- - Tuesday, May 3, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

One year has passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a joint statement linking the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) on May 8, 2015. It was a strong and decisive step toward eliminating even the most hypothetical possibility of a conflict between the two powers and served as a formal framework for establishing extensive cooperation and joint development in central Eurasia.

Immediately after that move, the remaining EAEU member states announced their support for the agreement and their willingness to establish a system of cooperation with China as well. Investment in transportation and logistics looks especially promising in this regard, as well as opportunities for expanding the industrial manufacturing chain from China westward to include the Central Asian states and Russian Siberia, with its major scientific and natural resources.

Beijing has always viewed the SREB as much more than simply a transportation project. China needs economic expansion and is therefore developing investment and new industries in countries to the west. Those plans dovetail nicely with Russia’s goal of establishing stable socio-economic conditions in the countries of that region. The Russian labor market currently absorbs the surplus workforce from three of the most populous and poorest Central Asian countries – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This represents a significant contribute to regional stability. After all, if those workers were to return home for an extended period, they might fall under the influence of radical jihadists and an explosive situation could develop as a result. But if at least a percentage of that workforce finds employment with Chinese businesses, Russia will have an easier time controlling the movements of those workers. At the same time, Russia remains the most important military power in the region: its forces are stationed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Moscow also has a presence at the Kant Air Base near Bishkek and the 201st military base near Dushanbe. That balance of forces provides a certain sense of security for the countries of the region.

Two of the five countries are EAEU member states and can thus coordinate their cooperation within the framework of supranational institutions. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia already form the Eurasian Economic Commission and are empowered to deal with foreign trade and other issues. In fact, EAEU leaders decided at their meeting in October 2015 to grant that body the authority to develop a trade and cooperation agreement with China.

This is not to say that efforts to link the EAEU and SREB have not faced difficulties. For example, Chinese experts emphasize that political leaders must exercise greater control over the process and force their officials to work more effectively. The national bureaucracies of the EAEU member states continue to make very slow progress in developing a road map for cooperation with China. For its part, China is preoccupied with domestic challenges and also responds slowly. In fact, Beijing still lacks even a tentative vision of which concrete benefits the SREB would produce. The recent slowing of the Chinese economy has also had a negative impact. Some sectors, such as transportation, have been particularly hard hit, with the Chinese state railway system reporting that freight shipments have fallen for the past 26 months.

External players such as the United States and Western Europe have the potential to make a positive contribution to regional cooperation. It is a straightforward matter in the case of the latter. European companies – primarily in the mining industry – are already investing in a number of sectors of the regional economy, but have so far been unwilling to invest further. And because many European states face their own financial difficulties at home, they do not exert a significant influence on regional policy or stability. Nonetheless, Europe remains a very important partner for Russia and an integral part of the SREB as its western terminus.

As for the U.S., it has always played an ambiguous role in the region. On one hand, Washington has taken an active role in Central Eurasian affairs since the early 1990s, especially following the start of its military operations in Afghanistan. Washington has also made great efforts to strengthen the sovereignty of the Central Asian states that succeeded the former Soviet republics in the region. Russia and the United States occasionally worked together to promote military and political stability in the region and Russia has done a great deal to stabilize Afghanistan – the main potential source of instability in Central Asia. However, fearing that its nightmare of “geostrategic encirclement” might become a reality, Beijing has never been happy with U.S. involvement or the existence of regimes friendly to Washington in the region. Consequently, Beijing has been guarded in its reaction to what experts describe as Washington’s proposal in May 2015 to build the SREB on an equal partnership basis with China.

Some experts suggest that current U.S. policy seems to be pushing China westward. The creation of such organizations as the Trans-Pacific Partnership creates completely different conditions for China to cooperate with Southeast Asian states. Many observers even suggest that the U.S. specifically promotes such an arrangement in anticipation that it will lead to direct Sino-Russian competition. But unbiased analysis shows that no grounds exist for such competition to arise. The presence of Chinese money in the region can only serve to strengthen local regimes, add to the security of Russia’s southern flank and enable Moscow to focus greater attention on domestic development and to reinforce security in Europe. While Beijing never wanted to take responsibility for regional security, it is far away from its perception of Chinese role and interests.
Surely, the cooperation in Central Eurasia that Messrs. Putin and Xi agreed to pursue last May is beneficial to everyone. It is to be regretted that geopolitical instinct of the U.S. most likely will be traditional – emerging of a new architecture in Eurasia has to be prevented. Unfortunately, it will mean that zero sum game, which brought so many troubles to Europe trough centuries, will be reproduced in Eurasia.

Timofei Bordachev is head of Eurasian program at the International Valdai Club and director of Center for comprehensive European and international studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The US-Russia Crosstalk is a joint initiative of the Kommersant newspaper and Valdai Club in Russia and The Washington Times and Center for National Interest in the United States aimed at fostering a dialog on strategic engagement between the two countries.

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