Belt and Road Initiative: While the East Is Upbeat, the West Seems to Be Wary

Earlier this week, the Polish city of Poznan hosted a conference titled “Beyond Europe: Reconnecting Eurasia,” which was largely dedicated to China’s infrastructural projects in Eurasia and the way they are perceived in Central Europe and other regions. Among other things, the main findings of the Valdai Club’s “Toward the Great Ocean” series of reports were presented during the conference.

The event, held on October 22-23, was organized by the Adam Mickiewicz University and, according to the organizers, is the largest English-language conference on international relations in Poland. It was the second edition of the conference and this year it was largely dedicated to the Eurasian infrastructure projects implemented as part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Other topics included interaction within BRICS, dynamics in the Middle East and Northern Africa region, geopolitics and natural resources in Eurasia, global terrorism and approaches of the EU to solving issues of national and international security.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in Poland to the Belt and Road Initiative, however, the attitude to it is rather ambivalent. On the one hand, Poland aspires to use its geographical position to become a logistics and transportation hub between Europe and Asia, while on the other, it is wary of China’s global and regional dominance. This was evident in presentations of the Polish participants, with experts on logistics describing the potential benefits that participation in the China-led projects would bring to Poland, and specialists on international relations warning against the risks that their implementation could entail.

The conference was attended by representatives of 17 countries. Curiously, no scholars from mainland China took part in it, although their participation was initially announced. This might be related to the fact that one of the panels was dedicated to the China-Taiwan relations and a Taiwanese researcher took part in the plenary session. Anyway, the role of China permeated many of the presentations. 

Russia was represented by scholars from three Moscow-based universities (the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, the Russian State Social University) and the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad. Anton Bespalov, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of valdaiclub.com, participated in the event on behalf of the Valdai Discussion Club. In his presentation, “Russia’s turn to the East: a tactical move of a strategy for years to come?” he outlined the main findings of the Club’s “Toward the Great Ocean” series of reports on Russia’s newfound role in Eurasia. He told the audience both about the Russian government’s initiatives to develop the country’s Far East and the turnaround in Moscow’s perception of its geopolitical priorities. According to him, Russia’s “turn to the East” does not mean refusal to interact with the West, but underlines the fact that the West is no longer perceived as the only or even the main asset for achieving the national development goals. A certain change of mentality is underway in the country with Russia reconceptualizing itself as an Asian power – and this process is welcomed by its partners in Asia itself, he added.

The Polish colleagues were mainly interested in whether Russia welcomes the Chinese initiatives or is wary of them. According to Bespalov, Moscow realizes the risks related to the Chinese investments, but positively assesses Beijing’s infrastructural projects as contributing to stability and security in Eurasia. He said that the Russian-Chinese ties are at an unprecedentedly high level, but also stressed that China, important as it is, is not the only partner for Russia, which develops relations with all Asian countries.

Another participant from Russia, Vladimir Ivanov, Associate Professor at the Comparative Political Studies Department of the Russian Peoples’ Friendship University, delivered a presentation on the prospects of new rating platforms in the BRICS states. He explained the need to create new rating systems referring to Piotr Dutkiewicz’s concept of external standards of rationality leading to post-global sovereignty. At the same time, Ivanov pointed to the hurdles along this way, which are related, first of all, to objectivity and acknowledgement of these ratings. According to him, the most efficient way is that of their integration with the UN, G20, or creation of umbrella ratings, while their “nationalization” would most probably lead to reverse of what is expected.

A distinctive feature of the conference was the presence of a number of guests from Pakistan, including the nation’s ambassador to Poland, Shafqat Ali Khan. In his keynote speech, the ambassador said that South Asia has historically been seen in terms of geostrategic rivalry – that was true for the Mughal era, the British Raj, and the Cold War. Today, economic considerations are coming to the fore and Pakistan has great expectations from inclusion of the region in the system of Eurasian transport and logistics corridors as a factor contributing to development. According to him, this became possible thanks to overcoming the differences between Russia and China. “It is only because of the turnaround in the Russia-China relations that we can talk about reconnecting Eurasia,” he said, referring to the conference’s title. 

Professor Tughral Yamin from Pakistan’s Center for International Peace and Stability, pointed to the constructive role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in South Asia. Among other things, Islamabad’s participation in this organization enabled it to take the dialogue with New Delhi to a new level. Prof. Yamin stressed that this year Pakistani and Indian troops, for the first time ever, took part in a joint military exercise (held in Russia’s Chelyabinsk Region in late August.)

The Pakistani presence at a Polish conference was no coincidence. Sultan Hali, a renowned author and former military pilot, who moderated the plenary session, explained that Polish pilots and engineers who had served in the Royal Air Force, stood at the origins of the Pakistani aviation and space programme, and their contribution is remembered and revered. Interestingly, however, no participants from India took part in the event.

The Pakistani participants’ optimism concerning cooperation in Eurasia sharply contrasted apprehension on the part of some western speakers. In his presentation, Dr. Sébastien Peyrouse from the George Washington University discussed the perception of China’s initiatives in Central Asia. According to him, China offers a model of development, which is attractive for authoritarian regimes as it does not require political changes. In addition, China projects the image of a rapidly developing country expressing solidarity with other developing states, which also makes it different from western countries.

Russia in Central Eurasia: Is There a Choice?
In its optimal form, Russia’s long-term strategy in Central Eurasia could be geared towards further strengthening of the multilateral institutions involving both big (Russia, India and China) and smaller players.
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Nevertheless, based on around 120 interviews with Central Asian businesspeople and politicians, Peyrouse concluded that the region is apprehensive about Chinese investments. There are well-grounded fears in Central Asia that their objective is not development of these countries’ industries, but creation of conditions for imports of Chinese goods, while these countries’ role will be reduced to that of suppliers of resources for China’s economy. At the same time, Peyrouse pointed to the positive role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which demonstrates that China is able to constructively interact with the Central Asian states. In the short term, China’s influence in the region is positive, but it can become potentially negative in the long term, he concluded.

Professor Maciej Walkowski from the Adam Mickiewicz University dedicated his presentation to the EU-China strategic partnership, asking whether it exists or is a propaganda operation called to conceal China’s true intentions. According to Walkowski, China approaches its relations with the EU with a sense of superiority and after the 2008 crisis it has perceived the EU as a failure, although it is not interested in its disintegration. He emphasized that the EU has no single approach to China and its policies vis-à-vis Beijing are determined by the interests of the member states, which leaves the EU without the capability to press on China is a coordinated manner (interestingly, a decade ago almost the same was being said about the EU policy vis-à-vis Russia.) Another Polish participant, Tomasz Brańka from the Adam Mickiewicz University, spoke about China’s policy in the Arctic and how Beijing uses “sharp power” to establish global, instead of national, control of this region.

All in all, the conference organizers ensured a constructive dialogue between the West and the East. As Pakistani Ambassador Shafqat Ali Khan noted, Poland and Pakistan are similar in that they are midsize powers bordering on the great ones. It can be said that the conference’s value is that it provided an opportunity to hear the opinion of such midsize powers aspiring to promote their national interests as global initiatives are unfolding.