By Jeff Schubert, Apri 2018. One of a series of background articles on China and the US. Trump has taken the first steps towards triggering a trade war with China. This has got less attention than the military strike on Syria but its implications are every bit as serious. This article discusses the concept of ‘Eurasia’. As with all our content, unless otherwise stated, the views in an individual article do not necessarily represent the views of the editors.
Originally published in Strategic Review
There has recently been renewed focus and commentary on “Eurasia.” But, what is Eurasia, and why is it important? Is it to be a new center of influence and power in the world? Is it to be the tool of one country – perhaps China – for achieving its own ends? Years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the American diplomat and political scientist, wrote that “Eurasia is the globe’s central arena” and that “a coalition allying Russia with both China and Iran can develop only if the United States is shortsighted enough to antagonize China and Iran simultaneously.” According to American analyst Andrew F Krepinevich, the recent 2017 US National Defense Strategy lays out a “defense strategy for Eurasia,” whose “revisionist powers” – China, Russia and Iran – possess “collective” economic power relative to the United States “substantially greater than any power or group of powers America has faced over the past century.”
How real are the concerns of Brzezinski and Krepinevich about these countries becoming a coalition and collectively using that power? Brzezinski, writing about America geostrategic imperatives, described a “Eurasia chessboard” – extending from “Lisbon to Vladivostok” – while some Russian analysts and officials have talked of a “space of Greater Eurasia from Lisbon to Jakarta.” However, such definitions are so wide as to impede meaningful analysis.
A much narrower definition used by Piotr Dutkiewicz and Richard Sakwa in their 2014 book, “Eurasian Integration – The View from Within,” defines Eurasia as the “enormous space between the European core and China.” They include separate chapters on the Ukraine, Turkey and Belarus (which are also included in their map of “Greater Eurasia”). The Journal of Eurasian Studies “defines Eurasia broadly as the region that encompasses Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkey, and Southwest Asia.” China is not included in either of these definitions of Eurasia.
A recent Valdai Discussion Club report more usefully applies “the logic of concentric circles to Eurasia.” The “center” is represented by Central Asia, Russia, China and Mongolia. Around this is a ring consisting of Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Korea, while Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are further out. Another logical approach is to think about the membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has been described by Indian analyst C Raja Mohan as covering the “heart of Eurasia.” The SCO was initially formed by Russia, China and ex-Soviet Central Asian countries to resolve security issues following the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 2017, it was expanded to include Pakistan and India. Iran is seen as a possible future member. Russia has been the main proponent of SCO expansion, with some of its analysts envisaging a manageable geopolitical and economic bloc that provides a counter to what they see as US hegemony. Looked at from this point of view, the SCO includes three of the four countries identified by the US National Defense Strategy as threats.
The fourth country identified as an adversary by the American defense strategy is North Korea. However, it is not a major Eurasia player because of its small population, overall economic weakness and because it has no crucial interests in or influence on developments in countries in the very “center” of Eurasia. And apart from Russia and China, North Korea has little direct relevance to India, Pakistan or Iran. While Turkey has significant interests in developments in Afghanistan, for example, they are small in comparison to Iran, Russia, China and even India. And the nexus between Turkey and China is weak. The Ukraine is even less relevant.
This essay will concentrate on Russia, China, Central Asia, India, Pakistan and Iran. It should not be seen as an essay about the SCO. Three of the five main countries of Eurasia, as defined in this essay, have more crucial and difficult relations with individual countries outside of the Eurasian landmass than within. Only India and Pakistan are mainly inward-looking. Russia’s relationship with the United States and much of Europe has become very emotionally charged as a result of the annexation of Crimea and subsequent events. It is particularly hard to see this situation changing while Vladimir Putin remains in power. Even after Putin, there is no prospect of Russia returning Crimea to Ukraine, as the annexation was justifiable on national security grounds in the face of actual and mooted NATO expansion.
China, meanwhile, has significant territorial disputes with a number of East Asian countries. The issues with Japan are unlikely to be resolved, although China may be able to come to something closer to a status quo settlement with other East Asian countries on the South China Sea issue. Europe and Japan are both backed by the power of the United States, which is seen as a threat by both Russia and China. Now that Russia possesses the Sevastopol naval base, which allows it to dominate the Black Sea, and has achieved a stalemate in eastern Ukraine, it is difficult to see the rational basis for continued Russian fears. China, on the other hand, clearly needs to control the South China Sea for trade and security purposes, and its present concerns about the United States are more understandable. Iran’s significant disputes with a number of other countries in the Middle East have an ideological-religious base that is enflamed by the fact that Iran is not Arabic. Moreover, given their historical experience with the United States, the Iranians have good reason to distrust that country. Eurasian unity is not encouraged by internal economic relations, which are weak except for energy flows to China. Only about 6 percent of India’s exports go to China, Pakistan, Iran and Russia combined; although about 17 percent of India’s imports come from China. And, only about 6 percent of China’s exports go to the other countries, while its imports (apart from Russian oil) are negligible.
To get a handle on the bigger-picture implications of all of this, as well as possible future events, we first need to focus on relevant issues internal to Eurasia.
Xi Jinping and his leadership team are now in a super-confident mood about the future of China itself and its place in the world. China weathered the global financial crisis beginning in 2008 and has continued to grow strongly. The exact gross domestic product growth numbers are spuriously accurate given the size of the Chinese economy, its continuing transformation and the very questionable method of calculation. But the strong numbers in the face of Western commentary about debt levels give China’s leaders considerable confidence that they have found the key to continual superior economic performance.
Yet, there is misunderstanding and hubris that does not bode well for the medium and long term. In reality, the global financial crisis was not due to a fatal capitalist disease, but was a severe injury caused by extreme carelessness flowing from excessive financial liberalization. If the appropriate regulatory lessons are learned, the crisis countries will emerge stronger. In contrast, the heavy-handed, uneven and often erratic controls on China’s financial sector will impede productivity both in the financial sector and among its clients.
By most accounts, the views of Xi and his advisers have been heavily influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union from what they see as three fatal errors: political control was relaxed before economic reform; the Communist Party had become very corrupt and meaningless to most people; and the military owed allegiance to the Soviet Union rather than the Communist Party. There was consequently no one left who “was man enough to stand up and resist” the collapse.
These views overlook the bigger picture that even a purely non-corrupt Communist Party and a completely loyal military could not have compensated for the backwardness of the Soviet economy, with its almost total emphasis on central planning and the absence of market price signals to drive product development and efficiency in an age when technology was rapidly changing. And, while economic reform could have been conducted more intelligently, the Communist Party bureaucracy (and even the economic reformers) did not fully understand how a modern market economy worked. In particular, they placed insufficient weight on developing good commercial, legal and administrative systems with appropriate financial controls when reducing direct central control. Of course, the degree of central planning in China is much less, and the use of market price signals is much stronger in contemporary China than it was in the Soviet Union, and a similar collapse is very unlikely. However, Xi Jinping appears to strongly believe that economic success requires continued significant direct government control.
X’s January 11, 2018, speech broadcast China-wide to Party officials left little doubt where he stands. “When the Party center makes a policy decision, all Party groups must put it into practice to the letter,” Xi said. “At any time and in any situation, the Party’s leading officials must stand firm and be trustworthy in their politics, be sincerely devoted to the Party, be in one mind with the Party center.” Xi is trying to reduce corruption and achieve financial discipline at all levels of government and in important state-owned enterprises. His blind spot, in analytical terms, is a lack of faith in institutions and procedures that he does not directly control. This will eventually cost China dearly because its sheer size and complexity requires much independent decision-making at lower levels.
Nevertheless, China still has a lot of economic catch-up to do in terms of gross domestic product per capita and other generally accepted measures of development, and success in continuing to move in this direction will likely breed arrogance – and increase the risk of overreach in international relations.
In contrast to China, the mood of Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership is both sour and vengeful. Their focus is on security, both internal and external, and they seem incapable of comprehending the need for urgent economic reform and development – or, indeed, how these would be the best guarantee of security for the country as a whole.
The Russian economy suffers a number of ills, including an aging demographic profile, rampant corruption and a lack of genuine optimism about the future among businesspeople and professionals. Putin will be in power for another six years, and the domestic outlook is for little more than economic and political stagnation. However, this does not mean that Russia is in any way facing economic collapse or substantial political violence, as the population has no wish to see a repeat of the failures of the 1990s. Russia could have minimized the significant backlash against its domestically popular annexation of Crimea if it had avoided the temptation to support the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed thousands of people and resulted in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The subsequent attempts to show Russia as a military force to be reckoned with (including in Syria) play well with some sectors of the Russian population, but are very unlikely to bring any net benefit to the country.
The overall mood seems to be that India is finally taking steps to improve its economy and place in the world. The goods and service tax reforms, in which a national system replaced various state-based tax systems, may not be ideal but will bring significant longer-term benefits and have considerable potential for simplification and expanded coverage. Even the ruthless demonetization of high-value notes in 2017 will act to improve the taxation base. At the same time, India is changing very slowly in other areas. Bureaucratic procedures are entrenched and India finds it difficult to take advantage of the language, cultural and legal traditions flowing from the time of the British occupation that potentially give it a number of economic advantages over China. This could, for example, include professional service exports, which are not closely tied to technology.
Much more needs to be done to improve education so that India can build on these advantages and further needed economic reforms. India has a comparatively young but underemployed working-age population, with the United Nations estimating that its median age will still only be 37 in 2050, compared to 50 in China. In contrast to China, there is arguably too much accepted diversity in India, with myriad interest groups (often religion-based) determined to push their views onto others – and often violently! This will impede the economic development of India. The Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, was elected to a five-year term in 2014 with an absolute majority in India’s lower house, and plays on aspects of that fragmentation of interest groups by appealing to Hindu identity. The chances are that he will be re-elected and continue to play the same game, and risk marginalizing other groups such as India’s very large Muslim population.
Since its formation in 1947, Pakistan has had to grapple with the fact that it is a state based on Islamic identity, rather than a state based on traditional nationalism or the optimism of new-world immigration. While it inherited a strong civic tradition from British India, it has also felt the need for a strong military to defend its new identity. But ethnic and geographical factors were also in play, and Bengali-based East Pakistan broke away from the Pashtun-dominated western part of Pakistan in 1971 to create Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, the military has sought to justify a strong role by a need to defend the country against external enemies, the main one being the much more populous India. The continual struggle for power between Pakistan’s military and its raucous but poorly led civil society means that it is impossible to postulate events. However, the resilience of civilian institutions suggests that the military can be brought under civilian control if external factors allow.
Iran has a unique system of government with religious authority at the apex, tempered by secular power over aspects of everyday life and the economy. The eventual death of 78-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei is likely to see a weakening of that religious authority. The next supreme leader will be an additional step away from the time of Ayatollah Khomeini and thus invested with less natural reverence.
The protests that followed the disputed 2009 election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, the growth of a very technology-savvy younger generation and the December 2017 protests point to coming political change that will be greater than is likely to be seen in Russia, China, India or Pakistan. As in Pakistan, there is an institutional framework of government that could be rebalanced, making a wider revolution unlikely. The fact that the presidency of Iran is an elected position should eventually serve to boost the relative power of this position after Khamenei, no matter who is chosen by the religious conservatives to replace him.
The Iranian economy has very significant problems, which in part are the result of the nuclear-related sanctions. However, there are also domestic factors such as the extensive involvement of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the economy. Some recent reports suggest that attempts are being made to rein in this involvement. Whether or not this succeeds in the shorter term, it is very likely to be a factor in improved medium-term economic performance.
The death in mid-2016 of long-time Uzbekistan leader Islam Karimov has resulted in more moderate policies, both internally and externally, under Shavkat Mirziyoyev. In many ways, these appear to be an attempt to emulate the experience of Kazakhstan under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan has a much better institutional framework than Uzbekistan and is unlikely to change as much following the eventual death of the 77-year-old Nazarbayev. The other three ex-Soviet “stans” – Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – do not have large populations and are mainly influenced by other countries rather than having an influence on them. Afghanistan will be considered separately later in this essay because, more than any other Central Asian country, its future will be greatly influenced by the activities of other countries.
This essay will now look at the future of Eurasia by focusing on the relationship of the major Eurasian countries to other countries in the region.
China in Eurasia
While the Chinese economy is very dependent on international trade in goods, this will become less so as the economy becomes more service oriented. In fact, China will become less internationally oriented, with its huge internal market providing economies of scale to almost any activity that benefits from this. Irrespective of the choices made by the Chinese government, China is never going to be a provider of international services that are not closely tied to technology or of soft-power on the scale of the United States, because its language is very difficult to learn and because, to a lesser degree, of its legal system, which is rooted in civil law rather than common law. These two issues have also impeded the international influence of Japan, but will be much less of an impediment for China because its culture is generally less insular and because of the huge number of Chinese living in other countries.
In some ways, the Belt and Road initiative (for want of a better word, “initiative” is used in this essay) seems to have initially been a nice-sounding idea for a 2013 speech in Astana. The term “Silk Road” conjures up historical notions of people working together in a smooth way. It also had a number of practical benefits for China, not the least of these being that it galvanized internal enthusiasm for China’s international rise. Other practical benefits advanced by analysts include development of Xinjiang and other western provinces, reduction of over-accumulated industrial capacity, new investment options for China and the promotion of Chinese technical standards. But the reality is that all of these could have been done without Belt and Road.
Whatever the initial reasons for its existence, Belt and Road has become the main carrier of China’s attempts to influence world opinion. Its appearance of altruism has great international appeal, and China’s leaders have probably been quite surprised at how successful it has been as a propaganda tool. Belt and Road now includes projects that began before the 2013 speech, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was initially specifically excluded but described as closely associated with Belt and Road. Some of China’s reported plans for the CPEC suggest major Chinese participation in Pakistan’s agriculture and industrial sectors, with extensive Chinese-style surveillance systems and “dissemination of Chinese culture.”
China sees the CPEC as a contributor to Pakistan’s stability in the same way that it sees economic growth in its western regions as contributing to stability. But building and operating the CPEC itself depends on the presence of stability, and China has suggested (so far unsuccessfully) that the Pakistani military be put in charge of the CPEC. Whatever the CPEC plans, Pakistan will never be an easy partner for China because it is so different in history, culture, religion and political style. The relationship is particularly incongruous because of the role of Islam in Pakistan and the wish of China to suppress Islam in its western regions.
Eurasia is of secondary importance to China compared with what happens in its eastern seas. China has no essential requirements of the remainder of Eurasia except that it be a peaceful backyard (to the eastern seas front yard) and a source of energy imports (either directly or as a transit route). Almost all other essential requirements for the Chinese economy and its security depend on control of the seas closest to it, or can be met internally. China’s oil imports of over nine million barrels per day provide nearly 80 percent of its daily consumption. Russia provides more than one million barrels per day, with much smaller amounts from Kazakhstan, for a total of 12 percent of Chinese imports. But these numbers are growing. While natural gas now provides a very small proportion of China’s energy needs, nearly 40 percent of it is imported – almost equally via pipeline and sea-based liquid natural gas. Turkmenistan provides more than 40 percent of natural gas imports, and the number rises closer to 50 percent if Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are added. Russia is also on the way to becoming a major gas supplier to China.
Geography and the legacy of the Soviet Union mean that both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan could be subjected to considerable Russian military pressure if the need arose to remind China of Russia’s importance. Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian population is concentrated on it northern border with Russia, and the major energy-producing fields of both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are either in or near the Russian-dominated Caspian Sea.
Russia in Eurasia
In contrast to highly emotional international relations on its western flank, Russia’s relationships with individual countries in Eurasia are quite good and it has no territorial disputes (although it does have with Japan). Russia still has significant cultural and language soft-power advantages in the ex-Soviet Central Asian countries. For several of these countries, particularly Kyrgyzstan, this soft power also includes the ability of their citizens to work in Russia because of their membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. The union has made some progress on creating a common market in some areas, such as labor, but otherwise it seems stalled with nowhere to go because no country – particularly Russia – wishes to hand over additional powers to its governing bodies.
In general, Russia is not good at soft power. Its main diplomatic weapon in Eurasia is the ability to make other countries fearful of upsetting it. Russia presently has very good top-level leadership relations with China and this is likely to remain the case while Putin and Xi remain in power in their respective countries. This relationship appears to be partly one of personality, but both men also have visions of power and influence for their respective countries and both feel that the United States is opposed to these ambitions. Apart from the top level, the relationship between Russia and China is generally weak and likely to remain so. While there have been and will continue to be major energy deals, future trade diversification is unlikely to go much beyond agriculture. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that the cultures and the languages of these two countries are almost polar opposites, and the inefficiencies generated by Russia’s corrupt officials.
Businesspeople in both Russia and China find it much easier to deal with countries where “Western” culture and the English language hold greater sway. Moreover, their main population centers are situated far from the common border, which means that most Chinese will continue to look east and most Russians will continue to look west when considering the future. While initially wary of China’s Belt and Road, Putin and some parts of the Russian elite have used some dubious analysis to embrace it as the way of the future. They dream of a “Greater Eurasian Partnership,” with the relationship with China the most important aspect of this.
And, as noted earlier, such dreams have been behind the Russian push to expand the SCO, and even unrealistic suggestions that Russia could be a “security provider” for Eurasia.
Pakistan in Eurasia
Tensions between Pakistan and India date back to the partition of British India in 1947, but the totemic dispute over Jammu and Kashmir is very unlikely to be resolved in favor of either, so both sides would be wise to accept the status quo. Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan also have a history dating back to 1947, as Kabul was keen for Pakistan’s Pashtun areas to be given the chance of joining Afghanistan. When this did not occur, Kabul voted against Pakistan joining the United Nations.
It is tempting to see Pakistan as Eurasia’s main troublemaker because of its support of insurgent groups in Afghanistan, alleged more general support for terrorist groups targeting India and as a past nuclear technology proliferator. However, much of its success in these cases has been due to the willingness of the United States and its allies to turn a blind eye to such activities in order to achieve their own objectives in Afghanistan; notably, to counter the 1979 Soviet invasion and the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his associates. The latter, in particular, increased the power of the Pakistani Inter-Services Directorate, which is now blamed as the main supporter of the Taliban.
Pakistan aims to keep India out of Afghanistan, with the military being particularly fixated with this idea. Yet, objectively, India’s geographical isolation from Afghanistan and the surging Central Asian presence of China suggest that this policy has passed its use-by date. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s future is in many ways tied to China because of its economic needs and its toxic relationship with India. Pakistan’s relationship with Russia is benefiting from China’s relationship with Russia, although it is difficult to see any advantages for Pakistan in this other than weapons purchases.
India in Eurasia
India, despite its rising power, is effectively shut out from much of Eurasia because neither Pakistan nor China will allow their territories to be used for access to Eurasia’s most landlocked parts. Moreover, given the strategic rivalry between India and China, India cannot expect to benefit from Belt and Road. Some Indians seem to feel that “China is blocking India’s rise on the global stage,” but the reality is that China is doing much to earn its position in the world rather than just complaining. Nevertheless, India does have a stronger claim to membership in the UN Security Council than several existing members.
India has maintained a working relationship with China in some areas, as indicated by membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (where it is the second-largest shareholder) and the SCO. However, both these organizations are as much about symbolism as about real financial or organizational power. Both China and India would benefit if their border disputes could be resolved, perhaps in a similar way to how China and Russia eventually solved their dispute in 2003. Unlike India’s border dispute with Pakistan and China’s disputes with Japan, the India-China differences do not have a huge emotional aspect rooted in history.
India would also do well to focus much greater attention outside of Eurasia because it has better possibilities for trade and influence via the Indian Ocean. In one sense, India is finally doing this by working to boost its relations with nations from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Modi has criticized China’s military buildup as evidence of an “18th-century expansionist mind-set” and, partly at US urging, is telling Asean countries that India supports efforts to contain China (although use of the word “contain” is avoided). In January 2015, a US-India joint statement affirmed “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Previously, India had been very wary of taking a position on the South China Sea, but now seems to be moving toward taking a more partisan position, including through membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Qaud) comprising Japan, the United States, Australia and India.
This will raise concerns in China that these countries are ganging up on it and that the Quad will evolve into a true security alliance (remember that there are already security alliances between the United States and Japan, and between the United States and Australia). This may have an effect on basic Chinese security thinking similar to what happened with Russian thinking with the expansion of NATO (both actual and proposed). India’s historical relationship with Russia (as the main successor of the Soviet Union) is fondly remembered by some of the Indian defense establishment because of its Cold War support, but otherwise has now become quite weak. In part, this reflects the lack of significant bilateral trade, but Russia’s closer relationship with China has also made India wary.
Iran in Eurasia
In January, US President Donald J Trump said his country would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran unless the document was revised to eliminate what he believed to be substantial shortcomings in the nuclear deal. This has not yet happened, but remains a possibility. Despite the views and eventual actions of the United States on the JCPOA issue, Iran is likely to be an increasingly influential player in Eurasia. Apart from an ability to be very pragmatic in foreign policy, Iran is seen as useful to some other major Eurasian countries.
Russia sees Iran as assisting its Eurasia power ambitions. Whatever the merits of India’s desire to play a greater role in Central Asia, India needs the use of Iran’s Chabahar port in order to get physical access to the region. Afghanistan, with its long-term strained relationship with Pakistan, appears ready to assist, with some reports suggesting that Afghanistan is now favoring Iranian ports over those of Pakistan. It is somewhat ironic that US encouragement of India to assume a greater role in Afghanistan will benefit Iran. Shiite Iran is also wary of Sunni Pakistan, and although neither country wants to see the relationship deteriorate the situation can only benefit relations with India.
The future of Afghanistan remains extremely unclear. A late-2017 article in Foreign Affairs, co-authored by Stanley McChrystal, who was commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, could have been taken from Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent Into Chaos,” which was published in 2008 – ie, almost 10 years earlier!
McChrystal and his co-author say that “although the Taliban have de facto control over limited areas of the country, their presence and influence are likely at their highest levels since the group lost power in 2001.” They say that “the leaders of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups continue to operate relatively freely in major Pakistani cities.” They accuse Pakistan of not doing enough to combat these groups and advocate increased US military operations inside Pakistan. They advocate a continuation of the “current approach as the only viable option,” although the United States should “lower its ambitions in Afghanistan, with the goal being merely a long-term relationship with a limited military presence.” “The best that the US can do is to put unrelenting pressure on the Taliban while helping to build the capacity of the Afghan state – so that the Afghans can eventually assume full responsibility for maintaining their sovereignty and preventing the reemergence of terrorist sanctuaries.”
The reality is that the US strategy to convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield, and so must negotiate, is showing little sign of success, even though the Taliban are not popular with the Afghan population, which fears their extremism and violence. Moreover, the mainly Pashtun-based Taliban reportedly have little support in areas populated by other ethnic groups. The Afghan government itself is split along ethnic lines.
The problem of Afghanistan is unlikely to be solved in any way while US military forces remain involved, and while India (now being urged on by America) aims to play a substantial role in this country. The best prospects for peace are some reconciliation with more moderate elements of the Taliban, as is being suggested by Russia, combined with Chinese pressure on Pakistan. At this stage, China seems willing to countenance the US military presence rather than itself pick up the “dirty nappy.” Its hesitancy to use its leverage over Pakistan via the CPEC is likely to change, as it will ultimately have little choice.
A number of things stand out about the future of Eurasia and its place in the world. First, the major countries generally have little in common except for the influence of the British heritage in India and Pakistan. Otherwise, culture, religion and language in the Eurasian space are very diverse and, apart from India and Pakistan, the major countries know relatively little about each other. While they are united by solid land, this geography is often very difficult for human activity and the distances are large.
Second, this diversity, plus the present nature of political systems, means that Eurasia will never be a combined entity similar to the European Union. It will certainly never resemble NATO, so Andrew F Krepinevich can relax. The most that could be expected is an Asean-type grouping where there is a basic degree of economic cooperation but little appetite for much more. China, Russia and Iran each have greater relationship issues with, and policy focus on, countries outside of the Eurasian space. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski’s feared US shortsightedness will not drive them into more than temporary coalitions on particular issues. Relations between India and Pakistan will never be easy due to historical issues and religious factors.
Third, China will never dominate Eurasia and will need to devote considerable resources to ensuring that its western backyard remains a relatively benign area, while it deals with issues related to its relations with other East Asian countries and the United States. Russia, with its historical connections in Central Asia and military domination of the Caspian Sea, could seriously disrupt oil and gas supplies to China if it ultimately felt the need. Pakistan will always be a difficult country for China to deal with due to its religion and the strength, even if erratic, of its civil society. While the Chinese might prefer stable military rule in Pakistan, successive military governments have never been able to totally suppress democracy. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor should not be considered a totally reliable path for energy imports.
Fourth, these Eurasian factors, plus its own method of internal governance and its difficult language, mean that China will not be able to wield the international power of the United States even as its GDP significantly surpasses that of the latter. The United States has significant geographic and language advantages, although it is often its own worst enemy when it tends to overestimate external threats and seeks to counter these.
Fifth, it is clear the United States cannot win the “war” in Afghanistan. Issues there will ultimately be decided when China finally realizes that it needs to push Pakistan, which has few other friends in the world, to reduce its support for the Taliban.
Last, purely geographical factors suggest that India would be sensible to give up on its ambitions for considerable influence in Afghanistan and the other countries of Central Asia, and should instead concentrate on domination of the Indian Ocean. As emotionally painful as it might be, India should accept the status quo with Pakistan and should make a great effort to settle its border difference with China (in a similar way to Russia). This would also pull the rug from under some of the claims of the Pakistani military for their role in running the country.
At the present time, however, India (with the encouragement of the United States) seems too ready to set the opposite course. Indeed, the choices that India makes are probably the biggest danger for large-scale conflict within Eurasia. As for the SCO, its geographical coverage is quite compact (particularly compared with the silly BRICS idea) but much of the cement that holds it together is external pressure (particularly from the United States). In reality, it is little more than a venue for leaders to meet and, if they are game, to discuss contentious issues.
Which finally brings us to the issue of leadership. In my book, “Dictatorial CEOs and their Lieutenants: Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao,” I explored the factors that allowed these individuals to dominate decision-making over prolonged periods of time. These people initially achieved positive things for their countries and were thus supported by people around them. Once time in power starts to approach a decade or so, however, the quality of decision-making rapidly declines to the detriment of the country; but by then it is too late for others to remove them. Russia is already at that negative stage. China is probably still at the initial positive stage, but Xi Jinping’s continual accumulation of power means that a later negative stage is inevitable. If Eurasia were a united entity, Putin and Xi would be very dangerous for the world. But, thankfully it is not!
Jeff Schubert is a visiting professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he lectures master’s degree students on Russia’s East Asian foreign policy.