by Alexey Alexandrovich Semenov
Strengthening of China led to more proactive and assertive Chinese foreign policy aimed at increasing the global role of the country. The new Chinese diplomacy is focused on the active influence and inclusion of China in all global processes, as well as the creation of its own integration projects. The ultimate goal of Chinese leaders is to make China one of those world powers that establish the rules of the game. Xi Jinping’s foreign policy doctrine can be characterized as the attempt to rewrite the current geopolitical landscape with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as its most visible project. Additionally, BRI has directly influenced China’s Eurasian ambitions.
The new Chinese diplomacy begins to go far beyond the limits of traditional “tao guang yang hui” strategy (韬光养晦, literally translated as “hide brightness, nourish obscurity”, i.e. hiding one’s abilities and to biding one’s time). The principle of the new strategy is “fen fa you wei” (奋发有为, i.e. exerting yourself, striving for achievements). Beijing begins to use the whole range of diplomatic methods to implement the goals of foreign policy: from economic diplomacy and military ties to soft power and public diplomacy (Yang 2014).
The new foreign policy is focused on the active influence and inclusion of China in all global processes, as well as the creation of its own integration projects. In autumn 2013, during Xi Jinping’s visits to Indonesia and the countries of Central Asia, the Chinese leader announced the proposal of the establishment of the “One Belt, One Road” project (OBOR), which consists of two main components, the oceangoing “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR) and the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB).
Xi expressed the idea of creating BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) as a new form of deepening cooperation between China, the states of Central Asia, and Russia. The Chinese leader formulated a five-point action program: 1) to step up policy communication; 2) to improve road connectivity; 3) to promote unimpeded trade by removing trade barriers, reducing trade and investment cost, increasing the speed and quality of regional economic flows; 4) to enhance monetary circulation by settling trade in local currencies; 5) to increase understanding between states by the means of public diplomacy.
BRI aims to promote the connectivity of the Asian, European and African continents and their adjacent seas, wants to establish and strengthen partnerships among the countries along the Belt and Road, set up all-dimensional, multi-tiered and composite connectivity networks, and realize diversified, independent, balanced and sustainable development in these countries (National Development and Reform Commission of the PRC 2015). This will provide new markets for the PRC, as well as create a new sphere of influence for the country.
The SREB is considered as an opportunity to promote economic development in Central Asia, which will help stabilize this region. As a result, it will reduce political risks and create opportunities for deepening economic cooperation with the countries of the region.
Nevertheless, the implementation of the SREB may be a new stage in China’s economic offensive on Central Asia. China has already begun to develop soft power in this direction by expanding cooperation in the field of education with the Central Asian countries. Beijing will promote Chinese language in Central Asia to mitigate linguistic barriers and boost cooperation.
At first, Russia was wary of the Chinese project due to the growing fears that China-led integration projects in the region are gradually replacing Russian ones, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
However, on February 6, 2014, during a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Xi Jinping invited Russia to participate in the development of the SREB and the MSR. The Chinese leader neglected the tradition of his predecessors not to attend major sporting events outside the borders of China for the sake of that meeting. This was the first time when a Chinese leader visited a large-scale foreign sports event. After this meeting, Russia’s attitude towards BRI has changed dramatically. Putin pledged to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative and expressed his willingness to link the section of Eurasian Rail inside Russia with the initiatives to create greater benefits (Li 2014).
The Joint Statement on Cooperation on the Construction of the EAEU and the SREB dated May 8, 2015 marked a milestone in the history of bilateral relations between Russia and China. The strategy announced by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is somewhat broader in scope than merely “connecting” the EAEU and the SREB. The paragraph outlining the steps that Russia and China intend to take to promote regional cooperation can be viewed as a preliminary concept for co-development in Eurasia, taking the interests of the continental powers into account. The list covers a broad range of issues, from the joint establishment of industrial parks and cross-border economic cooperation to creating a favorable environment for small and medium-sized businesses. Conditions for further implementing the idea of the co-development of Russia, China and Central Asian countries are emerging in the Eurasian region (Lousianin, Zhao 2016).
The scale of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative allows us to say that the economic policy of the PRC has acquired a geopolitical dimension, at both regional and global levels.
However, the prospects for the implementation of the project at the current stage are still not clear. There are two main challenges for BRI in the Eurasian direction.
The first one is the political risks associated with the problems of Afghanistan and Xinjiang and international terrorism in Central Asia.
The second problem is the contradiction between China’s desire to actively cooperate with its neighbors and the apparent trend to take a tougher stance on territorial disputes with some of them, which causes serious fears in neighboring states. If Beijing continues to promote the idea of the “Silk Road”, it will have to seriously consider rethinking the approaches to these two problems.
The Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan (a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union), expressed support for the Chinese projects. It can be seen that this was done for reasons of respecting the balance of interests between Moscow and Beijing, preserving the multi-vector policy.
Moscow’s expansion of military infrastructure in the region (in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) is not a matter of concern for Beijing, because, firstly, it ensures regional security; secondly, it serves as a deterrent to the strengthening of the US influence; and thirdly, it removes accusations of Beijing’s geopolitical aspirations in the eyes of Central Asian leaders and increases China’s attractiveness as a key investor in infrastructure and economic projects in Central Asia.
However, it is possible that enlargement of China’s military and political potential will include the practice of deploying military bases and facilities in various regions of the world, including Central Asia, in order to protect its economic interests in the region.
The importance of the Eurasian direction for China has grown in the last years in many respects in connection with the Silk Road projects, which is gradually becoming the key foreign policy project of Xi Jinping.
China endeavors to seek new models of international cooperation and global governance. Chinese leaders state that the country has taken a new place in the global system and that it assumes a new level of global responsibility and areas of interests. China’s strategic goals are no longer limited to the economy. The ultimate goal of Chinese leaders is to bring China to the same level as the world powers that establish the rules of the game. President Xi’s foreign policy agenda can be characterized as the attempt to rewrite the current geopolitical landscape, and the development of BRI is an example of such a kind of ambition.
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 editor’s note: recently renamed to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)