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Chinese turn to Eurasia

The strategy "One belt, one road" makes it possible to understand what is the future of China in Eurasia.

The Eurasian borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have again become an important factor in Beijing’s foreign policy. The “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy recently proclaimed by Xi Jinping, which includes an initiative to strengthen economic ties between Eurasian states by creating the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Sea Silk Road (MSR), effectively makes Eurasia “the main front and the center "of modern foreign policy of China. Some experts therefore considered that Beijing is in the process of "turning" towards Eurasia, which will have far-reaching strategic implications.

Chinese turn to Eurasia
Matthew Barrows and Robert Manning recently stated that this "turn to Eurasia is an attempt to turn a vulnerable border with 14 countries into a strategic asset." If this process is successful, it will become a nightmare for the United States, as China's economic and strategic power will draw a weakened Russia into an alliance with it, in order to stabilize and modernize Eurasia on the basis of "authoritarian capitalism with a big role for the state." Jeffrey Payne, on the other hand, responds that such fears "should be put aside", as Beijing will not only have to face a region of unpredictable and uncontrollable political forces, but also with mutual hidden suspicions on the part of Russia.

Advanced Context

However, these views do not provide either an adequate assessment of the motives of the "European turn" of Beijing, nor the wider regional context in which China's policy should be considered. First, OBOR can in part be seen as China's response to the "turnaround" or "rebalancing" in Asia that occurred during the reign of Barack Obama, as well as to the relative weakening of Russia's positions in Central Asia. Secondly, the concept of OBOR (mainly its component such as SREB) is related to China's domestic policy problems to the same extent as with the main strategic priorities. A serious concern in this regard is the degree of China's influence in those generally troubled regions that are on the border with Eurasia, such as Xinjiang and Tibet. While the decline of the influence of Russia and the United States in Central Asia provided Beijing with strategic opportunities to strengthen its power, the strengthening of the Uyghur and Tibetan opposition, which began in 2008, underscored the need to strengthen economic development and modernization of these regions as a key way to achieve their integration into modern Chinese The state.

The outstanding Chinese scholar Wang Dzisi argues that the Chinese "march to the west" (that is, the creation of the concept of OBOR) is a "strategic necessity", because "changing relations with the East" in the strategic understanding of the Obama administration (known as "rebalancing") threatens To transform Sino-US relations in East Asia into a "game with a zero prize." If the "march to the west" is successful, the "potential for cooperation between the US and China" in many areas will increase "and the risk of a military conflict between the two countries will practically disappear." As Wang points out, throughout most of its history the PRC remained strategically oriented to the East due to the "traditional advantages in the development" of the eastern provinces of the country and the fact that strategic and military threats came precisely from China's maritime borders. Now, however, a "march to the west" is necessary to make sure that "harmony and stability" in Xinjiang and Tibet are not under threat of "extremism, terrorism and other hostile external forces"; "The supply channels for oil and other important goods in the west of the Chinese border will remain open"; And that China will be able to expand its economic interaction (including the provision of economic assistance) with "all states of Western Asia".

From this point of view, Central Asia is becoming a strategic safety valve for expanding China's influence, especially taking into account the aforementioned decline in the influence and level of US interests after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The Silk Road serves as a complement to these strategic changes, allowing us to count on the expansion of economic ties between China and the countries that have access to the sea in Southeast and South Asia, as well as in the Middle East. Beijing is convinced that the decisive factor for the success of the concept will be the potential for providing a more convenient and safe route for the delivery of gas and oil from Central Asia and the Middle East, which can offer both sea and land versions of the Silk Road.

Additional interests

The fact that SREB partially complements the interests of Central Asian countries also played into the hands of Beijing. First of all, China concentrates on more convenient inter-economic relations through improving key infrastructure - oil and gas pipelines, railways and highways, as well as telecommunications networks, which correlates with the long-standing desire of energy-rich Central Asian countries diversify export flows of oil and gas. In addition, several Central Asian countries decided to make the diversification of their own economies the main priority for their future economic well-being, moving away from a model that implies only the export of resources. 40 of the billions of dollars that China has invested in the “Silk Road Fund” to help develop the necessary infrastructure is viewed by the states of Central Asia as evidence of China’s seriousness regarding this project.

The obvious susceptibility of Central Asia to China's initiatives should be considered in the light of a changing understanding of the role of the US and Russia in the region. The Obama administration's approach to Central Asia has become a hostage to the dilemmas that confronted it in Afghanistan. The fact that Washington viewed the region through just such a lens is not at all surprising if one takes into account the introduction of an additional 30 thousandth The contingent of forces in Afghanistan in July 2009 year and the withdrawal of the main forces of the United States and NATO to 2014. For Central Asian states, the presence of US troops on the regional after September 11 was beneficial, but the diminished attention of the United States to the region leaves them with the prospect of being squeezed between the growing Beijing and the weakened but still insistent Russia.

The result of the "Afghan-centric" approach of Washington is that the concept of "Central Asia" has turned into an amorphous "Great Central Asia", which includes not only five post-Soviet states, but also Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Iranian province of Khorasan and the Chinese province of Xinjiang. For many politicians and experts in Washington since the end 1990-x Over the years, and especially since 2001, the apparent instability of Central Asia was caused by the rejection of integration with the global liberal order (both in the economy and in politics). This became apparent with the launch of the New Silk Road Initiative (NSRI) in 2011, the goal of which was to promote trade liberalization, economic cooperation, and “connections between citizens” of Central and South Asian countries.

This initiative was the fruit of the Obama administration's desire to establish conditions for the consolidation of an independent and stable Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops. US Deputy Secretary of State for Economic, Agricultural and Energy Affairs Robert Hormats noted that "the basis for the" new Silk Road "will be firmly integrated into the economic life of the region Afghanistan, which will be able to attract new investments, earn on its resource potential and offer growing economic opportunities and Hope for his people. " The main step towards such changes should be the US assistance to the states of the region in reorienting their key infrastructure (roads and railways, telecommunications networks, etc.) in order to interact with the states of South Asia and help in "eliminating bureaucratic barriers and other obstacles to the free movement of people and goods ".

Its success will also serve a broader range of goals, since the establishment of a compliant regime in Afghanistan will allow Washington to create links between the north and south of Asia as opposed to the East-West relations developed by China and Russia. These ties should ultimately serve the perennial American geopolitical interest - to make sure that no force or group of forces dominates Eurasia. However, this initiative was initially undermined almost from the very beginning of its implementation - the changed priorities of the administration, the weak economic integration of the countries of Central Asia and the "re-balancing" of foreign policy priorities towards the Asia-Pacific region. The latter, from the point of view of the elites of Central Asia, means a weakening of the attention and interest of the United States towards the region compared to their peak in the first half 2000-x Years.

Post-Soviet space

If China's initiatives in Central Asia stemmed from economic and strategic power, Russia's - out of weakness. Indeed, the catalyst for renewing Russia's interest in integration projects in the post-Soviet space has been the global financial crisis 2008:2009 and its impact on the resource-oriented economic growth of the country. When the Russian economy reached significant levels of growth in 1999-2007 years, having increased 6 times from 200 billions to 1.3 trillions, and raising GDP per capita to 7 thousand dollars, it remained very dependent on the export of energy resources, primarily to Eastern Europe. The financial crisis not only “showed the limits of such a strategy,” but also led to the fact that the constant decline in economic growth in Russia prompted Moscow to use the resumption of integration in the post-Soviet space as a means of reducing the effects of the crisis. Russia's trade with Central Asia also began to weaken by the 2007 year, when China began to take its place as the region’s main external trading partner. To the middle 2000-x Years of Russia also began to focus again on its serious advantage with regard to Central Asia - the dominant role in the energy sector - as a means of supporting its traditional position in the region and the demand for energy within the country. Moscow's attempts to retain control over exports from Central Asia did not stem from the need to increase oil and gas exports, "rather because it wanted to re-export oil products, making a profit." Thus, "the Central Asian energy market essentially supported the Russian market thanks to cheap energy, while sales to Europe were carried out at a much higher price." Crashed after the crisis, demand from European countries, however, finally undermined the viability of this strategy.



This is the context in which President Vladimir Putin tried to revive the idea of ​​the “Eurasian Union” (originally voiced by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1994) in his column in the Izvestia newspaper in October 2011 of the year in which he called it “supranational association”, which will “coordinate economic and monetary policy” as a means of providing a “new post-crisis” development model. However, Putin’s attempt to create a Eurasian Union, including not only Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but also Ukraine, jeopardized the entire project. The decision of the President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych to abandon the trade agreement with the Eurasian Union in favor of joining the European Union led to an uprising that overthrew him and led to the annexation of Crimea to Russia. The consequences of the Ukrainian crisis in the post-Soviet space were very painful for Russia and its partners in the Eurasian Union. The imposition of sanctions on Russia by the West, undoubtedly, had an effect on Kazakhstan and Belarus. For example, in January 2015, the Kazakh government lowered its forecast for GDP growth by 1.5 percent (the previous one was 4.8%), which meant that Nazarbayev recognized the effect of Western sanctions and lower oil prices. With all due respect to him, one Kazakhstani expert noted that trade with Ukraine before the crisis exceeded the trade turnover with all the countries of Central Asia, but since then it has dropped by a third from the maximum of 4 billion per year.

Partners in Moscow also began to question the economic viability of the project. So, Kazakhstan doubts that it is worthwhile to involve in the union such states as Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which Russia really wants. The Kazakhstani expert Sultan Akimbekov, for example, said that he was more interested in making a political statement, turning the Eurasian Union into an "umbrella" brand that should unite a large number of states in the post-Soviet space "as a demonstration of one's own power and influence our weaker neighbors , Than to create an effective economic union. In addition, he doubts that the creation of the Eurasian Union really brought tangible economic benefits to Kazakhstan, Pointing out that the volume of Kazakhstan's exports to Russia in 2012 was almost exactly the same as four years earlier, but within the framework of the union, Kazakhstan becomes "an increasingly important market for Russia and Belarus."

Politically, the Ukrainian crisis has stimulated the fears of Minsk and Astana that they play an important role on Putin’s agenda. Statements by the President of Russia, according to which Moscow’s duty is to protect ethnic Russians as an excuse for the annexation of the Crimea, in particular, has revived fears in Kazakhstan about Russia's possible revanchism regarding the northern territories of the Central Asian country. The rhetoric of Russia since then has not particularly softened such fears. For example, Putin’s words during his speech at the pro-Kremlin youth camp on Lake Seliger, near Moscow in August 2014, that "before 1991, Kazakhstan never had a statehood" and that the country is therefore part of the "Russian world" expected to cause irritation in Astana. Nazarbayev appeared on national television and said that "Kazakhstan has the right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union" and "Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to its independence." This position of Moscow prompted Nazarbayev to announce plans to officially mark the creation of Kazakh statehood with the khans Kerei and Janibek in 1465, while Astana Times told about the history of the legitimate statehood of the Kazakh people.

Challenges for Beijing

Currently, SREB and developing bilateral economic relations with Beijing are not unclouded for Central Asia. The latter, despite the recent protests of the Russian-speaking population, is opposed to the protectionist policies of Moscow within the EAEU, while Beijing is obviously focused on facilitating and simplifying economic interaction in Central Asia. One analyst noted that the “real problem” for Russia with respect to SREB is the “Chinese approach“ business is business ”, which differs“ from both the Western political background of economic decisions and serious geopolitical influence in the case of Russia ”. As the well-known Chinese regional scientist Wu Shenju notes, a deeper problem for Beijing is that “if China intensifies its economic penetration into Central Asia, the countries of the region, in the interest of maintaining political and strategic autonomy, will most likely prefer to strengthen strategic cooperation with other forces as an attempt insure yourself against political risks caused by economic dependence. The Chinese "invasion" of the Central Asian region can create another example of the separation of economic ties and political relations. "

At the heart of this policy of China, however, are issues directly related to the key regions of the country lying on the Eurasian border, which include Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Historically, these boundaries marked the edge of the “Inner Asian zone” of Chinese expansion. These regions were ethnically and geographically buffer zones that fenced off Han China from the Turkish and Mongolian civilizations, which were not only beyond the power of the emperor, but also represented a threat in the form of invasions. Over the past three decades, Beijing has created a coherent strategy for these regions, which should completely transform these historical relationships. When Deng Xiaoping began the “policy of reform and openness,” one of its main tenets was that promoting economic development and modernization would “buy” devotion to non-titular nationalities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans.

The economic development of the border regions was originally considered a matter of state importance within the framework of the "Great Western Development" campaign, formally launched by former Secretary General Jiang Zemin, which envisaged the transformation of regions such as Xinjiang into industrial and agricultural bases and trade and energy corridors linking China's economy to South And Central Asia. In this respect, China has outstripped US initiatives (for example, NSRI) by almost twenty years. Rafaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen noted that "the network of connections that China is forging throughout the region ... is the implementation of the New Silk Road project, announced by the US Department of State, but focused primarily on Xinjiang."

With the ongoing riots in Xinjiang and Tibet (and even terrorist acts in the first) recently, it is not surprising that these regions are seen as playing key roles in the OBOR. Thus, in the statement of the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission of 28 March 2015, it was unequivocally noted that "we must use the geographical location of Xinjiang and its role as a window to the West, with the deepening of cooperation with the countries of Central, South and West Asia will grow, and The region will become a key transport, trade, logistics, cultural, scientific and educational center, and the main area of ​​the economic belt of the Silk Road. "

The main challenge for Beijing is that the Eurasian ties, which should improve the creation of OBOR, while increasing the potential for expanding China’s influence along its Eurasian borders, can create opportunities for the movement of people, goods and objects (for example, those associated with radical Islamists) will prevent the main goal - to consolidate their power in areas such as Xinjiang. The existence of a small number of Uyghur militants operating with the support of the Taliban near the Afghan-Pakistan border, and the increased flow of Uyghur refugees to Southeast Asia are just two examples of the political problems of this region.

The assessment of China's turn to Eurasia by Barrows and Manning allows the creation of a "new bipolarity" with "China, Russia and several authoritarian states of Central Asia on the one hand and the US, the EU and their Asian allies on the other", ignoring those challenges in domestic politics, Which sets before China the realization of the concept "One belt, one way". The position of Payne is that the US can afford a strategic retreat from Eurasia. It is supported by the following argument: "The US is trying to act as a state trying to balance various forces," which contradicts the geopolitical interest that shaped the US global strategy after World War II - no force should dominate in Eurasia.

US politicians can not afford to rely on views that exaggerate China's geopolitical weight in Eurasia or carefree do not take into account the fact that the US will still play a role in the future of the region. A correct understanding of the motives of the One-Belt, One Way strategy and the obstacles to its implementation will allow us to better understand the probable future of Chinese influence in the region.

The author of the article is Dr. Michael Clark, Professor at the College of National Security. The author of the book "Xinjiang and the strengthening of China in Central Asia."
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