Eurasia – The Unlikely But Probable Partners

 John Harrison

There has been a lot of talk about new forms of cooperation between Russia, China and some other Asian countries within the framework of the many various pan-Eurasian organisations that have been set up fairly recently: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, ((2002 onwards)): ChinaKazakhstanKyrgyzstanRussiaTajikistan, and Uzbekistan, mostly aims at military cooperation), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU: ((2014 onwards)): Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kirgizstan) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB, recent) which is part of the Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR, recent, an initiative proposed by Xi Jinping that focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries which includes land routes from China across Russia and a maritime route (see map), Also known as the ‘Silk Road’) project. So are we standing at the cusp of a new age, or witnessing an impractical attempt to mix ‘noodles and meatballs in a breaking bowl?’

Different things to Different People

Geographically, Eurasia is not easy to define, but its importance to the world is immense. Central Eurasia includes the former USSR countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and Afghanistan, but more crucially it also includes parts of – or is of great importance to – their much bigger neighbours Russia, China, India and Pakistan. Central Eurasia is thus a mix of countries and parts of countries, ranging from the very small to very large, whose relationships with each other do not always have a happy history.

EAEU. Source: Wikipedia

In Russia, there seem to be two schools of thought as to what Eurasia actually is. One group of Russian economists and strategic planners see Eurasia as consisting of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In his book  ‘New Eurasian Age: China’s Silk Road and the EAEU in SCO Space’,  Jeff Schubert, a visiting lecturer to Moscow’s Higher School of Economics says that these people tend to think of Eurasia in economic terms.

Sergei Karaganov

The other group which is made up of people, such as political scientist Sergei Karaganov, at the Higher School of Economics, tend to see Eurasia in much broader terms, that easily encompasses countries in Western Europe and moving as far east as Japan, although Japan is unlikely to join the club as long as sovereignty issues over the Kuril islands are not resolved, and this could not be for a very long time. Views concerning the ‘broader’ view are often expressed during discussions at the Valdai discussion club, however plans are not implemented at the speed at which they are proposed, if ever. This vision of Eurasia sees half the planet coming together as a geopolitical entity, rather than a straight economic unit. Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone as far as to include ASEAN (The Association of South East Asian countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam). Before the Ukrainian issue arose, Vladimir Putin spoke about a free trade zone ranging from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Since 2014, the conversation has shifted more to the EAEU and other Central Asian countries, plus China, and China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ or the ‘Silk Road’. Xi Jinping also envisages ASEAN nations being a part of this new system of alliances between countries, which includes economic cooperation with the whole of the EAEU.

ASEAN countries. Source: Wikiedia

There are, according to Jeff Schubert, many actual and potential issues that stand in the way of a successful linking of the EAEU and the SREB – and particularly with the involvement of the SCO. “These include the actual uncertain futures of the EAEU and SCO themselves. While Russia would like to see the EAEU expand, particularly with the addition of Tajikistan, the EAEU is having trouble developing a positive internal integration strategy. New SCO members Pakistan and India will undoubtedly bring their own views about what the SCO should and should not be doing.”

Jeff Schubert

The view from China varies again. In an interview, Jess Schubert commented: “It’s pretty clear from the words of Xi Jinping, during the Party Congress in Beijing, that China does not really see itself as a Eurasian entity, and never will. I think the Chinese are much more ambitious and see themselves becoming a world power, and their ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative is really about going out to the world, and certainly not being restricted to Eurasia.”


Different Economic Models

The different visions of Eurasia are naturally based on different economic models. If one takes the narrower EAEU version, then an autarkic economic model whereby income is generated from trade and industry is envisaged, not from external financing. Under this economic model, which has been discussed by Yaroslav Lissovolik, industrial policy is focussed not so much on import substitution but on pro-export economic policies. The South Korean industrialisation experience is often cited as an example. Politicians and economists advocating the broader view of Eurasia, however, such as Sergei Karaganov tend to see China providing the money for the development of much of Eurasia, certainly for the Central Asia countries and possibly Iran, with Russia providing the security. Russia has exhibited that it can and is willing to use force in places like Syria, whereas China doesn’t necessarily have the experience or the desire to use military force. That may be changing, but not significantly.

Russian support of the broader view of Eurasia can be seen by an attempt to undermined the credibility of the EAEU by appointing Andrei Belyaninov to head the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB). The EDB is owned by EAEU countries plus Tajikistan. Belyaninov’s credibility has been compromised by his past.

Yaroslav Lissovolik

As Jeff Schubert points out in his book: ‘after a meeting with Xi Jinping in May 2017 at the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing. Vladimir Putin said that “the integration” of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Silk Road (SREB) “actually implies a common economic space on the continent”, and in his formal speech at the Summit he said that “by adding together the potential of all the integration formats like the EAEU, the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the ASEAN, we can build the foundation for a larger Eurasian partnership”. At the same summit, Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev said “the idea of creating a single economic space of Greater Eurasia acquired a new meaning. The SREB can advantageously link the platforms of the SCO, the EAEU and the European Union into a single regional prosperity area”.

There seems to be, however, a conflict between the broad and narrow views.

Ultimately, Jeff Schubert says: “One Belt One Road initiative, doesn’t necessarily involve Russia. It probably will to some degree, but other countries are just as important. I think Kazakhstan for example is very important for One Belt One Road, at least the Silk Road Economic Belt part of it, because Kazakhstan is a direct supplier of raw materials and other materials, but also of importance are the pipelines which bring gas from Turkmenistan and run through Kazakhstan. The Kazaks know that they are stuck between two giants, and they are unlikely to proclaim allegiance to either, and that would exclude working with the other. They will continue to play the game within the EAEU, but at the same time while they say that they are willing to negotiate with China, as part of the Eurasian Economic Union, they have made many bilateral agreements with China, and Kyrgyzstan is also doing that as well as Belarus…”

The creation of these new alliances has accelerated since the present geopolitical crisis started, and that, perhaps surprisingly, predates Donald Trump. Both Russians and Chinese feel the need to create a strong economic and political block to counter the US. This can be traced back to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Many Russians thought that there would not be an expansion of NATO, but there was. The Chinese also have perfectly justifiable reasons to fear for the security of their maritime energy import routes as well as export routes through the South China Sea, which can be seen as being one reason why the Chinese have been very aggressive in reclaiming or building artificial islands, to protect shipping lanes. The China-Pakistan economic corridor which connects China to the Indian Ocean, via Pakistan, is another example of the kind of action China is taking to secure its trade routes.

If you look at a map of the world, particularly at one of those old-fashioned things called a globe, one would think that Russia and China are naturally destined to pursue common economic and security goals, after all, they share is 4,028 kilometres long border! Jeff Schubert points out that on a political level, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping obviously get on very well but perhaps each of their own admirable respective ambitions for their countries could ultimately become sources of tension. It would not be surprising if the two countries at some stage in the future were to become more competitive with each other in the Central Asian area, despite the fact that at present China-Russia trade is increasing (from January to September trade between Russia and China increased by 22.4 percent year-on-year to $61.4 billion, the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China announced on Oct. 13). There is a saying that both nations look to the West, but both look in different directions to do that; the Chinese look east, and the Russians look west.

As somebody who has lived in both Russian and China, I would argue that facing a common enemy is the catalyst of the current warming of Russia-Chinese relations, and this is a strong enough force to counteract the very real factors (linguistic, historical, cultural) that have separated these two nations, thus bolstering efforts to ensure energy and military security. The dire state of political ties between the ‘West’, Russia, and now, China, are speeding up this process, indeed the spiral of negativity generated by current geopolitical forces, seems to be out of control. Now that West-East relations have reached breaking point, Moscow has nothing to lose by moving closer to Beijing. Different perceptions of what Eurasia is, indeed of what can be gained from creating such an international economic and political block are very real, however forces have already been unleashed which make the continuation of cooperation between Russia and China almost inevitable. The question is – to the advantage of who? The jury is still out. It can be argued, however, that even in the case of China gaining the upper hand, Russia still stands to gain economically in terms of geopolitical influence, armaments sales and security. The West’s position as the defender of democracy against Russia and to a lesser extent China, although it is questionable whether China is more democratic than Russia, means that an ideological divide has been created between the West and the East that is almost insurmountable. At this stage of the game, for eastern leaders, noodles and meatballs in a breaking bowl may well now be preferable in comparison to the possible alternative, which could include loss of power. Equally, western leaders would seem to need an eastern ‘other’ to bolster their own credibility as they have done in the past. The same process in the opposite direction could be said to be happening. If we don’t yet know whether the ‘broad’ or ‘narrow’ version of Eurasia will be adopted, we do know that Russia and China will continue to move closer together. The almost unthinkable — the bear and the dragon coming together is happening.

John Harrison 4.11.17  © Russia Knowledge