Russia, China and a new Eurasian regional order?

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 2/2017. Differences between the New Silk Road and the Eurasian Economic Union may prevent Sino-Russian competition in Eurasia, writes Marcin Kaczmarski.

Regardless of how often pundits and politicians from Russia and China emphasise that the relationship between their countries is the ‘best in history’, sceptics remain doubtful. They tend to point to Central Asia, or the broader post-Soviet space, as a most plausible bone of contention. Russia is said to be increasingly dissatisfied with China’s inroads into its ‘traditional sphere of influence’. When Russian president Vladimir Putin proposed to re-invigorate Eurasian integration back in 2011, analysts interpreted it as a way to prevent the further erosion of Russia’s position in the former Soviet republics vis-à-vis China. China’s creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt was equally quickly read as a response to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Although Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping agreed to ‘synchronise’ the two initiatives in 2015, sceptics quote the lack of any substantive progress as proof of on-going competition hidden behind the façade of the ‘strategic partnership’ rhetoric. Does this mean that Sino-Russian rivalry in Eurasia is unavoidable?

Even though the two projects appear to be deliberate efforts aimed at one another, Russia and China have had different incentives and expectations. For Moscow, the EEU has been a means to delimit and secure Russia’s sphere of influence. Beijing, in turn, has seen the New Silk Road as a way to maintain open access by the world’s economy to China’s exports and generate a new external source for their slowing economic growth. The aims have translated into distinct institutional settings. The EEU with its 1000-page long treaty, governed by international law and with complex internal decision-making procedures, raised the barrier for potential newcomers. The New Silk Road represents the other end of the spectrum. Its foundational principles are vague and general, its international-legal and institutional framework are almost non-existent. China aims to make its project as inclusive as possible, defining it as a ‘community of shared interests’ rather than as an entity with defined geographical boundaries. Moreover, the Chinese goal behind the New Silk Road is to neutralise such protectionist initiatives as the Russia-led EEU.

Paradoxically, divergent characteristics may offer the two powers an exit and prevent competition in the post-Soviet space. Beijing defines regional cooperation in functional terms and seems ready to reconcile its plans with the presence of other powers. The Eurasian Economic Union may pose certain obstacles to Chinese exports, but at the same time it includes the Customs Union, which facilitates transport across vast spaces of Eurasia. Emphasising the non-confrontational and flexible nature of its project, Beijing allows Moscow to maintain an illusion of political leadership in the post-Soviet space. Simultaneously, China makes powerful domestic actors in the Russian economy, such as the Russian Railways (RZhD), relevant stakeholders in the New Silk Road project and potential lobbyists inside the Kremlin.

Moscow has turned out to be flexible, too. Last year, Putin put forward a new concept, Greater Eurasia. According to this idea, the EEU would become a core of a broader regional cooperation network that would include major powers, such as China and India, key organisations, from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to ASEAN, and China’s New Silk Road initiative. Thus, under the aegis of a Greater Eurasia, the New Silk Road and the Eurasian Economic Union would be two major pillars of the Eurasian regional order. It seems that Russia has found a way to accept China’s pre-eminence in the region without admitting it openly and maintaining instead a façade of equal partnership.

Marcin Kaczmarski is Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Relations, University of Warsaw and Head of the China-EU Programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute in 2017.