A new supercontinent is emerging: Eurasia, the combination of the two continents of Europe and Asia, stretching from Lisbon to Shanghai or Jakarta. The ties binding it are partly about infrastructure, with new land and sea connections multiplying all the time. They are about ideology, with the clear lines of separation drawn during the Cold War now abandoned. And they are about trade too. Most readers will be surprised to find out that trade between Europe and Asia – let’s call it Eurasian trade – now vastly exceeds transatlantic and transpacific trade. Most years Eurasian trade amounts to about three times the volume of transatlantic trade.
Above all, the change is civilizational. For centuries, we thought of Europe and Asia as two opposing worlds. Europe was modern, technological, fast-moving and fast-changing. Asia was the opposite: static, backward, undeveloped and hopelessly retrograde. Is this still the case? Hardly. These days you would be forgiven to think the roles have been reversed. In Brussels people still need to learn how to use credit cards, while the Chinese look at credit cards as relics from the past. Beijing looks more and more like Blade Runner, simultaneously dark and gleaming.
Eurasia is increasingly becoming an integrated whole, but it still needs to be politically organized. China was the first to volunteer for the task. The so-called Belt and Road is a mammoth project to organize the supercontinent, from one end to the other and according to Chinese ideas. Almost limitless in its ambitions, it is bound to be followed by many other competing projects. India, Russia, Japan and Europe will have their own ideas.
Nothing quite compares to the scale of the endeavor. The effort to create a Europe-wide political order after the wars of religion in the seventeenth century pales by comparison, successful though it was. The development of the idea of the “West” after World War II, also remarkable for what it was able to achieve, had a smaller scale.
The Belt and Road is only part of the story. If you want to draw an accurate map of Eurasia, you need to add the gradual expansion of Indian power from the Suez to Malacca. Both the Portuguese and the British thought that India encompassed the whole of the Indian Ocean region and this is increasingly how decision makers in Delhi see the question of India’s place in the world. In the next two decades, we shall see them focused on building a powerful navy and opening military bases in the Horn of Africa and Sumatra, while attempting to integrate the densely populated Indian littoral into its own economic value chains. Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian foreign policy analyst, has argued that “the Indian political and policy establishment, long brought up on the notion that Europe and Asia are different, must adapt to their slow but certain integration into a single geopolitical theatre”.
As for Russia, it now looks in four directions at once, a marked improvement upon the double-headed eagle of its state emblem. Traditionally, Russian elites tended to see their task as that of bringing about a gradual but complete integration with a more advanced Europe. That vision is now being replaced by a new self-image: as the center and core of the Eurasian supercontinent, Russia can reach in all directions and provide a bridge between Europe and China on both ends. In fact, Moscow is also looking south to the Middle East, and to the north, as global warming transforms the Arctic into the main trade route linking Europe and Asia.
Eurasia is becoming smaller, more integrated, the stage for intense rivalry and competition between different poles, each of them projecting influence outwards and creating new connections.