Written by Thomas F. Remington.
Russian attitudes toward the ambitious “one belt, one road” project advanced by General Secretary Xi Jinping tend to fall into one of two camps. One group of strategists regards China’s ambitions with fear, the other with hope. The first decry the loss of Russian influence in Central Asia as China’s investment in the region grows, warns against Russian dependence on China as a market for its oil, gas and other natural resources, and regards China’s growing presence in Russia’s Far East as a long-term threat. The prospect that Russia is becoming a “raw-material appendage” (syrevoi pridatok) of China—China’s “strategic rear”—fills them with worry.
Less familiar is a novel view put forward by the optimists. As articulated by Sergei Karaganov and other like-minded international relations experts, this line of thinking greets China’s pivot to the West as complementary to Russia’s new push eastward. An important signal of this shift was Russia’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum summit that took place in Vladivostok in September 2012. For Russia, this meeting presented an important opportunity to showcase Russia’s involvement in the Far East region. The event was intended to signal at home and abroad that Russia was devoting much greater attention to its Siberian and Far Eastern regions. Russia saw itself as offering unique advantages to the countries of the Asian-Pacific region: it had friendly relations with all the powers of the region, and could offer a security shield to them as it participated more fully in the region’s development.
For both Russia and China, an important issue is whether the “one belt, one road” (OBOR) project will be based primarily on bilateral agreements with individual countries, or multilateral agreements with regional organizations. Russia would much prefer multilateral agreements. This is because Russia has been seeking to expand the significance of regional groupings such as the Eurasian Economic Union (which, besides Russia, includes Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and, soon, India and Pakistan). Through these organizations, Russia can exert an influence more proportional to its political and military weight, whereas a series of bilateral agreements would lessen Russia’s potential influence over China’s relations with countries in Central Asia. So far, however, it appears that China leans toward using bilateral agreements with individual countries along the route, ultimately leading toward the formation of a huge trade and investment zone for China. China also envisions expanding cultural and academic exchanges through the project. One dimension that China has assiduously avoided proposing, however, is that of security. China regards the OBOR project as a means of expanding its capacity for international trade. It sees OBOR not as part of a Eurasian strategy either for economic or military domination, but rather as a means of facilitating trade with the economically dynamic regions of Europe, South and Central Asia, and Africa.
The optimists’ view, however, is that China’s moves to expand trade and investment westward complement Russia’s efforts to develop the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Together, these trends hold the potential for the formation of a powerful new Eurasian bloc. As Karaganov puts it, Russia’s role is to be “a bridge between a rising Asia, and China, and a declining but still rich and culturally-close Europe. Of course, a ‘bridge’ that is not only logistical, but also industrial, technological, cultural.” Russia can demonstrate that it is “a first-class great power of the 21st century” and “the main guarantor of its security and of international peace in general.” The Eurasian bloc will consist of Central Asia, Iran, India, Pakistan, and South Korea, as well as Russia and China.
Several considerations lie behind this vision. One is a belief that Europe—civilizationally and economically — and the European Union in particular is in long-term decline. Another is the view that Western sanctions and NATO’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea are part of a new containment strategy. A third is the conviction that Russia must reverse the depopulation of its Siberian and Far Eastern regions and instead build up the infra-structure and productive capacity of these vast regions. As Karaganov emphasizes, for the one belt, one road initiative to deliver real benefits to Russia, Siberia must be tied to it by transportation links. At present, however, Siberia continues to be hemmed in by severely limited infra-structure and shortage of investment. Linking Siberia to OBOR seems a remote prospect, however. None of the maps published by China laying out the proposed land and sea routes for OBOR indicate any connection to Siberia or the Far East. Russia would need to finance all such infrastructure development itself.
It is understandable that strategists in Russia would wish to believe in a vision that simultaneously allays Russian fears over China’s growing presence in Eurasia, offsets pressure from the West over its behaviour in Ukraine, underlines Russia’s military advantages in Eurasia, and induces Chinese investment in Russia’s underdeveloped eastern regions. In its simplest form, Russia’s Eurasian concept supposes a partnership of Chinese economic power with Russian military power. For it to be realized, however, this prospect would have to serve China’s interests. Little in China’s rhetoric or actions, however, suggests that China views OBOR as a stepping stone toward a greater Eurasian bloc or a two-power condominium in Eurasia.
Thomas F. Remington is Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science at Emory University. He is also an Associate of the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and Senior Researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Institutions and Development at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. His research focuses on the development of political institutions in post-communist states, including parliamentary politics, legislative-executive relations, and labor market and social welfare institutions in Russia and China. Image credit: CC by Garrett Ziegler/Flickr.