Transport Corridors in Eurasia: Economy or Geopolitics

The grammatical conjunction “or” in the title of this paper shall not be taken seriously. I would argue that any major transportation corridor is, first of all, a matter of geo politics. The economic considerations are very often the secondary ones in such projects. If it is possible to achieve simultaneously both political and economic goals, a project is considered to be particularly successful.

This is especially relevant for the regions where the major world powers compete with each other. The Eurasian continent is exactly such a region. Therefore, there are a number of competing projects here: the Eurasian Integration sponsored by Russia; the New Pan Turkism promoted by Turkey, the New Silk Road by the USA, and finally the Silk Road Economic Belt by China.

Each of the projects has its advantages and drawbacks. Each of them means new risks and opportunities for the Eurasian states. Each of them means building new transport infrastructure and logistical networks. More importantly, however, each of the projects has its particular geopolitical implications although, very often, the latter is not at all adequately articulated by the sponsor party.

This paper does not deal with the all projects mentioned above. It is focused on the one that is relatively recent, and, therefore, less studied. Despite the fact that the Silk Road Economic Belt of China is being vigorously debated in the expert community and the media, there are numerous aspects that are still unclear. The paper discusses these aspects in more details.

The first initiative of the Silk Road Economic

Belt was made by President Xi Jinping in September 2013. In October, he also articulated the idea of the 21st Century Marine Silk Road. Prior to that, Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council, proposed to build the China-Pakistan and the China-Bangladesh-India–Myanmar economic corridors. Later, all these projects were united by one concept the One Belt - One Road (OBOR). The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the entire propaganda apparatus prefer this term to the others.

The project has been under expert examination for more than six moths and on May 28, 2015 the first document concerning the One

Belt – One Road project was finally published:

the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Ministry of Commerce (MC) issued a joint document with the promising title The Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (2015). Although this document lacks any conceptual take on the OBOR, it clarifies the matter to a certain extend. According to the document, the One Belt - One Road is a comprehensive project of systematic importance based of the principle of the common advantage in terms of trade, construction and use that shall be mutually beneficial and perspective because of its positive impact on the development of the contracting parties[1].

The extract above seems to signify the pure economic nature of the project. The text below, however, reads as following: the One Belt - One Road is to become a stimulus for joint maintenance and improvement of mutually beneficial cooperation that would lead to prosperity for all, this is the road towards enhanced relations of mutual trust and responsibility, towards strengthened interaction, peace, and friendship. This makes much more geopolitical implications, especially given that one of the tasks during the implementation of the project is to “harmonize the development strategies” of the states concerned and to conduct “political consultation on the top official level”.

Speaking in March 2015 at the Boao Asia Development Forum for Asia, Xi Jinping once again emphasized that the One Belt - One Road meets the needs of China and other neighboring countries of the region in terms of their development, is in their common interests and fits very

well into the overall regional and international cooperation architecture. The OBOR shall be built together and used together, it is an inclusive initiative that is not aimed at China’s dominance but provides for the equal participation for all. According to Xi Jinping, the One Belt - One Road does not mean replacement or undermining of the existing mechanisms or other initiatives of regional cooperation. It is a strategy that presupposes development of the neighboring countries in accordance with the principles of mutuality and complementarity on the basis that has already been established[2].

In other words, China’s President made the emphasis on economic matters. Some years earlier, however, his position was much more comprehensive and beyond economics[3]. The fact that all corridor projects have been incorporated into the One Belt – One Road concept that has been mostly promoted by the Foreign Ministry of China implies that it is more than just an economic initiative. The Foreign Ministry of China has been promoting the idea making an emphasis on a new policy towards the neighboring countries and this signifies an apparent geopolitical content of the initiative. At the same time, the geopolitical content is not clearly articulated and this lead to a number of questions.

First, it is still unclear what the OBOR is about conceptually, what its ultimate goal is. Is it an economic initiative or a new geopolitical course of China?

Second, is the project aimed at integration of Asia under the auspices of China or the major goal is to maintain the conditions that are the most favorable tor China’s goods and services on the international markets?

Third, how to understand the principle of the “common advantage” articulated by Beijing in the trade and economic relations where the intense competition is the major feature?

Fourth, is the cultural and humanitarian cooperation within the OBOR a "two-way street" or it means that only the Chinese culture and values would be spread under the concept of "soft power"?

Finally, although the benefits for China are absolutely apparent, it is still unclear whether the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road would bring any good for the other countries concerned.

So far, the arguments proposed in favor of the OBOR make it clear that it is a sort of “rebranded” SCO Free Trade Zone, which was proposed by China and rejected by Russia and the Central Asian states, with the major goal being to create the most favorable conditions for China’s goods and services on the markets of Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and further in Europe.

This may be the main reason why, in spite of the publically expressed endorsement of the OBOR and numerous assurances of the political willingness to participate into its practical realization, the experts, including those form China are rather cautious about its perspectives[4].

The most important, however, is the problem of Russian and American relations with the Central Asian states and their impact on the practical implementation of the China’s OBOR project.

Central Asia is a complicated case. This is the region where the interests of the USA, Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran and Turkey collide. The relations between these states are far from ideal. Thus, in order to realize its project, China will have to play the role of a moderator and do it in a very subtle manner. Whether China will succeed is an open question.

In this context, it seems reasonable to remember the difficulties faced by Russia and the USA in the region. The New Silk Road of the USA has virtually failed and Russia’s integration project is skidding.

China, unlike Russia and the USA, has an undisputable advantage; it is able to allocate enough money in the shortest period of time. China is ready to invest a lot. For example, to realize its recent initiative the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Beijing allocated $100 billion. The investment package of the OBOR project may reach $40 billion. It is obvious that China is ready to pay generously when it wants its integration initiatives implemented. And this is a very serious factor that must be remembered.

Year: 2015
City: Almaty