Growing wealth and power of non-Western actors have been fuelling the debate on the future of global politics for the last decade. The West’s internal difficulties, such as the Eurozone crisis, Brexit, and the wave of populism, have weakened its determination to defend the status quo, and increased the importance of regional-level international politics. China and Russia stand out as the most vocal critics of Western domination of global politics and are often bound together as a primary challenge to the West. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea came to symbolise the return of the great powers’ territorial appetites. Sino-Russian cooperation and joint positions on the pressing issues of the day such as the North Korean nuclear crisis or Internet governance have deepened the dividing lines in international politics.
Western commentators recurrently accuse Beijing and Moscow of the desire to secure domination in their neighbourhoods and establish exclusive ‘spheres of influence’, thus undermining the global liberal order. They interpret China’s flagship international project, the New Silk Road that aims to link China and Europe, as a way of buying political influence in developing states, from East and Central Asia, to the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union is often regarded as a means to fence off the post-Soviet space from the outside world. Chinese and Russian elites, in turn, promote their initiatives as the contribution to global governance and the proof for readiness to share the burden of economic and political responsibility.
The pursuit of regional cooperation by great powers remains puzzling. Powerful actors are not used to obeying international norms and rules, preferring instead to pick-and-choose what suit their interests at the moment. China and Russia enjoyed having advantage over smaller neighbours for centuries. Their ruling elites understand patron-client relations much better than multilateralism where the equality between big and small participants remains the number one rule. Moreover, the presence and engagement of great powers in regional matters often impede the development of international collaboration, as illustrated by the deadlock within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, co-sponsored by China and Russia. The two most successful examples of regional cooperation, the European Union and ASEAN, have flourished under the US umbrella but without direct American involvement.
China and Russia stand out as the most vocal critics of Western domination of global politics
However, seeing the New Silk Road and the Eurasian Economic Union as a façade hiding the mere pursuit of power does not help us comprehend how non-Western rising and resurgent powers would like to transform the landscape of international politics. Explaining their regional projects as the tools of statecraft, aimed at securing political and economic interests does not suffice, either. We need to ask how the creators of the New Silk Road and the Eurasian Union, i.e. the Chinese and Russian ruling elites, understand regionalism, regional cooperation, and influence, and what kind of regional order they aspire to construct. The tendency to regard European integration as the benchmark for regionalism constitutes an additional obstacle to understanding the incentives behind China and Russia’s pursuit of regional-cooperation projects. We take one historically-conditioned form of regionalism as a dominant reference point and a universal model that should be followed by other states.
Meanwhile, the understandings of regionalism vary. Chinese and Russian elites have different expectations with regard to their regional projects. China aspires to keep foreign markets open for its trade and investment, and looks for ways to export its production overcapacity. Beijing does not see the need for creating new international institutions, especially since it had established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Russian elites see regional cooperation through the prism of Soviet-era ties and seek protection from globalisation processes. Only recently, Moscow began searching for new ways of organising regional cooperation and put forward the concept of ‘Greater Eurasia’ that transcends the post-Soviet boundaries.
China and Russia’s regional projects remain mired in internal contradictions and don’t fit easily with other aspects of their foreign policies. Beijing and Moscow struggle to reconcile the desire for control, typical for great powers, with respecting the equality of participants, necessary for the smooth functioning of regional cooperation. China and Russia’s attempts to organise regional cooperation are undermined by their unilateral policies. Great powers are ‘trigger-happy’ whenever they encounter policies which they don’t approve of. Russia’s political, military, and economic pressure on Ukraine has made it highly unlikely that Kyiv ever joins the Eurasian Union. China put sanctions on South Korea once Seoul had agreed to host the US missile defence system THAAD. This, in turn, overshadowed potential benefits South Korea might expect from the New Silk Road.
The extent to which China and Russia resolve the contradictions inherent in the New Silk Road and the Eurasian Union will determine the ultimate result of their regional projects. It will also show whether great powers are capable of promoting regionalism with their direct participation and how they are reshaping global politics.
Featured image credit: ‘Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, BRICS summit 2015 ‘ by Kremlin.ru. CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.