By Sophie Henderson
For the last month or so, Brexit has monopolized much of the region’s and world’s political interest. As the European integration project is thrown into question, European nations may turn to increasingly insular policies and internally-focused media. Yet, relatively unnoticed by Western Media, there has been a steady integration of Asian political, economic and security blocs.
The scant analysis that exists on Eurasian economic and security integration projects has largely repeated rhetoric of an unfolding great game between Russia and China, competing for dominance and influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus’. This tired narrative paints China as the economic power and Russia as the region’s muscle, which nonsensically oversimplifies the region’s geopolitics and denies agency to Central Asian states. Central Asian states are depicted as weak actors, easily swayed towards Russian, Chinese, or Western spheres. Due to this skewed outlook on the region, various economic and security projects that aim to increase regional cooperation and coordination are being overlooked by external observers as a lot of talk and very little action. While individually these organizations and treaties may not amount to much, Western observers risk missing the growing overall trend of Eurasian countries moving toward a more cooperative and perhaps politically aligned region.
On June 24, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held their 16th annual summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. The under-reported summit resulted in Pakistan and India’s assured membership to the organization, which will be completed at the next summit in 2017. On the sidelines of the 2016 meeting, member countries hammered out an impressive number of trilateral and bilateral agreements. The SCO as a regional bloc is often dismissed by Western observers as a ‘shadow’ organization, lacking in cohesion and real heft. But to dismiss the SCO, or other examples of ‘Eurasian’ integration as mere flights of fancy is a mistake. The process of growing Eurasian cooperation and alignment is a real, if slowly moving beast. As European nations grow more insular, Eurasian countries continue to look outward for regional economic ties, security coordination, and political allies to coordinate on issues of both regional and global significance.
Economic cooperation and talk of aligning various economic blocs has seen steady growth across the region. Russia has developed the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the South East Asia has its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while China continues to lead the SCO and push forward its New Silk Road economic strategy, also referred to as One Belt One Road (OBOR). The EAEU — an economic union of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia —has not attained the level of coordination shared by members of the European Union. Due to differing views of the organization’s purpose, the EAEU possesses neither a cohesive free trade zone nor a common currency.
Despite its apparent shortcomings, the EAEU has recently sought to increase its relations with members of the SCO. According to Russia’s special SCO envoy Bakhtiyor Khakimov, there is a push “to harmonize EAEU development and China’s initiative of the Silk Road economic belt [OBOR]”. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi mirrored Khakimov’s comment at the Council of Foreign Ministers of the SCO in May, saying that “China and Russia should speed up linking the Silk Road Economic Belt and the EAEU”. Accordingly, on May 8 2015, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed an agreement of cooperation in the framework of the OBOR scheme.
Putin, at a Russia-ASEAN business forum in May, similarly pointed to the benefits of joining the EAEU, ASEAN, SCO and the OBOR scheme in a regional economic strategy. In May 2016, a Russia-ASEAN summit was held in Sochi, where the Sochi Declaration was signed—a plan for increasing cooperation between ASEAN and Russia. Although this event was held exclusively by Russia, it is clear that ASEAN-EAEU cooperation was also in mind, as it was referenced in the economic cooperation section of the declaration.
The ASEAN is the world’s third largest trading bloc after the EU and NAFTA, consisting of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The ASEAN already has a free trade agreement with China (ACFTA) and India, with which bilateral trade surpassed $70 billion in 2012. Russia and the EAEU have expressed interest in developing a similar free trade zone with the bloc. The EAEU have already signed a bilateral free trade agreement with Vietnam, an ASEAN member, which is expected to come into force by the end of 2016. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, other ASEAN members, such as Singapore and Cambodia, have expressed interest in free trade agreements with the EAEU. Such agreements are often born and negotiated on the sidelines of grander summits, in this case the ASEAN-Russia summit in Sochi. While broader Eurasian Economic integration is often talked about at these events, more often bilateral and trilateral agreements are the true focus.
This is highlighted in particular at the 2016 SCO summit, as the sidelines were where the real action took place. During the summit, Russia, Mongolia, and China held their third tripartite meeting and agreed to establish an economic corridor, which included signing on to about 30 trilateral investment projects. Putin also called the meeting “a mechanism for political consultations…and for coordinating our positions on current regional issues”. This regional political coordination was explicitly illustrated by Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon during his meeting with Chinese President Xi ahead of the summit. The two leaders discussed furthering bilateral ties and increasing trade between Tajikistan and China, which is valued at over $200 million, to $3 billion by 2020. Perhaps more importantly to Western audiences, Rahmon also voiced Tajikistan’s support for China’s stance on the South China Sea issue and opposed any attempt to internationalize the waters.
The SCO’s 2016 summit also served as a platform for China to promote its OBOR strategy and for Russia to push for OBOR-EAEU integration. Although many continue to speculate on the potential success or failure of China’s monumental New Silk Road strategy, there can be no question that OBOR is increasing the level of dialogue and joint economic projects in the region. Aside from the many curiosities the programme itself provokes, the way in which OBOR is being used as a vehicle to facilitate further communication, economic cooperation, and political discourse amongst various countries throughout the Eurasian region should be of great interest to the Western observer. This is not just because of the possible economic and social development that may occur as a result of OBOR’s impressive infrastructural projects, but also because of its potential to stir up tension in Central Asia.
It is important to note that although OBOR may be facilitate integration and cooperation, it remains almost exclusively at the elite level. The OBOR strategy may increase contact amongst previously isolated and xenophobic communities, and other organizations like the SCO and EAEU may foster goodwill and cooperation amongst the political leaders and business elite of member countries. However, they do not as of yet possess or seek to implement strategies that would translate this elite-level partnership into local, grassroots schemes to bring bordering peoples together.
In similar infrastructural projects in Africa, the Chinese have demonstrated relatively weak soft power. A Gallup poll from August 2015 showed that approval ratings of China’s leaders had dropped among Africans in 7 of the 11 countries included in the survey. Reportedly, the EAEU and OBOR are similarly unpopular amongst the Kazakh population. Cheap Russian goods (or Chinese ones) hurt the production of Kazakh goods, while some Kazakhs complain that China pushes OBOR on a government level but ignores the grassroots element of public relations and information sharing with the local population. However, despite its local population’s Sino-phobia and suspicion of Russian encroachment, the Kazakh government is determined to become the region’s business and transit hub through the OBOR scheme, connecting Russia and China to both Central Asia and Europe. Kazakhstan continues to engage with developing OBOR projects, the EAEU and the SCO with the hope that it can balance the various economic and political interests that drive each structure.
Considering the diversity of national security interests among the Eurasia, it is unsurprising that many Western observers dismiss the importance of the various security blocs in the region. The CSTO, a military alliance made up of Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus, is largely seen as a “multilateral facade for Russia’s bilateral security relationships” rather than a meaningful military-focused organization. In addition to external doubts of the organization’s capabilities, the CSTO is criticized internally by its own members for remaining deaf to border security problems. A recent border dispute between Uzbekistan (not a CSTO member) and Kyrgyzstan (a member), which culminated in armoured vehicles and troops being deployed to both sides, saw minimal evidence of CSTO leadership or capacity. Leading up to the dispute, Kyrgyzstan called a special session of the CSTO’s permanent council, but the organization merely sent its deputy secretary general to monitor the situation.
Despite its many shortcomings, the CSTO remains the main security bloc in Central Asia and, in May 2015, managed to coordinate military drills. In response to the growing presence of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, 2,500 troops were deployed to Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan in the Khatlon province. The military exercises were to prepare combined CSTO forces for a potential Taliban invasion from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. Although the CSTO has demonstrated its ability to militarily engage through various military drills, it has failed to practically engage in real conflicts among its member states. Some may speculate this is due to the organization’s ethos of non-interference. While this stance may inhibit the organization from being perceived as a military organization of real heft in the region, its members still place value in the image of Eurasian military coordination enough to remain supportive.
The other security-focused organization in the region is the SCO. Like the CSTO, the SCO maintains a policy of non-interference. While NATO possess a history of real military interventions, the SCO has chosen to remain relatively passive when regional conflicts erupt, such as the 2010 border disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. However, the SCO has also conducted military drills of considerable scale. In August 2014, 7000 troops from five countries participated in Peace Mission 2014, a joint military drill in China’s Inner Mongolia. The exercise included military units from China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. President Xi said at a concurrent meeting that China “attaches great importance” to the SCO’s security role in the region. However, despite the meeting’s focus on security, Wang Ning, the chief director of the drills, emphasized that the SCO remained a regional organization that was “nonaligned, non-confrontational and not targeted at any third party”.
This narrative seemed to take a sharp turn in late July when China announced its plans to hold joint naval exercises with Russia in the South China Sea in September. While a White House spokesman said that the exercises were an expected part of building a military-to-military relationship between Russian and China, he acknowledged that the location of the drill was “a sensitive diplomatic topic right now”. Despite China’s repeated rhetoric of non-third party aggression, this may be a way for China to showcase its alliance with Russia and their combined military prowess to cow opposition to its sovereignty bid for the South China Sea.
Some analysts have pointed to this focus on region-specific security coordination as reflective of China’s growing skepticism toward the SCO’s more multilateral security platform. China’s move to develop closer military and security coordination with Russia, (or with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan as analysts suggest) does not necessarily reflect China’s rejection of the SCO nor diminish the SCO’s value as a military organization. Although many observers are quick to highlight the contradictions and tensions in organizations like the SCO, fewer pay attention to the growing discourse among Eurasian leaders of regional collaboration and coordination on issues of regional economics and security, as well as sovereignty.
Ultimately, it is naive to dismiss the collective potential of these organizations due to a lack of progress at individual summits or within individual organizations. Doing so risks missing the overarching trend of increasing economic and political cooperation and coordination in the region. Although a Eurasian integration comparable to the European integration project is a far cry from what is being practiced and is unlikely to ever exist, simply based on the very different histories, cultures, and interests of the countries involved. But this is also not about a ‘Great Game’ unfolding in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. China is neither competing with Russia nor aligning with Russia in an anti-Western bloc. Countries throughout Eurasia will align with one another in some cases and play off the existing power relations in others—whatever suits the country best at the time or in the given context. That said, it would be a mistake to ignore the persistent and vocal push that has been articulated by Russia, China, Central Asian states and members of the ASEAN for further bilateral relations, shared economic projects, and coordination on political issues of both regional and global significance.
The growing need and movement towards a more cooperative Eurasian region should not be ignored by the West. Eurasian and South Asian states will not simply be swallowed into Western-backed political and economic blocs, or into Chinese or Russian ones. Rather, a more general push toward increased cooperation, communication, and collaboration within the region is underway. Just as the European Union continues to struggle to agree upon the vision of an integrated Europe, Eurasian countries face a similarly difficult task.