In the middle of last month, several Chinese warships entered the Baltic Sea for the first time to participate in exercises jointly with the Russian Navy. The official purpose of the exercises was to develop interaction in order to ensure safe sea transportation along the Silk Road Economic Belt. Almost a year ago, back in September 2016, a group of Russian warships took part in joint exercises with PLA sailors in the South China Sea. That way, the China-Russia military cooperation has finally broken out of the immediate geographical periphery of these countries. Both of these events make it quite clear that we need to find a new approach when it comes to international security in Eurasia.
Most observers, primarily, in the West, interpreted these events as a mere show of mutual support both by Moscow and Beijing in the most conflict-prone areas. These were purely diplomatic get-togethers without much systemic importance. However, these occasions have become a vivid illustration of the fact that, in the modern world, it makes no sense to discuss security matters only at local, or global, for that matter, level. No conflict remains exclusively bilateral, or affects only one particular region alone. Accordingly, international mechanisms and institutions for preventing such conflicts should be improved. Or, in case the former fail to bring any results, there must be conflict settlement mechanisms put in place.
The number one thing to be discussed is whether it is really necessary to localize, to the maximum possible extent, the formats for discussing security problems, or, on the contrary, is it necessary to strive to address them with the participation of all potential stakeholders? It seems that, in the current circumstances, localization is no longer possible. Therefore, it makes sense to talk primarily about the limits of expanding the number of stakeholders, and the criteria for their involvement. Here, the important categories could include the amount of actual economic and political interests, as well as the presence of special relations with immediate participants in the conflict.
To what extent does the conflict between Russia and the West, which formally began in the wake of the coup in Ukraine, affect the interests of China or any other major power in Eurasia? In terms of direct impact, it does so insignificantly. However, in a broader sense and a long-term perspective, it will affect China’s interests in a big way, as it affects the potential for implementing major Chinese initiatives, the participation in which of both Russia and the West is mandatory. For example, the paralysis of interaction between Russia and NATO countries such as Poland after 2014 already presents a direct obstacle to improving transportation and logistics corridors, which should connect the Chinese, Kazakh, Russian and Western European markets. For political reasons, Poland refuses to participate in the projects which Russia is involved in. Individual representatives of the Eastern European countries insist on developing such corridors around Russia through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Economically, such projects are practically meaningless, primarily, due to a multiple increase in the cost of transportation. In the long term, the quality of Russia's relations with European countries may have a significant impact on whether China’s plans for increasing confluence in Eurasia will get implemented.
In addition to all this, the conflict between Russia and the West creates additional tension on the international arena. China has absolutely no interest in such tension, as it objectively strives to continue to “save its strength.” Even though the second part of Deng Xiaoping’s formula, which is to “keep in the shadows” is much less relevant, Beijing, according to authoritative pundits, is well aware of the fact that time is on its side. The longer the direct clash with the United States is postponed, the more likely it is to win, or even achieve its strategic goals without direct confrontation. However, Russia is the only significant power whose relations with China can be described as openly friendly, which cannot be said, for example, about a large neighbor of China possessing nuclear weapons such as India.
This, as well as the unique nature of the relationship between the leaders of China and Russia, determined the assistance that Beijing provided to Moscow between 2014 and 2016, which was a difficult period for Russia. So, on the one hand, China can be considered a party which benefited from the conflict between Russia and the West, but, on the other hand, China is extremely interested in resolving this conflict. By the way, the same can be said about other important countries such as Japan or South Korea. Both states are extremely reluctant to continue or escalate the conflict surrounding Ukraine, as it directly threatens their investment plans in Russia. Why don’t these countries participate in the discussion on European security issues?
By the same token, the conflicts with the involvement of the Korean peninsula or the South China Sea can directly affect Russia’s security interests. Primarily, because every aggravation here leads to discussions about reconfiguring Russia- China bilateral relations. The events of the spring of 2017 showed that the new US administration would pursue a more provocative policy towards China, trying to put the heat on Beijing and blackmail it using every opportunity. Even though this tactic has not yet yielded any results, it makes Chinese diplomacy think about the need to establish a formal alliance between China and Russia. Moscow is unlikely to be interested in such a formal alliance, as it will not help it to ensure national security. That said, Russia is already a significant participant in the international diplomatic process as it applies to the North Korean nuclear missile issue, and even came up with joint proposals with China in July 2017. So why isn’t China involved in any way in the Donbass discussions and Kiev's failure to comply with the Minsk Agreements of 2015?
However, there are more systemic reasons which make the existing regional security systems obsolete. First, the emerging and constantly growing interdependences are not only regional or global in nature. One of the distinctive features of our time is the gradual formation of macro-regions that are larger than conventional regions, but are still relatively localized on a global scale. Primarily, the issue is about the Asia-Pacific and Eurasian macro-regions. Integration initiatives such as Eurasian integration, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the initiative of the community of Greater Eurasia and even the frozen, so far at least, Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership – all of them are indicative of a significant enlargement of the economic and, in part, political communities with which we are dealing in the region.
To some extent, the neighborhood policy proposed by the European Union to the countries lying to the south and to the east of it following the expansion of 2004-2007 was, oddly enough, the precursor of the processes now unfolding in Asia and Eurasia. However, there is a fundamental difference between this initiative and the current concepts and formats for joint development in Eurasia. The neighborhood policy was based on a completely flawed idea of the so-called Europe of Concentric Circles. This idea arose in the 1990s as an answer to the question of how to structure relations with the EU neighbors whose accession to the union is impossible. It was assumed that the decisive criterion for the participation of a particular country, be it the Maghreb countries, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, would be the quality of their relations with the kernel that is the European Union. In other words, such relations didn’t imply even a hypothetical equality, and were supposed to be purely vertical and based on normative subordination of the periphery in its relations with the center.
This project failed to perform how it was originally meant to. It turned out to be totally unsuccessful as a tool that would avoid confrontation and direct efforts to achieve developmental goals within the space from Marrakesh to Vladivostok. According to one of the creators of the neighborhood policy former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister Carl Bildt, “we wanted a ring of friends around the EU, but what we got instead was a ring of fire.” The major achievements of the “partnership” include a series of nonbinding agreements with Armenia and Kazakhstan, as well as an armed takeover of Ukraine by way of supporting a nationalist coup in the winter of 2013-2014, which, as you may recall, resulted in that country losing a portion of its territory and a brutal civil war. But even though the European Union managed to tear Ukraine away from Russia, the value of this acquisition remains questionable. There is no doubt that the Ukrainian authorities will continue to raise the issue of their country eventually joining the EU. This will lead to numerous problems and discussions between Kiev and European capitals and, at the same time, highlight the most important problem of the EU's foreign policy – whenever it cannot offer its clients any membership prospects, its influence on them becomes limited. The experience of relations with Turkey corroborates this observation. As soon as the likelihood of the country's accession to the EU became illusory, Brussels' influence on Ankara dramatically declined. Thus, in the case of the policy of building broad communities by the EU, we witness an example of obvious systemic errors dictated by the history and the nature of the relations of the European colonial powers with the rest of the world. The macro-regional community cannot be built that way. What was seen 20 years ago as an area of universal relative development under the “wise stewardship” of Europe, has turned into a bleeding space consisting of fragments of countries and states torn by major internal conflicts. Furthermore, the EU itself began to shrink, and the United Kingdom started talking about withdrawing from it. By the way, the so far postponed Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership offered much more equal terms for all players by design, and was not based on political dominance of a single center, and formally implied equal benefits for all.
New partnerships in Asia and Eurasia are based on completely different principles, the central part of which should be democracy. The reason is, among other things, the absence of an obvious dominant leader, the leader that would be able and also willing to offer others a model of a unified development and be the center of it.
China is occasionally reproached of attempts to conduct such a strategy. Many pundits in the West and Asia interpreted the initiatives advanced by China at the Belt and Road Summit in May 2017 as allegedly reflecting the desire to build a China-centric system of relations in Asia and Eurasia. However, such reproaches are absolutely unfounded for a number of reasons. First of all, China has no historical experience when it comes to building formal unipolar structures for state-to-state interaction. There is no doubt that the Belt and Road initiative can be hypothetically viewed as a modern, civilized and beneficial for all edition of China's traditional policy toward its neighbors. However, in such a case, the circle of participants in such a union will inevitably be limited to a very narrow group of states.
Secondly, in addition to China, there are at least three players in Eurasia who are crucial for the implementation of China’s initiatives, but they cannot act as junior partners. They are military superpower Russia, colossal in its vastness India and decisive Iran. Of course, China itself certainly cannot be interested in being further antagonized by small- and medium-sized countries of Asia and Eurasia. Such an antagonism will immediately be taken advantage of by players outside the region, which will paralyze China’s initiatives in the sphere of cooperation and development.
Surely, the extent to which China's power can be used in Greater Eurasia will remain a critical issue. The experience of Germany, the growing power of which, in the wake of the merger, late Chancellor Helmut Kohl used to promote European integration, is ambiguous. At first, the consequences of this decision were positive. However, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, German politicians clearly sacrificed the development of the entire Europe in favor of developing their own country. Germany has become the main beneficiary of European integration, which affects its credibility with other EU countries and stability of the entire entity. Apparently, in the long term, if the German leadership in its current form continues, it will lead to partial disintegration of the EU. So, cooperation between Germany and other EU countries over the past 20 years must also be thoroughly studied. This shows the need to be extremely careful with regard to the role of the objectively most powerful player in the economic development when creating macro-regional partnerships.
The advancement, in 2016, of the Russian initiative of the community of Greater Eurasia is aimed precisely at removing the reasons for such fears. Russia’s goal is to create an international environment, in which China's energy is directed at overcoming the development challenges, both of China and other states as well. The most important prerequisite here is the creation of a proper environment for the most equal and democratic participation of all stakeholder countries and unconditional respect for sovereignty. In addition to this, such a community should not be formally limited to a certain geographical space. There should be no discussion about what Eurasia is within the space from the Atlantic to the South China Sea, and what it is not. As you may recall, such a discussion with regard to the concept of Europe has been poisoning relations between Russia and countries to the west of it for years now. That is why no one raises the issue about excluding the states of Eastern and Western Europe, including EU members, from the list of important Eurasian partners. European countries are the critical source of investment and technologies, and are a major trading partner for Russia, China and other countries of “the main Eurasia.”
Valdai Paper #66: Russia’s Allies and the Geopolitical Frontier in Eurasia
The risk of Russia’s involvement in low-intensity military conflicts has been growing since the early 2000s. Instability along many stretches of the border has forced Moscow to increase its military presence in the neighboring areas.
Thus, it is already quite clear that Greater Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific region are acquiring the features of interrelated macro-regions that are larger than Europe, Asia, or the “main Eurasia” taken individually. However, Greater Eurasia is a more localized space geographically. It does not include direct physical presence of the states separated from the mainland by the oceans. It is bounded in the east, west, north and south by four oceans – the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Within itself, Greater Eurasia is connected by emerging East-West and North-South transportation and logistics corridors, one of the most important among which is the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway. Along its perimeter, Greater Eurasia is covered with sea trade routes, which, according to calculations, will remain, in the foreseeable future, the most economically viable waterways for transporting staple goods made in Asia. That said, the expansion of the production base in the center of the continent will lead to a gradual saturation of land corridors as well.
However, there is one significant problem. Eurasia doesn’t have a single platform even for discussing macro-regional security. The OSCE includes Western and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but bypasses Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the Republic of Korea. For example, it includes the UK, but not Japan. It also includes the United States and Canada, but not China. There is an obvious vacuum of international institutions in the sphere of security. The reform of what is now called the OSCE can contribute to the elimination of this vacuum.
In addition to NATO, this organization is one of the obvious Cold War holdovers and relics. Instrumentally, its forerunner – the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe – was created in order to achieve the diplomatic goals of that time. For the Soviet Union, the goal was to conclude a kind of “peace agreement” with the countries of the West on inviolability of the borders after the Second World War. For the West, it was a means to keep the Soviet Union on the hook of the so-called “third basket” and make the discussion of internal political issues part of the diplomatic dialogue. The Soviet Union vanished in 1991, but Western countries continue to use the OSCE to interfere in the domestic affairs of their partners. Also, the EU and the United States have monopolized the OSCE agenda, thus forestalling serious discussions of the topics that they have no interest in. This has already led to degradation of the OSCE and loss of interest in it for important players such as Russia.
The OSCE has clearly run out of its potential and must be sacrificed to new strategic circumstances that are taking shape today, primarily, formation of the macro-region of Greater Eurasia as a vast space of overlapping interests in the sphere of international economy and politics. Having studied the positive and, especially, negative experience of the OSCE, it makes sense to initiate the creation of a new international security institution in Greater Eurasia with the participation of as many states in this macro-region as possible. For Russia, the participation of China, Iran, India and others in the institute of regional security may become an important foreign policy asset.
Almost 200 years ago, Chancellor of the Austrian Empire Klemens von Metternich wrote that, in reality, no state can any longer consider its security in isolation from the security of others. The states of Greater Eurasia share a significant number of common interests, although their views on such basic categories as sovereignty and legitimacy of public administration between the “main Eurasia” and its western periphery differ significantly. This contradiction must be made part of the overall system of relations in the area of security. Otherwise, what now looks like a simple demonstration of the flag may lead to serious conflicts.
Timofei Bordachev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.