Eurasian Integration: Dawn of a New Era

Developing Just Leadership

Brecht Jonkers

Shawwal 20, 1442 2021-06-01

News & Analysis

by Brecht Jonkers (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 4, Shawwal, 1442)

The Eurasian landmass has been historically a thriving unit of commerce, exchange and cultural influence throughout the ages. However, in the contemporary age, this ancient system of globalisation has again been rising, defying the West-centered powers of Europe and North America.

The rise of Eurasia, both as a new project for the future and as a restart of the old Silk Roads, has been building up for decades. The two countries most responsible for the gradual integration of the vast landmass are undoubtedly China and Russia.

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation gained new impetus for the project. As far back as 2002, Russia signed a treaty of military alliance with Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which made inroads into Central Asia through the observer membership of Afghanistan in 2013. More recently, Iran has made its own inroads into Russia with automobile producer Iran Khodro announcing plans to start producing cars in Russia.

An even more noteworthy feat of 21st-century geopolitics is the massive political, economic and military powerhouse of an alliance known as the Shanghai Cooperation Alliance (SCO). Founded originally in 2001, the SCO has grown to become what is in fact the single biggest military alliance in the world. Uniting the full might of Russia, China, India and Pakistan into one single de facto alliance with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, the organisation basically glues the Silk Road economic system of old together into one single unit.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has observer status at the SCO since 2005, and is actually in the process of applying for full membership at this present. The recent Sino-Iranian economic treaty may very well be a big step forward for Iran’s full membership into the organisation.

The importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in geopolitical terms cannot be overstated. In 2017, the eight full member states alone reportedly accounted for about half of the global population, 25% of the world’s total GDP and 80% of the landmass of Eurasia. It furthermore controls almost the entirety of the old Silk Roads area and maintains a direct line of communication with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which features the key Strait of Malacca. Though a potential direct rival to NATO, the SCO even granted dialogue partner status to Turkey in 2012.

The concerns that this raises in the West are obvious, as was evident from the United States’ unsuccessful bid for membership in 2005. In the opinion of many policymakers in the imperial core, the SCO exists mainly to hold back “liberal democracy” from gaining a foothold in Asia. Academic publications such as “How the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Promotes Authoritarian Norms in Central Asia” by North Dakota University professor Thomas Ambrosio are part of the Western anxiety on the rise of an alternative to US hegemony.

In contrast, Iranian journalist Hamid Golpira simply stated that “According to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s theory, control of the Eurasian landmass is the key to global domination and control of Central Asia is the key to control of the Eurasian landmass (...) Russia and China have been paying attention to Brzezinski’s theory, since they formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001 (...) with the real objective of counterbalancing the activities of the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance in Central Asia.”

While Western mainstream media still downplays the rise of the East, Asia is rising rapidly amidst this relative radio silence. In its 2020 World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) listed China as the world’s largest economy, officially overtaking the United States.

Another angle of Eurasian cooperation is the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). This economic union replaced the Eurasian Economic Community in 2015. The EAEU’s full members so far are Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia. However, it has been signing cooperation treaties and free trade agreements around the region and the rest of the world in the past five years.

Following Moldova in 2017, both Uzbekistan and even faraway Cuba were granted observer status in the Union, with at least Uzbekistan expected to finalise full membership by 2023. Tajikistan, Mongolia and even Syria are currently in the process of requesting membership.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a further 50 countries around the globe have expressed a desire to cooperate with the EAEU. Vietnam was the first country outside the direct vicinity of Russia to sign a free trade agreement with the bloc in 2016. The Islamic Republic of Iran signed a three-year trade agreement with the Union in 2018, with Tehran having expressed the desire for closer permanent cooperation in the near future.

As is the case in the SCO, cooperation with China was also key in the development of the Eurasian Union, and was signed in the same year. Serbia and Singapore followed suit with trade agreements of their own.

Aside from these finalised agreements, there are dozens of discussions and negotiations at various levels of completion between the EAEU and other countries of the world as well as with other supranational economic entities such as ASEAN and both MERCOSUR and the Andean Community in South America.

The EAEU has knitted together much of Eurasia with ambitious developments of highways and railroad systems, with the latter being in negotiation stages to be extended across both Koreas.

For a relatively young organisation, the incredibly rapid rise to prominence that the Eurasian Economic Union has showcased presents a direct challenge to Western designs. It is not a coincidence that the EAEU features the entire map of the Eurasian continent on its flag and emblem. The goal of the Union has not escaped the attention of the US either, with Hillary Clinton calling it “a move to re-Sovietise the region” and stating “we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The importance of structural transportation networks are further shown by the recent creation of the International North-South Transport Corridor. A multimodal network of ship, rail and road traffic, the Corridor cuts straight through the landmass of Western Asia and the Caucasus, connecting Moscow to Mumbai, with the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas as a key connection hub. By limiting ocean-going maritime transport to the Arabian Sea and bypassing the Suez Canal entirely, a 2014 study showed that transport costs were cut by $2,500 per 15 tons of cargo.

The Corridor synchronises perfectly with the so-called Ashgabat Agreement, which was signed in 2011 to connect Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. The capital of vigorously neutral Turkmenistan (Ashgabat) as its main deposit, the Agreement also brings Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, India, Pakistan and Oman to the table. Strategically located and gas-rich Turkmenistan is known for its policy of neutrality in nearly all international affairs, but even they seem to have been swayed by the benefits of economic integration of Central Asia.

Nor has the development of Eurasian connectivity left out the former powers of Western Europe. The so-called New Eurasian Land Bridge is one example of an ambitious land connection project that seeks to link China with Western Europe. Since 2018, a direct railroad connection runs the full 9,800 kilometers from the Austrian capital of Vienna to Chengdu in China. The same year, a Chinese freight train made its way to the key port city of Antwerp in Belgium. Vienna is rapidly becoming the European headquarters for transportation into Asia, specifically via train.

The development of train transport across the width of Asia, rather than using costly and environmentally taxing planes or cargo ships, can be seen both as an innovative project for the future and as a modern variety of the age-old caravans that trekked across Central Asia since time immemorial. The train line from Yiwu to London, for example, cuts transport times by more than half, reaching its destination in 18 days rather than 40 by ship. The necessary upkeep and transit labour has turned a previously mostly unknown city such as Khorgos in Kazakhstan into the “world’s biggest dry port”.

As much as the Atlanticist elites in Washington and Brussels may be loathed to admit, Eurasian integration is here to stay. With undeniable economic benefits and without being burdened by the political demands and intrusive domestic meddling that so often comes with US “investments”, the Silk Roads project has attracted a vast array of countries spanning widely different ideologies and cultural backgrounds. While many in the West may be oblivious to this fact, the sun is rising over the East ushering a new dawn, whether the traditional imperial powers like it or not.

Or, in the words of British historian Peter Frankopan: “Networks and connections are quietly being knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather, they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.”[1]

[1] FRANKOPAN, P., The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, London, 2015, p.505.

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