Reluctant travellers on China’s Silk Road

M.K. Bhadrakumar April 27, 2015 11:28 AM (UTC+8)
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An opinion piece in the Global Times, the Chinese communist party tabloid, authored by the well-known Chinese scholar, Li Xin, Director, Department of Russian and Central Asian Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies, confirmed what some of us would have suspected – namely, that Moscow took its time to toss around the startlingly novel ideas of China’s “Belt and Road Initiatives” and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to get a HD View 360 before deciding they looked good and safe.

Moscow formally declared its interest to become a founder-member of the AIIB at a late hour at the annual Boao Forum meet in the Chinese southeastern coastal town on March 27 just three days before the prescribed cut-off date.

Li estimates that the hesitancy stemmed out of a “dominant view held by many Russian elites” that China’s initiatives competed with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and as to what the the Silk Road proposals mean for the Central Asian region and, more importantly, as to how they mesh with Russia’s own development plans for Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Li recalls that despite repeated Chinese efforts, including at the leadership level, to allay the Russian fears, and despite the obvious spin-offs from the “Belt and Road Initiatives” for the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East, the trust deficit remained.

Li writes the Russian concerns were unwarranted as China was open to negotiations to “come up with new policies that could reduce the conflict of interests.” Unlike the EEU, the Chinese initiatives do not aim at economic integration but instead focus on developing infrastructure networks and connectivity, trade and investment and energy partnership.

In the ultimate analysis, Russia probably decided to go along with the Silk Road plans because the Central Asian states and major European countries warmed up to the Chinese initiatives enthusiastically, visualizing their potential to stimulate business and growth.

Of course, Russia’s concerns are understandable. The EEU provides “strategic depth” for Russia vis-à-vis Europe and China and the advancement of the integration format is a core objective of Russian foreign policy.

Russia hopes to integrate the Central Asian states within the EEU. Russia still remains by far the dominant presence in Central Asia despite China’s growing profile as economic partner. It is inevitable that some disquiet lingers in the Russian mind that the “Belt and Road Initiatives”, AIIB and the Silk Road Fund constitute potentially  powerful instruments capable of transforming China’s relations with the Central Asian states and dwarfing Russia’s traditional pre-eminence in the region.

India’s dilemma with regard to China’s Silk Road projects are in some ways akin to Russia’s. The Russian dilemma, of course, is far more acute than India’s. The Central Asian region used to be part of the Russian “empire” up until a quarter century back. Russia still remains the mainstay of the Central Asian economies; Russia is the provider of security for the region; Russia has military presence in the region; Russian ethnic population in the region is sizable in each of the Central Asian states.

As the Silk Road projects get under way, China’s influence in the Central Asian and South Asian regions will significantly increase. China is putting big money on the table, which no other powers is willing or capable of matching. China has now proposed the setting up of a trilateral Chinese-Mongolian-Russian corridor as a key project under the “Belt and Road”.

Russia is coordinating with China constantly on foreign-policy issues at the diplomatic and political level. In a recap recently, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “The present stage of our (Russia-China) cooperation will be reassessed” by the two presidents when they meet in Moscow on May 8. Lavrov added, “The depth of our partnership is unprecedented in the entire history of our two nation’s relations.”

Thus, although Russia has been, to begin with, a reluctant traveller on China’s Silk Road, the partnership appears to be gaining traction and Moscow and Beijing are tiptoeing toward “uniting” the Eurasian integration process and China’s initiatives for the Silk Road economic belt. A major announcement can be expected during President Xi’s forthcoming visit to Moscow in the first week of May.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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