Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: Is It Really About the Economy?

The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was held in Beijing to review the development of the Chinese project of Eurasian integration. At the same time, Russia was expected to use the available resources and possibilities to put forth and promote its own concept of Eurasian cooperation that differs from that of the Chinese. 

However, debatable impressions can be mustered up from this forum. The Eurasian integration plans remain vague despite the predictable statements made by the Chinese on their breakthrough achievements and the forum’s historical role. The forum was attended by fewer leaders than the hosts expected. It is still unclear if the sleeping countries will actively promote China’s initiatives. For example, India did not for one attend the forum, saying that the idea of a transit route via Pakistan under the Belt and Road concept would infringe upon its territorial rights in Kashmir. The resurgence of the Chinese-Indian dispute over this part of the Chinese project is bad for the project and also for Chinese-Indian cooperation on a larger scale, including within BRICS.

Moreover, it has turned out that the Belt and Road project is more of a geopolitical nature rather than an economic initiative. On the one hand, creating a peaceful environment in Eurasia meets Russia’s interests, but on the other hand, Moscow may dislike the silk noose China wants to throw over Eurasia. Anyway, the issue is so far limited to statements. Over the past three years, few projects have been implemented under the Belt and Road concept, which includes all projects planned along the route. No economically substantiated action plan with concrete indicators has been formulated for the implementation of Xi Jinping’s idea. This explains why the Chinese describe it as an initiative, which is evidence of the concept’s vagueness. It has become obvious that China’s considerable financial resources will be only used on commercial principles, which does not always match the Silk Road countries’ interests and possibly even the geopolitical considerations of their political leadership.

In response to the Chinese initiative, Russia advanced an even more ambitious project of a Greater Eurasian Partnership, which should incorporate the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In this context, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is just one of the projects under the umbrella of Russia’s Eurasian concept. However, Russia lacks the resources and integration ties with the numerous countries of the Euro-Pacific space for implementing this ambitious concept. The idea was proposed in response to the US Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), which has been put on hold but not completely cancelled. The proposed combination of the EAEU with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is a forced compromise. The idea of a new kind of equal and mutually beneficial Eurasian cooperation reaching to the Pacific Coast looks good on paper and in the deliberations of political analysts. It also corresponds to Russia’s national idea. But who will implement this idea and with what resources? As the Indonesians say, good meals are the main attraction of a meeting.

In other words, Russia will need to rally great political efforts together to reach an agreement with its potential partners in Eurasia and to add some competitive flesh to this idea. This cannot be done without China as the biggest economy in Eurasia. At least, Russia’s plans and efforts must not run counter to the plans of the rapidly rising Eurasian great power and cannot be implemented without its contribution. Will this strengthen the independence of Russia’s foreign policy and foreign economic strategy in Asia Pacific? This is an open-ended question. 

Georgy Toloraya is Director of the Center for Asian Strategy at the Institute of Economics, Russian Academy of Sciences; Executive Director of the Russian National Committee on BRICS Research; Chair of Regional Programs at the Russky Mir Foundation; Professor,  Head of the Chair of Oriental Studies at MGIMO University.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.