The Eurasian Promise
China’s Westward Turn to Benefit Russia
The latest meetings of the CIS heads of state and the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, held in Astana on October 16-17, irradiated plans to link the Eurasian Economic Union with the Silk Road Economic Belt and with efforts to develop cooperation in Central Asia, including in the military-political field. The leaders adopted a document stating their commitment to coordinate integration activities.
Simultaneously, the chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the executive body of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), sent to the European Commission a general proposal to launch joint efforts for integrating the Eurasian and European Unions. Brussels is known to be working on similar proposals in a bid to break the sanctions gridlock. True, the mandate of EU negotiators remains unclear since they will need the consensus of all of their member states to make necessary decisions. And some of them, looking up or obedient to the United States, will continue to pull out all the stops to prevent such rapport. As a result, negotiations may be held for the sake of negotiation and prove completely useless.
Russian observers analyzing Eurasian processes could take a sigh of relief as they had feared that the potentially historic agreement between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping on integrating the two projects would be drowned in red tape or incompetence. In fact, bureaucrats in some of the EEU countries had tried – as before – to make bilateral loan arrangements with China even though such uncoordinated and knowingly weak positions could hardly be rewarding for them. In the absence of consistent strong signals from the top and initiative from Russia, Chinese partners were also inclined to opt for bilateral contacts. Work in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) seems to slow down following its decision to adopt new members, and, like the Eurasian Economic Commission, it is waiting for new heads of executive bodies to take office.
In the meantime, the growing closeness between Russia, China and other Eurasian countries was met with increased resentment and counterpropaganda, primarily in the Anglo-Saxon press, but not only there. A series of publications in foreign media claim that the Eurasian project had no future and that none of the countries can benefit from it, except China or Russia alone. The authors go out of their way apparently trying to convince themselves, and Russian and Chinese elites along the way, that rivalry between the two countries in Central Asia is unavoidable and will only increase. Like before, this propaganda is supposed to raise Russians’ suspicions about China and convince them that there is no alternative to unilateral economic alignment with the West, which basically means dependence on it. Diplomatic instruments were used to make the point clear. The U.S. Secretary of State held the first ever meeting with his colleagues from former Soviet Central Asian republics on the sidelines of the latest UN General Assembly in New York. Central Asian countries regularly speak of the pressure from the Americans who are trying to prevent them from establishing closer ties with each other and from embarking on a path of integration with Russia and China.
The United States has halted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. The official reason is the growing activity of the Taliban in that country. But observers have long been wondering how U.S. statements on the imminent troop pullout correlated with the intensified construction of military infrastructure, including airfields and bases, in Afghanistan.
All these developments are taking place amid experts’ warnings about possible fresh efforts to destabilize the region in order to complicate integration between Russia and China and obstruct the creation of a new economic and logistics center in Central Asia that could link not only China with Europe but also Russia and China with South Asia, primarily Iran and India. It seems that expert works and real politics are focusing on how to saddle an inevitable generational change in leadership in Kazakhstan and the majority of Central Asian countries, and, if bringing pro-American forces to power is highly unlikely, then at least destabilize the region by employing the same methods that were used in Ukraine. If the experts I tend to trust are right, the purpose is to harm not only Russia but also China and their attempts to establish a closer relationship with Iran which is destined to become a “super power” of the Middle East due to its enormous potential (the best educated population in nearly the entire region, oil, natural gas, relatively developed industry, and science).
But enough of challenges; let us better talk about the tremendous opportunities the EEU, the Silk Road Economic Belt, Russia, China, Central Asian countries, Iran, and potentially India, South Korea, and some other states will have if they further the philosophy and practice of integration.
These possibilities are opening up as Russia is making its long-awaited turn to the East after years of procrastination, debates, habitual bureaucratic muddle, and disagreements. Advanced development areas have been created and become operational in the Russian Far East; the free port of Vladivostok will encompass most of the seaports on Russia’s Pacific coast; special regional development instruments are beginning to be used; work is underway to build the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, and supporting infrastructure. All this should bring in more investments and accelerate economic growth.
But there is an equally important issue that has not been solved yet intellectually, economically or administratively, and that is how to connect remote western and central parts of Siberia endowed with the country’s best human resources, developed science, industry, and natural wealth to global markets. Altai is experiencing relative overproduction of food but has no logistics capacities to export it. Linking these regions with Eurasian markets would be an obvious solution, but the total absence of meridional transport routes connecting Siberia with the rapidly developing regions of China and South Asia makes it virtually impossible.
China’s westward turn is also quite inspiring. It is brought about by objective factors. China’s economic development is growingly based on the “Asia for Asia” model rather than the “Asia for the world” one used before. The Asian and adjacent markets appear increasingly promising for China as it has come to realize that constructive cooperation with America is hardly possible. Trade aside, Washington is obviously seeking to build a containment mechanism in the Pacific, acting pretty much in the “soft” Cold War-era spirit. So the Chinese leadership has had to develop economic ties in the western and southwestern direction with Iran, Pakistan, India, Persian Gulf countries, and primarily Europe. Beijing has announced a “16+1” concept envisaging investments in sixteen Central and Eastern European countries. China and Hungary have signed a memorandum of cooperation as part of the Silk Road initiative. Major investment projects, which look more like financial assistance, are underway in Serbia and other Balkan countries. Entrepreneurs and some politicians in the European Union, which is living through a systemic crisis with no end anywhere in sight, tend more and more to view Eurasian and Chinese markets as a way out.
Ten months ago, Russian experts argued that the European division, exacerbated by the crisis in Ukraine, could not be overcome using old patterns, and suggested creating a pan-Eurasian space of cooperation, development and security. The initial reaction was completely negative as to anything else coming from Russia amid the current standoff. Of late, however, Europeans have been considering this idea in a more positive, and even semiofficial, way. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Finland view Eurasian cooperation as an opportunity not only to rescue Europe out of its own security trap, but also enter new markets and break out of economic stagnation. Interestingly, Poland, too, has joined the “16+1” concept and even claimed its authorship either because it has realized the economic consequences of the Ukrainian tragedy, which Warsaw actively helped to instigate, or because it wants to continue to be a “spoiler,” as it did before in the Russia-EU and Russia-Germany dialogues, and hinder Eurasian integration being prodded by Washington or of its own propensity to create problems for its neighbors.
One way or another, China’s westward turn, which includes, among other things, the development of logistical ties with Europe and South Asia, is objectively beneficial for Russia as it is making an economic turn to the East. Russia needs broader economic and political access to the Pacific Ocean and South Asia to become a first-rate great power of the twenty-first century, which means both a Pacific-Atlantic and a full-fledged Eurasian one; a country with strong economic and cultural bonds with Europe, the cradle of Russian civilization, but at the same time with fast growing ties with the East and South-East and their rising markets, and playing, along with its EEU partners, mainly Kazakhstan, a key role in the rapidly emerging Greater Eurasia.
China, pushing and pulling towards Europe, will be a leading economic player in this new community. But Russia will also have a crucial role to play, hopefully an economic one soon, too, but as of now primarily as a powerful military, political and diplomatic force in Eurasia, the guarantor of regional and global security and protection from destabilizing external factors, such as terrorism. Russia has been successfully playing this role lately when it stopped the West’s expansion in Ukraine that could have trigged a big war, and when it preemptively began to dictate the rules of the game in the struggle against instability and radical terrorism in Syria and around it. It is a dangerous role of course, but probably the only possible one for a country where its elites, liberal or anti-liberal, fear decisive economic reforms and thus the strengthening of “soft power,” while knowing well, if not preferring, how to use “hard power.”
Potential developments around Russia also prompt the use of “hard power.” In fact, things appear to be relatively calm only in the East, but the probability of conflicts between external powers there is growing. The situation in the West does not look extremely dangerous at the moment but can become such if the Ukraine crisis is inflamed from the outside. The main short-term risk lies in the distraction of attention and resources from more profitable or preferential aspects of foreign policy and domestic development tasks. The South is sliding into deep destabilization that is likely to last decades. The question is where it will go and who will control it. For the time being, the initiative has been seized by Russia.
It is a pity, of course, that the Russian elites failed – probably for objective reasons (were not allowed) – to extend the period of peaceful development. But the current situation also offers enormous opportunities for developing Siberia and turning Russia into a bridge between rising Asia, China, and Europe, declining but still wealthy and culturally close; a bridge not only logistical but also industrial, technological, and cultural.
But for the Eurasian promise to become reality, an active policy is needed to integrate Siberia with the South, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Silk Road Economic Belt systemically and in coordination with partners, notwithstanding Ukraine, Syria or other areas of instability.
The first five months after the policy of integration was declared raised concerns about its possible failure. The latest CIS and EEU summits somewhat dispelled them but not completely. There is no time to waste. Two decades have already been lost when Russia missed out on the first two rounds of Asian, and particularly Chinese, economic rise for objective (economic chaos) and subjective (indolence, ignorance, and Euro-centered mentality of elites) reasons.
Until recently, the turn to the Far East was slowed down by weak bureaucracies. The creation of a Greater Eurasia, where Russia is to take an important and advantageous place, will require systemic work, not sporadic actions as before.
One of the obvious ways to go is to build an efficient bureaucracy. So far only the Foreign Ministry has been stoically trying to coordinate integration efforts. But integration is above all a question of economic strategy that has to be managed at the top political level. This suggests the need to create a permanent commission or a working group on European cooperation under the authority of the prime minister, or the presidential chief of staff, or a specially-appointed deputy prime minister, which would involve not only ministries and agencies, but also experts and entrepreneurs from Russia and neighboring countries. Such a commission could coordinate and harmonize the dialogues between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt projects, and between the EEU and the European Union, if the latter ever beings. Finally, it could invigorate the still dormant Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is holding much promise and which could potentially become a key body for the burgeoning Greater Eurasia.