On January 15, New Delhi hosted a session of the Valdai Club titled “From Vladivostok to Chennai: A New Cooperation Arc in the Rising Rimland,” held as part of the annual Raisina Dialogue forum. Organized and moderated by Valdai Club program director Timofei Bordachev, the session was attended by Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and former Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Vladimir Norov, Indian MP Manish Tewari, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Sergei Afontsev, and representatives of the expert community from the United States and China.
The participants discussed the majority of important issues related to efforts to consolidate multi-level interstate relations along the rim of the Greater Eurasian space, the main problems involved in implementing national strategies in this region, and the role of multilateral institutions, primarily the SCO as the most representative regional organization in terms of the population numbers of its member countries. The discussion was predictably wide-ranging, given the diversity of views, national interests and strategies of Greater Eurasia countries, including India.
As it transpired from comments made by the US participant, the United States sees the configuration in Eurasia as rather a balance of forces, and hopes to play a game of its own aimed at allowing neither of the big Eurasian powers to assume a dominant position. By contrast, the other participants saw Eurasia’s future, including its maritime dimension, as a cooperative environment geared to new opportunities for cooperation rather than rivalry. Today, however, the US interpretation of regional relations seems to be increasingly at variance with the most widespread approaches that seek, amid the general global uncertainty, to strengthen regional structures and formats and regard the existing problems as issues that need to be addressed against a generally constructive background of relations rather than as systemic factors of strategic importance. The ensuing exchange of views and Q&A session made it possible to draw a few significant conclusions for regional politics and development.
First, Eurasia’s political diversity and relatively recent experience of modern statehood are factors that confine the countries involved in the discussion on multifaceted cooperation to little more than comparing national agendas and priorities. In effect, Greater Eurasia is quite new as a political region. Historically it was split into Asian countries seeking their post-colonial emancipation and Russia, which was hovering over Eurasia while remaining a European power and an empire. This split made it possible for the US and European strategic planners to see Eurasia as a space for rivalry, where a stake could be put on diverging interests of different players. The classical trick was to oppose the Eurasian Heartland represented by Russia and the Rimland composed of powers gravitating toward the oceanic expanses of the South. Today, this split has just begun to heal, and India’s accession to the SCO is a crucial symbolic and political step on this path. But for the time being, the region’s inability to visualize itself as an integrated community is quite obvious, if comparisons are to be made between it and the Euro-Atlantic area, although a push away from this doomed paradigm has come under way, something that cannot but worry the leading players in the West.
This relates to the operations of multilateral institutions, and Vladimir Norov devoted his remarks to a key organization in this category. The original problem of all multilateral interstate associations in Eurasia is their lack of commitment to addressing whatever goes beyond the narrow regional concerns or local strategies conceived by the member countries. But the modern era is urging them – the SCO in Eurasia in the first place – to discuss global or macro-regional issues and suggest solutions. Nevertheless, they still have a long way to go. At the same time, the SCO Secretary-General’s address has confirmed that his organization is expanding the ambit of its competences. The accession of India, a country with the capacity and ambition to promote large-scale projects, can only facilitate this evolution.
For the time being, therefore, it confines itself to tactical objectives and seeks self-fulfillment in the macro-regional and international arenas. In this sense, India is distinct from the other two key Eurasian powers, Russia and China. Russia has reasserted itself as an international player after a brief failure entailed by the collapse of the USSR and painful economic reforms. China, in turn, has braced up to make a comeback and play its traditional role of a rich center offering small and medium-sized countries the wherewithal for national development programs. India lacks military might and financial capabilities comparable to those of Russia and China, and therefore can only complement them as the third chief Eurasian player. But it takes time to conceptualize this role.
On the whole, India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific space is much different from the US concept. For India, it is a tool for advancing Indian interests that hinge on strengthening ties with economically advanced nations in South and East Asia and the Pacific. Containing China is a second-rate priority.
Third, the international economic situation is favorable for macro-regional cooperation. The gradual crumbling of the global economic governance architecture and the objective processes like production and consumption localization are inevitably strengthening the regional vector of multilateral regulation. What the leading Eurasian powers have to do is to set sail to catch the wind of change, the more so that the increasingly obvious US and European protectionist policies are a great help in this sense.
As in recent years, an important issue was whether China was able to adapt its greater potential to the local environment. The main strategic problem in Eurasia concerns apprehensions felt by small and medium-sized countries that China will inevitably seek domination and they will have to oppose it in an effort to protect their sovereignty. In part, these fears are shared by India. China, for its part, is trying to be more considerate of its regional partners’ feelings and concerns. Russia has an important role to play in this sense as it involves Beijing in multilateral cooperation formats. On the whole, however, the incommensurability of China’s capacities at the regional level remains a difficult and long-term problem.
In summing up, we can say that the agenda of multilateral cooperation in Greater Eurasia and along its rim, where the most important player is India, poses more questions than it provides answers. Yet the most positive fact is that the region, which was a scene of confrontation between outside players just two or three decades ago, is now involved in an active multilateral dialogue. Greater Eurasia and its rim stretching from Chennai in India to Vladivostok in Russia is entering a new, promising era in its development.