The American-Chinese split provides a suitable groundwork for the fact, that China is interested in strengthening partnership with Russia in developing Eurasian projects. At the same time, to what extent Moscow will be able to convince Beijing to accept the “Greater Eurasia” construct as the optimal formula for regional cooperation, remains an open question, writes Adil Kaukenov, Director of China Center (Kazakhstan).
For a long time, US-China cooperation was an important component of the global economic system, forming the mutual flows of goods, people, technology and financing, and serving as one of the main drivers of world economic growth.
That is why it is difficult to overestimate how seriously the current American-Chinese divergence into two different poles will affect the world. Moreover, despite the fact that the economic divorce in different areas is slow, due to the huge number of mutual ties that are not always visible to the naked eye, the intensity of passions in political rhetoric is no laughing matter. Of course, the departure of President Donald Trump returned more diplomacy to mutual accusations, but no one doubts the existence of a bipartisan consensus in Washington on Chinese issues. Moreover, this consensus has become an important factor in the internal political struggle inside the United States.
The harshness, and even more importantly, the ruthlessness of the US attack against the Chinese high-tech flagship Huawei revealed Washington’s seriousness in eliminating competitors to American technological domination. Given that all the other big Chinese companies, including even the entertainment platform Tik-Tok, are either under the scrutiny of American politicians or have already been subject to their first attacks, it is clear that the economic gap will gain momentum. As a result, the world is likely to lose one of the stable sources of economic growth and opportunities that large amounts of trade between China and the West have generated.
However, for the “Greater Eurasia” project, the intensification of US-Chinese competition, on the contrary, presents a new horizon for development, as if reminding us that in the Chinese language, the word “crisis” consists of two characters: “danger” and “chance” (危机).
Although the idea of “Eurasianism” has already existed for a long time, the term “Greater Eurasia” came out after the aggravation of relations between Russia and the West. The large-scale sanctions war showed the facets of a new political and economic reality, which became fertile ground for the emergence of a new concept.
However, six years ago, for Beijing, participation in “Greater Eurasia”, as a link between the EAEU and the Belt and Road initiative, was more of a regional project, amongst numerous other international opportunities. The Chinese elite at that moment had tried with all its might to avoid any anti-Western agenda or confrontation, sometimes unequivocally hinting that Moscow should be more flexible in its foreign policy. In particular, they underscored the fact that Beijing was able to smooth out all its rough edges with the West, despite the communist leadership of the country.
But after the “crusade” led by Donald Trump, especially during the most difficult days, when China was the first and only nation to face COVID-19, it became obvious to even the most pro-Western elites of the PRC that they would not be able to reach an agreement. It would even be impossible to buy off the US through deals. The most that money could do in this situation was buy time. Washington expressed its position very clearly: China has gained such power that in the near future, it will be able to displace the United States from its global pedestal, and for the White House this is equal to total defeat.
Naturally, this option is categorically unacceptable for the Chinese elite, and after experiencing an initial slight shock from the understanding that the policy of appeasement in such a situation no longer applies, Beijing also began to change its tactics. The tone of Chinese diplomacy has become much harsher, even giving rise to the special term “wolf warrior diplomacy”. But the most important thing for “Greater Eurasia” is that China found itself in a situation where it was standing practically alone against the powerful West, which includes not only economic, but also military alliances. And there was a reason for this.
During the “honeymoon” with the West, China tried with all its might not to incur suspicion about itself as a military-political power, so it avoided joining any alliances. The only exception was the SCO, considered by Beijing at that time as a necessary entry ticket to Central Asia. Therefore, if the United States has a number of allies, both small and large, who are ready to criticise China, oppose it and check the reaction to this or that provocation, then the set of Beijing’s allies turned out to be very, very limited.
And here Russia appeared to Beijing in a new light: as a powerful military-political centre, a member of the “big five” of the UN Security Council, a serious supplier of energy resources, a key player in the Eurasian space and, what was especially important, also under powerful pressure from the West. Moreover, Moscow had accumulated considerable experience in confronting the West, skilfully separating the US from the European nations on a number of fundamental issues. Russia also has successful experience fighting the West in terms of information and ideology.
In this context, Russia is the most important and uncontested ally for China in the foreign policy arena. Russia is powerful and experienced enough to relieve pressure from the United States and its allies. But, like any Marxists, Beijing’s ideologists, as a rule, faithfully follow the perception that without an economic foundation, any political castles are very shaky. Therefore, economic projects with Russia and other Eurasian partners, began to be not only economic, but also strategic in nature. Huawei, having lost access to all Western assets, began to attach a completely different meaning to its Russian projects. Russian tycoons, who were included in the sanctions lists of the West, also discovered China in a new way.
In this vein, today we see the dawn of Russian-Chinese relations, in terms of the level of trust they are rapidly approaching the times of Soviet-Chinese friendship, when Moscow and Beijing were in a single bloc. Incidentally, the lines in the anthem of the Warsaw Pact, “The Song of the United Armies” read: “We will strike back in response, the Land of the Soviets and China ....” Today, Russia and China not only conduct numerous joint military exercises, but also jointly patrol maritime areas.
It should be noted that the new geopolitical realities have changed not only the quality of Russian-Chinese relations, but also made it possible for Iran to change its vision of itself in Eurasia. In the 2000s, Tehran’s desire to enter the SCO and more actively participate in Eurasian projects caused great scepticism, since at that time the confrontation between Iran and the West could have a bad effect on other participants. On December 17, 2021, at the SCO summit, the procedure for the admission of Iran was launched to become a full member of the SCO. This is understandable: what was scary in the 2000s, on the contrary, became an advantage in the 2020s. In addition, Iran is one of the key countries in the Middle East, and this gives Eurasian projects direct access to the important geopolitical region.
Thus, the American-Chinese split gave a serious impetus for interaction between Russia, China and Iran, which gives the “Greater Eurasia” project special urgency.
But there are also negative factors playing against “Greater Eurasia”, taking into account the Chinese factor. A painful issue in Russian-Chinese interaction is the question of who will play first fiddle. During the historical Soviet-Chinese split, this very issue played one of the most important roles, since Beijing was bored with the role of younger brother in the Soviet bloc. Therefore, after Stalin’s death, the paths of the two communist powers separated: each began to build its own version of socialism, despite a serious threat from NATO.
Today, China is a global economic giant, where the GDP of the one hundred and twenty-six million-strong province of Guangdong ($1.7 trillion in 2020) is greater than the GDP of Russia ($1.4 trillion in 2020). The level of investment and technological opportunities in many areas is practically incomparable.
But, on the other hand, China, after its policy of interaction with the West, which lasted 30 years, practically abstained from participation in serious military conflicts, as well as information and diplomatic confrontations. Russia, even at the peak of interaction with the West in the 1990s and 2000s, was actively involved in such activity, ranging from the operation at Pristina airport in the Balkans in 1999 to “peace enforcement” against Georgia in 2008.
Therefore, the question of leadership, who sets the tone, is far from an illusory question. China offers its “Community of Common Destiny” and the Belt and Road Initiative as the ideological postulates for all countries willing to cooperate. But for Russia, as a great power, it is important to offer its own narrative, its own terminology of regional and world cooperation. Therefore, “Greater Eurasia” is more of a vision of Moscow, where it proposes to connect many projects like the EAEU, Belt and Road, SCO and other large associations as a promising pole to which any interested players, including European powers, will join.
In any event, Beijing has not yet given a coherent and clear explanation of its attitude towards and understanding of “Greater Eurasia”. The reason is clear. Before China supports, even verbally, any project, it is important to understand how seriously Moscow itself takes its own ideologeme? Who else is ready to support “Greater Eurasia”? How will the Russian-Chinese “Greater Eurasia” be greeted by other large and medium-sized players? For example, in Kazakhstan. Is not “Greater Eurasia”, despite all the Russian-Chinese friendship, an attempt by Moscow to intercept initiative and to shape Russian-style meanings in the Eurasian space? There are a lot of similar questions.
It is obvious that Beijing simply has no answers to them yet. It will take time. Moreover, a full understanding of “Greater Eurasia” by China is impossible without active Russian participation, but the COVID-19 pandemic, despite all the technical innovations, has greatly complicated the possibility of interaction. Especially with China, given the peculiarities of its political decision-making system, where personal meetings at all levels are of paramount importance. But most of them today are practically frozen, and those channels that are fully functional, work in an emergency mode, supporting numerous daily tasks.
Also, it should be noted that if we talk about other Eurasian countries and important sections of the Belt and Road from China to the West, then in Central Asia there is also a serious vacuum of understanding as to what the “Greater Eurasia” constitutes, as well as what its outlines, obligations and benefits will be.Thus, summing up, we can say that the American-Chinese split provides a suitable groundwork for the fact, that China is interested in strengthening partnership with Russia in developing Eurasian projects. At the same time, to what extent Moscow will be able to convince Beijing to accept the “Greater Eurasia” construct as the optimal formula for regional cooperation, remains an open question.