- The Evolution of Russia's Views on the Belt and Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced by Xi Jinping in 2013 and comprising both the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, has provoked admiration for China's growing economic power but also reluctance to endorse it. In Russia, the Kremlin at first saw the initiative as confirmation of an emerging rivalry with China in the post-Soviet space, especially an attempt to pull the five Central Asian republics away from its sphere of influence.1 BRI was also perceived as a challenge to Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), to date the main economic integration structure in the Eurasian space, which has opened up a borderless free market among its member states (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia). Finally, Moscow viewed BRI as a challenge to Russia's aspiration to serve as a bridge between Europe and Asia, in particular via the Trans-Siberian Railway development project, which could be supplanted by Chinese-built roads and railways bypassing Russia via Central Asia.
In less than two years, however, the Kremlin has largely changed its view. In May 2015, President Vladimir Putin signed a declaration with Xi on a "great Eurasian partnership," aimed at synchronizing BRI and the EEU. This conciliatory approach is pragmatic: Putin hopes that Russia will profit economically, as well as politically and geopolitically, from BRI and growing Chinese power. For both countries, this agreement is also an opportunity to work together and display their ability to put aside their rivalry, thereby defying the expectations of political experts and media commentators. However, questions about the cohesion of BRI, as well as about the consequences of the increasingly contested Chinese influence in Eurasia and the current tensions between Russia and the West, could make the Kremlin's new approach to BRI cyclical rather than long-term.
This essay will examine the evolution of the Kremlin's policy toward BRI. The first section will briefly discuss the potential increase in economic and geopolitical influence that China could gain from this project. It will be [End Page 96] followed by an update on Russia's current challenging political and economic situation, which could lead to an erosion of its foreign influence, especially in Central Asia, and has forced the Kremlin to be more conciliatory toward the Chinese project. The third and final section will show how Russia chose to gauge and channel rather than prevent BRI, while arguing that Sino-Russian cooperation on the initiative remains fragile.
BRI: A New High Point in Chinese Regional Influence
China has progressively advanced its pawns in the regional arena, investing heavily, especially in the Central Asian market. Trade between China and Central Asia has grown exponentially, from $1 billion in 2002 to $45 billion in 2014.2 Since 2009, China has been the region's largest trading partner. As in other regions of the world where Beijing is establishing itself, its settlement strategies respond to many objectives, which are seen by the Chinese authorities as intrinsically linked. First, China seeks to consolidate its geopolitical influence in Central Asia by creating good neighborly relations founded on an economic basis. This supports the second strategy of encouraging regional development to avoid political and social destabilization, particularly in border regions such as Xinjiang, as well as to prevent slowing Chinese economic growth. Last, China seeks to exploit market openings in Central Asia for Chinese products, which could open up access to the whole of Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Europe.
For Moscow, BRI confirms China's economic, and potentially political and geopolitical, designs on the Eurasian space. With the Silk Road Economic Belt, Beijing is reclaiming an economic space that the EEU was trying to take away. Chinese authorities have criticized the EEU's principles on several occasions. In particular, they have argued that despite officially being a free-trade market, it imposes import duties on its external borders and therefore constitutes a highly restrictive trade barrier for nonmember states.3 By contrast, Beijing says that BRI will be a regional and transcontinental integration project through a collective decision-making process, thereby eventually creating a huge free-trade market...