Greater Eurasia: What Is Yet To Be Done?

First of all, it must be noted that we are discussing a concept with the potential to become an international legal entity. Unlike the existing Trans-Atlantic community, Greater Eurasia is yet to become an international phenomenon. Therefore, it is too early to say whether it has lived up to its promise the way other similar communities have. At the same time, we see a trend toward Greater Eurasia emerging as a cultural phenomenon that reflects peoples’ wish to belong to an identifying community.

The Greater Eurasia concept is a combination of the technocratic and romantic approaches displayed by the Russian foreign policy thought in the first 25 years of the 21st century. The source of technocratism is in the new limitations and instruments to which this country is adapting. Romanticism comes from the persisting hangovers of its superpower status and the tradition of advancing large-scale initiatives that compensate for insufficient resources. The technocratic idea to align the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt, which was supposed to cushion China’s growing might as the Russia-West confrontation escalated into a military-diplomatic conflict and to harness Chinese resources to Eurasian economic integration, proved to be a “second Rapallo” in 2015, a breakthrough in Russia’s seeming diplomatic isolation against the background of the Ukrainian events. The Greater Eurasia concept has become Moscow’s “long march” toward creating a new international community in the region. The concept was formulated by President Vladimir Putin in the summer of 2016.

Internationally, several objective factors contributed to its emergence. First, it was necessary to define a new modality in cooperation between numerous and generally friendly countries amid growing global uncertainty. Second, history has shown that it is impossible to integrate the continent from above based on the model and methodologies that evolved during the Cold War in Europe and took the nearly perfect form of European integration. Third, there was an objective necessity to adapt China’s growing might to the specifics of regional international relations characterized by the presence of other superpowers and a large number of medium-sized and small states that enjoyed a relative freedom of choice.

Finally, the emergence of this concept can be explained by foreign policy shifts in Russia which, like any other erstwhile empire, is feeling around in search of the most comfortable path of evolution from a formidable superpower to a themed architectural park. All European empires are past this stage, but Russia, unlike Britain or France, may still linger upon it by virtue of its military might and geographical location. They are and will persist as important restraints on its foreign policy behavior and eventually may impel it to combine great-power self-indulgence and a policy of cooperation with states in its periphery.

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The question is what is yet to be done and how to make an inventory of tasks at hand so as to implement the concept. It is necessary to point out that in practical terms it faced difficulties from the start, difficulties that prevented these tasks from being formalized. The most important obstacle is, of course, the considerable differences in foreign policy plans of the main participants and potential partners.

Russia, the author of this concept, has an ambiguous feeling. On the one hand, there is a rational understanding that the fears of small and medium-sized countries with regard to Chinese might and ambitions can only be dispelled by “immersing” China into a wider international community. Russia also has apprehensions of this kind, although they are related to its general awareness of how instability and strife could be brought to the Eurasian expanses, rather than to its national security considerations. If China continues its policy of unilateral strengthening, no matter what political and philosophical constructs may shore it up, the effect for international security in the region will be inevitably negative. Russia is aware of this and seeks to avoid these consequences. Russia also does not have the illusion that its own resources are sufficient so as not to cross the thin line between the “involvement” and balancing of China, including with account taken of the capabilities of states that are pursuing a hostile policy toward it.

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China, for its part, is hesitating. On the one hand, Beijing is aware that its strengthening, no matter by what good intentions – in its view – it is motivated, will always meet with outside opposition, and not only from the United States, for which China is a rival hunting for resources in a number of important regions, but also from all other members of the international community. At the same time, China is unable to give up its claim to hegemony that is dictated by its strategic culture and justified from the point of view of available resources. Smaller and medium-sized countries in Greater Eurasia have a wider choice of foreign policy orientations and partners, while facing fewer problems than Russia, China or India in shaping their strategic approach, which is dictated by the need to preserve their sovereignty. India is standing somewhat apart in this sense. It certainly can and must be regarded as one of the fundamental components of Greater Eurasia, but is itself an embodiment of the changing status and quality of Rimland facing both on and off shore. The technical differences between China and India can be resolved rather easily.
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But this is not an obstacle to Greater Eurasia coming into its own, by 2020, as a strong narrative present in the international academic and political debate. This in itself is a major achievement, given the lack of an economic basis and the impossibility of accepting as such China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The importance of information aspects in present-day international politics cannot be disregarded either.
The main problem today is how to make the speculative concept assume specific institutional forms and transform the foreign policies of potential participants in keeping with the concept’s requirements. This means that the technocratic element is somehow returning to the romantic discussion, something that will enable specific states to stop prattling about Greater Eurasia and start moving toward the creation of concrete mechanisms of international cooperation implemented under its brand.

 Let us note, however, that no government in the region has yet put forward an initiative to hold a major international meeting to discuss Greater Eurasia and thus failed to formalize its intentions in the eyes of the rest of the international community. Everyone is displaying restraint.
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Thus, it may be assumed, in practical terms, that the Greater Eurasia concept should become a tool that will make it possible for states in the region to start regarding their neighbors’ interests as inseparable from their own. For this, Russia and China, with support from several medium-sized and smaller countries in the region, must suggest a joint Declaration or Charter (in European terminology, but a more appropriate regional term can also be found) of Greater Eurasia. Even if this statement of intent fails to get immediate support from the majority of potential partners, it will remove the reasonable suspicion that the main participants have doubts as to their own intentions. It is also necessary to hold a forum of Greater Eurasia’s cooperation organizations, which will make – at first at the expert level – a list of proposals for cooperation that can be jointly implemented already at this stage. The beginning can be quite modest, with the hope for a gradual expansion of the Greater Eurasia agenda. But a functioning platform and bureaucratic interest is essential as well.

Simultaneously, the leading powers in the region should create mechanisms to facilitate the emergence of Greater Eurasia as a cultural phenomenon through the instrumentality of science (and its popularization) and education. It is clear, however, that this is one of the most sensitive spheres from the point of view of national sovereignty and that it is hardly realizable in the absence of a hegemon ready to pay for this cultural phenomenon.

At the same time, stagnation in this matter will serve to weaken the Greater Eurasia idea and discredit it gradually in the eyes of the public and the states. The concept and the wish to step up cooperation at the regional level have evidently reached a critical point, after which they will either take on specific political forms or start receding into history as a brief, if spectacular, phenomenon in the international debate. In the latter case, Russia and China will unswervingly move toward an informal military and political alliance, something that will inevitably lead to their strategic weakening.

Russia must understand how the Greater Eurasia concept combines with its own aspirations as regards transforming relations with states that are of critical importance for its border security. Expressing these aspirations is the functioning Eurasian Economic Union, the first attempt to unite countries in the region based on benefits and the preservation of sovereignty, rather than by force. To survive, however, the EAEU will inevitably have to remain rather closed and thus ensure exclusive benefits for its members. If so, it is becoming an obstacle to the further existence of the Greater Eurasia concept. A possible response to this challenge is more active movement toward establishing a Eurasian free trade area involving China, but with exemptions needed to avoid its domination.

Another practical aspect is how to enhance the level of trust in relations between Greater Eurasia states. This necessitates cooperation between their related law-enforcement agencies. It would be optimal to create a visa-free zone between Russia and China to be joined by other countries.

In conclusion, it can be said that even today, five years after the emergence of its predecessor – the idea to align the EAEU and the Belt and Road Initiative – the Greater Eurasia concept remains rather vague so as to raise concern but not cause tension among potential participants. How long it will remain this way depends on the intentions of the most important regional states.

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