Twenty years ago Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that "America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained," although he viewed this condition as "temporary" (Zbigniew Brzezinski "The Great Chessboard", p. 18, in Russian). The geopolitical guru’s prediction about United States’ loss of dominance in Eurasia seems to be coming true. Despite its huge political, economic and military power, the United States accounts for only three percent of the global population and will not be able to amalgamate the diverse Eurasian components into a uniform American standard. Today, the single Eurasian space — China with Southeast Asia and Russia with the Eurasian Union, plus India, the Middle East and Africa, which are also becoming increasingly Eurasia-oriented — is squeezing out the economy of the previously omnipotent trio of the United States, Europe and Japan.
The United States is fiercely resisting the process in an attempt to preserve its supremacy in Eurasia, and consequently in global politics and economy. America’s approach is three-pronged. First, Washington continues to fan the flames of the Ukraine crisis to create a starting point for direct confrontation with Russia, which is becoming increasingly independent in the global arena. Second, the Americans are tightening their control over their European allies and Japan, using the Russia threat slogan to consolidate the West as was the case during the Cold War. Today, the levers include the renovated and strengthened NATO and powerful U.S.-led economic blocs, i.e. emerging transpacific and transatlantic trade and investment partnerships. Third comes the containment of an expanding China, America's global challenger.
U.S. — China Confrontation
U.S. — China rivalry is sometimes compared with the Soviet-American antagonism of the Cold War. However, there is a dramatic difference. The Soviet-American stand-off was rigorously ideological on both sides — not just competition between two superpowers but a confrontation two systems, with peaceful coexistence seen both by Moscow and Washington as a lull before a decisive battle.
In Chinese terminology, relations between China and America have developed into competitive interaction, with the United States economically dependent on China to a greater extent than on any of its allies. Since China is in the ascendant within the existing global architecture, it is less interested in breaking down the arrangement. However, Washington does not want to give in and share the dominant role in Eurasia and global concert of nations. The U.S. Asia pivot is primarily intended to create a real danger to sea routes used by China for 90 percent of its foreign trade, with the focus being on the military buildup in the Indo-Pacific, stronger ties with allies, and bridge-building with new partners. And all this is definitely against Beijing, as the United States is aggressively interfering in Chinese territorial disputes with ASEAN states in the South China Sea and placing China as the opposing number in its Transpacific Partnership.
Beijing should be impressed by the EU’s discipline in joining the anti-Russia sanctions, as these countries remain under U.S. control and will follow suit, even to the detriment of their own economic interests. China is well aware of the effects of the future transatlantic and transpacific free trade areas, designed by Washington to cold-shoulder the unwelcome economies.
China has responded with the concepts of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route that are lie in the Indian and Pacific oceans, i.e. the Eurasian underbelly, because its control will develop into control over Eurasia. Currently, this is a highly turbulent area, where globalization processes combine with leadership struggle, rising affluence alongside deepening poverty, and financial tensions alongside territorial disputes. The Indo-Pacific may boast seven of the world's ten most numerous armies, three nuclear states and three potential nuclear weapons powers that could soon appear, as well as the world's busiest trade route between key oil and gas suppliers and consumers. And then there is Afghanistan and Iraq, whose territories are mired in protracted military conflicts, Yemen — which is soon to join their number, and Iran, which has been mistreated by the West for the past three decades.
Toward Peace and Stability via Economic Cooperation
The New Cold War declared by the United States and the West on Russia and Washington's anti-China Asia pivot inevitably bring Moscow and Beijing together in dealing with Eurasian affairs. Now it seems tactically appropriate both for China and Russia to have the Maritime Silk Route initiative free of political or institutional proposals that would be a priori objectionable to the region’s U.S. allies. For now, the idea is broadly mulled as the construction and development of transport infrastructure along the Maritime Silk Road to be later augmented by FTAs, coordination of customs procedures and quality standards, advancement of e-trade, etc. In fact, as far as the countries on the Indian Ocean’s northern coast are concerned, these proposals largely coincide with the activities of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and will hardly face fierce opposition.
China’s neighbors do not seem deeply apprehensive about Chinese hegemony. According to Indonesian expert Umar Juoro, "the maritime highway is actually not a new thing as it is very much reminiscent of Indonesia's ancient history, which had excellent maritime transport serving islands across the country during the old kingdom era. Until the 15th century it served as a trade crossroads for India, China, Africa and Arab countries." Zhen Zhong Yang, a Singapore-based economist says that China's economic dominance is neither scary or surprising. "China has accumulated vast experience in infrastructure building and capital that it can invest in developing countries along the Maritime Silk Route to stimulate their economic potential. Chinese money is frequently rejected by Western countries for national security reasons, and that situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Hence, China has little option but to seek new territories for trade and investment. The launch of the Maritime Silk Route will give these efforts a push, and will also make the West think about the prudence of snubbing Chinese money."
Joint implementation of long-term economic projects is definitely the best way to improve mutual trust and reduce tensions between neighboring states. Europe had an opportunity for a similar experience in late 1960s and early 1970s, when the construction of pipelines from the Soviet Union to West Europe and participation of West European firms in construction of large factories in the USSR effectively worked to stifle the mutual mistrust of the Cold War and open a path to political détente in Europe, peaking with the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the establishment of the OSCE. Naturally, the direct duplication of the 40-year-old European practice in the Indo-Pacific is not appropriate, although some elements might be brought into play.
The structural deficit in finances for infrastructure in developing Asian states is the key barrier to growth in the Indo-Pacific. This is why the Chinese initiative of establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was broadly welcomed. In October 2014 China signed the memorandum to establish the AIIB with only 21 Asian states, and currently over 50 countries are joining the project, including Russia, EU leading states, South Korea, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Egypt. The only economic powers staying out are the United States and Japan. Some Westerners believe that in Asia the AIIB may effectively compete against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and against the Washington and Tokyo-dominated Asian Development Bank.
For Moscow, the AIIB represents a win-win situation. Russia's economic integration into the Indo-Pacific is hardly possible in the absence of any involvement in infrastructure, first of all, energy and transport, Russia's trump cards in the Indo-Pacific space. AIIB money may go toward building gas and oil pipelines and electric power lines from Russia to adjacent countries, to the modernization of the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur railways and Russian ports in the Pacific, as well as to the development of the Northern Sea Route.
The creation of the International North-South Transport Corridor from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the Indian Ocean via Iran, Transcaucasia and Central Asia along the two Caspian coasts to Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg) and Northern Europe could prove to be of particular value for the economic integration of Indo-Pacific countries, and for the development of their trade links with the Eurasian Economic Union and West Europe. In 2000, a relevant intergovernmental agreement was signed by Russia, Iran and India, who were later joined by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Oman and Syria. On September 29, 2014, participants of the 4th Caspian Summit in Astrakhan also supported the idea.
Potential cargo traffic for the North-South Corridor is estimated at 25-40 million tons a year, with annual container traffic at 1-1.5 million TEU. Estimates of Russia's profits vary from USD 1.5 to 6 billion ("International North-South Transport Corridor as a Factor for Eurasian Integration", in Russian).
The Maritime Silk Route is intended to lend momentum to economic associations such as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Economic Cooperation Organization of the Middle East and Central Asia, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which could become components in a wider Indo-Pacific security architecture.
To this end, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, incorporating Russia and China, seems particularly significant, especially as it has extended the observer status to Indian Ocean states such as India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. In future the group could forge a link between the Maritime Silk Route and the Great Silk Road Economic Belt.
As part of its 21st Century Maritime Silk Route initiative, Beijing is expressedly disassociating itself from any kind of competition, suggesting a project that would bypass other schemes in the Eurasian periphery but could absorb them if the need arises. No other state can offer more resources than China. Unlike the United States, which relies on military and political tools to provoke friction, China offers cash and political neutrality.
The struggle for Eurasia is becoming the basic battle of decades to come. In order to block Washington's drive to preserve its supremacy in Eurasia on the basis of the free market under the supervision of U.S. financial institutions and aircraft carriers, one not only needs to unite the opponents but also to build an alternative architecture for economic, energy, infrastructure and other types of security.
The point is not to isolate the United States but to blaze a trail in replacing the U.S.-led Western-centric world with a polycentric arrangement, which would provide for the equality and respect of interests for large and small states in politics, mutual benefits in economics, compatibility and mutual enrichment of civilizations in culture, mutual trust and cooperation in the security area, and shared responsibility in global affairs.
And the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route clearly appears a major contribution to these commendable goals.