a scenario would put Russia-China ties to a crucial test, one that would further complicate the prevailing narrative of a New Cold War pitting Moscow and Beijing on one side and Washington and its allies on the other. Russia and China have formed a broad strategic partnership that has deepened in recent years vis-à-vis United States in theaters ranging from the Asia-Pacific to the Middle East.

But Russia’s legacy strategic ties underwritten by lucrative arms deals with allies and partners forged during the previous Cold War and who are now aligned overtly or at least partly against China’s various regional ambitions could ultimately limit how closely Beijing and Moscow draw together as New Cold War strategic allies.  

Litner goes on to demonstrate how Russia has spent decades backstopping the arms trade with Vietnam, a major rival to China’s regional ambitions in the Indo-Pacific at the same time that Moscow has maintained a tight relationship with India, China’s major regional challenger in the Indian Ocean (and for control over the Tibetan Plateau that separates southern China from northern India).

Further, Litner argues that Moscow is most frustrated with Beijing because many of the sophisticated weapons platforms they sell to Beijing are “retro-engineered” (copied) by weapons designers in China, mass produced, and then sold as a competitive product to those Russian systems on the global arms market.

With friends like this!

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, a man who was both close with and studied the post-Soviet Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, has long understood the importance of strategic triangles in Russian foreign policy. Viewing Russia as the ultimate middle-man in Eurasian affairs, Putin is preternaturally disinclined to simply cede his country’s sovereignty to anyone–least of all to the Chinese regime.

He needs Beijing to shield his own sclerotic regime from Western attack, and if he is not careful Russia may yet be consumed by the comprehensively more powerful rising China, yet Putin is playing close to the Primakov program of playing two ends of a triangle against the middle.

And Xi Jinping is learning this the hard way.

All of this is to say that the courtship of Russia and China is extremely difficult. And it is by no means a fait accompli. Thus, this returns us to the possibility that the Qilian earthquake was not a natural phenomenon at all.

While the Chinese regime did everything in its power to make it appear as though there was little strategic daylight between itself and the Putinist regime in Moscow over Kazakhstan–and the Sino-Russian entente is the most serious geopolitical challenge to US primacy in decades–the fact remains Xi Jinping cannot be pleased or reassured that Putin was merely acting to preserve “order” in Central Asia. Putin, I believe, was flexing his muscles and letting Xi know who the real powerhouse in the growing Sino-Russian alliance was (hint: not Xi).

This comes on the heels of my reporting with The Daily Express a week ago about the new Russia-China natural gas pipeline and how that deal actually weakened China by making Beijing more dependent on an already energy dominant Russian Federation:

As China makes stronger moves to become the dominant power in Central Asia, a place that Moscow views as its own sphere of influence, the greater chance there exists that relations between Moscow and Beijing deteriorate, leaving a great opening for the US to play the two Eurasian powers off each other.

So, it is possible, as a measure of deterrence against his own frenemy, Xi ordered a sudden nuclear weapons test in a province near to the Russian border and closer to Central Asia; a province, like Qilian Shan, that is the historical passageway from China to Central Asia. The historical significance, if it was a nuclear weapons test, cannot have been missed by Mr. Putin. China needs Russia. Yet, Russia (at least recently) seems quite intent on working with China on its own terms…and keeping Chinese power away from the regions in Eurasia, such as Central Asia, that Moscow believes is its own sphere of influence.

We’ve seen this behavior before.

In 2010, after the New START treaty was signed with the Obama Administration, Putin ordered the largest Vostok military exercise to be conducted since the end of the Cold War (at that time) along Russia’s border with China. The reason, I believe, that Putin was interested in doing the Vostok exercise in 2010 the way he did; practicing for a major war with China, was because the former Obama Administration had signed the ludicrous New START Treaty which effectively ceded nuclear superiority to Moscow. Thus, Putin, believing the American threat had been cowed (at least at that time), giddily refocused his attention to his east. It was the only silver lining in the entire, sordid New START affair.

In 2017, as I reported at this site at the time, China suddenly moved their DF-41 TEL ICBM launcher to Heilongjiang Province, a region directly across the border from Russia. Beijing claimed this move was in response to provocations by the former Trump Administration. Yet, as I noted at the time, it’s a very strange response to a provocation by Americans to move your largest nuclear weapons launcher to your border with Russia.

Alas, the Sino-Russian alliance is real. But, it is hardly perfect. And there are some immense growing pains in store for it. After all, neither China nor Russia, with the exception of the brief Sino-Soviet alliance, have a long history of shared cooperation. Of course, things could always change…and if the Americans keep making themselves targets for both Moscow and Beijing, it likely will continue the push for shared alliance between the two Eurasian autocrats.

But, if the United States could learn to step back; to live-and-let-live, even for a time, it is likely that the centrifugal forces of this newfound alliance would rip it apart. You are already seeing the fissures within the roots of this alliance. While the earthquake in Qilian may just be an earthquake, it may be yet another sign that Beijing and Moscow–for now–are superficial allies of convenience, looking to backstab the other at a moment’s notice, if they can get a better deal from the West.

It is most unfortunate that the West lacks any major news organization that is either capable (or willing) to investigate the Qilian Event beyond whatever the official sources tell them. Having the truth about this incident might help to better inform Western policymakers in their future dealings with these two powers. That, of course, is another matter for another time.

Perhaps Washington and Brussels should keep this in mind when dealing further with Russia.

Be sure to check out Brandon J. Weichert’s book on sale for a limited time at Amazon:

Republic Book Publishers.

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