Geo-economic strategy for Eurasia

Updated: 2014-06-19 07:07

By Liang Qiang (China Daily USA)

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China Forum | Liang Qiang

Vision of a Silk Road economic belt needs a detailed top-level design to guide its actual effects and ensure tangible benefits

In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed that China and Central Asia join hands to build a Silk Road economic belt, which would not only include all China's strategic partners in the Eurasian region, but also cover the whole of Eurasia. Such an economic belt would be the world's longest economic corridor with the most potential for development and a strategic base of energy resources in the 21st century.

In his 2014 government work report, Premier Li Keqiang said that China will intensify the planning and building of a Silk Road economic belt and a 21st century maritime Silk Road. Until now, the authorities of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine have all expressed support for the vision, while other countries have not yet given an official response and there are even some negative views about the vision in Russia. There are several reasons for such different reactions from different regional countries.

First, Russia and the United States have put forward similar plans in the past, but they were aimed at political integration, rather than wholeheartedly promoting regional economic cooperation. However, this has prompted some countries in the region to take a prudent approach toward the new vision initiated by Beijing.

Second, internal political and resource contradictions are entrenched inside the Eurasian region. Influenced by the volatile situation in Syria and Afghanistan, the regional security outlook is pessimistic, which might put regional economic cooperation at risk.

Third, geo-economic competition between China and Russia is hard to avoid. Russia is the biggest country in the Eurasian region, but lacks the ability to link the Asia-Pacific and European Union economic circles, and Moscow also does not have the ambition in this regard. But the economic integration promoted by China will cover 10 to 15 times the population and market of the Eurasian Union being promoted by Russia. By opening up a new Eurasian continental transport corridor, China's new Silk Road economic belt offers better links than Russia's Trans-Eurasia railway. Though China's vision was not the first, it is competitive and attractive.

Fourth, regional countries are in different development stages, and have different focuses on how to use China's development to promote their own economic development. Kazakhstan is actively promoting transformation of its economic structure and is eager to use Chinese capital, technology and human resources to upgrade its industrial structure and boost its high and new technology industry. Uzbekistan hopes to expand energy cooperation with China and is seeking a coordinated regional energy policy, such as an energy club within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Ukraine, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, according to their own actual needs, want Chinese help in building infrastructure to improve people's basic livelihoods. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also want China to help solve their differences with neighbors over water resources and ensure food security. Russia wants to build a global economic and political institutional framework with the help of China, and integrate many regional organizations in the Eurasian region. Other regional countries are interested in China's capital and experience, but constrained by various factors, bilateral economic cooperation has not yet flourished.

The Chinese government can strive for the vision of establishing the Silk Road economic belt by making further efforts to build mutual trust and overcome doubts, such as making clear the difference between China's vision and those of Russia and the US, and stressing development and cooperation without economic integration; and by taking into consideration the different concerns of different countries and actively seeking converging economic interests with regional countries.

China welcomes Russia participating in the construction of the Silk Road economic belt. During the Sochi Winter Olympics, President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a strategic consensus on the issue of connecting Russia's Trans-Eurasia railway with the Silk Road economic belt and the maritime Silk Road. This would lift China-Russia economic cooperation to a new level.

However, China must attach great importance to the actual effects and tangible benefits generated by the Silk Road economic belt, and work out detailed content and objectives and specific programs, starting with areas that can quickly reap benefits and face the least resistance, such as developing logistics and infrastructure and simplifying the visa system. On joint development programs, countries that have the capabilities should take the initiative and help underdeveloped countries.

China has been adhering to the principle of separating political and economic issues in the process of overseas economic cooperation and does not try to combine economic might and political influence. This is why China has already played an important role in Kyrgyzstan's economy, but failed to exert influence on its two consecutive political upheavals.

For China, the policy is beneficial to reassure target countries and facilitate the access of Chinese economy to these countries. But it also means there are uncontrollable political risks, such as those stemming from Ukraine, where China has invested billions of dollars in the special economic zone in Crimea and prepared Sevastopol to be the largest harbor in the Commonwealth of Independent States and the most important transport hub of the Silk Road economic belt. In order to realize its vision of a Silk Road economic road, China not only needs to do more in coordinating regional countries, it also needs to formulate its own top-level design.

Establishing the Silk Road economic belt does not just require simple economic cooperation, as a geo-economic concept it must be promoted to the level of national foreign economic strategy. It involves not only assessment and prevention of political risk, but also a rethinking of the basic principles for China's diplomacy. After all, security is the premise of all successful investment, and also the guarantee for all gains.

The author is a research assistant at the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily USA 06/19/2014 page11)