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The Revenge Of History: Eurasia Rises – Analysis

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By Samir Saran

The “Indo-Pacific” is in the news. The US has renamed its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, the shared regional vision outlined by India and Indonesia has emphasised its centrality, and the region’s political importance to India were at the core of the expansive foreign policy speech delivered by Prime Minister Modi in Singapore. All of these are a response to the spectacular rise of China. If this points to a future concert of powers in the region to balance Beijing’s power play, it will be an important yet insufficient measure to the Chinese project that spans Asia and Europe.

Covering 35 per cent of the earth’s surface, Eurasia is home to five billion people living in over 90 different countries and producing 65 per cent of global GDP. For millennia, conquest, trade and migration have organically bound Asia and Europe – the ebb and flow of great civilisations across this vast landmass spawned myriad political and economic dynamics.

Only in the recent past, in historical terms, have these been interrupted. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the subsequent colonisation of Asia and Africa created an artificial divide where geographically there was none, concentrating economic and military power in ‘the West.’ That this community emerged as the victors of the second World War only institutionalized these power structures and geographies.

As history repeats and Eurasia coheres, the outlines of a new world order will be defined by who manages it and how it is managed. It is in this super-continent that the future of democracy, of free markets and of global security arrangements will be decided. And there are three key factors that are shaping this landscape.

The first, to borrow a phrase from Robert Kaplan, is the revenge of geography. As much as Eurasian integration is organic, its current ‘avatar’ is decidedly Chinese. Having assessed that the divide between Europe and Asia was an artificial, modern and “Western” construct, China is doing what no other power had the appetite for: conceive of, define and then manage Eurasia.

The idea of a Eurasian supercontinent itself is not new: In 1904, Halford Makinder predicted that the age of Western naval supremacy would give way to land power, in which Eurasia– “the pivot area” — would be key to world domination.

British, American, German and Russian strategists have long been influenced by this idea. Zbigniew Brzezinski would write that the key to containing the Soviet Union was to expand America’s influence over the ”Eurasian chessboard;” while Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin conceived of a Russian led Eurasia that would effectively thwart NATO’s conspiracy of “Atlanticism” In each case, the theme was evident: to balance competing powers by securing land based military supply chains.

China’s design is different—in an interdependent global economy, defined more by coalitions of convenience than geopolitical blocs, Beijing’s expansion is defined by a multi-billion dollar geo-economic thrust in search of energy supplies, raw materials and markets.

China is driven, not by ideology, but by the desire to revive and extend its historical position as the cultural, economic and military center of the world. This drive, combined with China’s economic heft, makes its Eurasian vision significantly more potent, farsighted and durable than simple balancing strategies.

Unsurprisingly then, the BRI dilutes the importance of the landmass’ sub-regions, thereby upsetting settled balance-of-power arrangements. India and the European Union (EU), for example, are struggling to curb China’s creeping influence on Eurasia’s political, economic and security conversations.

China is admirably relentlessness in pursuing this project: building infrastructure, facilitating trade, and creating alternative global institutions. Surreptitiously, China also exports its political model: “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” –a unique blend of state capitalism and authoritarianism. Unless liberal democracies propose an alternative in Eurasia that effectively addresses the infrastructure and governance needs of countries in Asia and Africa, China’s proposition will succeed.

Here lies the second factor: the revenge of democracy. Whether it is the US, the EU or even India, democracies are more polarized than ever before. The Pew Global Attitude Survey consistently records that trust in democratic governments is at an all-time low. More than ever, it appears that liberal democracies are bogged down by domestic crises, leaving them little energy for strategic planning. At a time when China’s timelines are decadal, democracies are struggling to look past their next election.

And the final factor, demography, is a double-edged sword for the entire region—especially for China. In many Eurasian countries, the economic benefits of the BRI are obvious. However, in an era when nationalism is the defining mood of politics, China’s presence can be unwelcome. China’s labour exports create tensions with younger host-country populations who must now compete for employment opportunities. There is the risk that the BRI will merely create infrastructure networks for extreme and radicalized organizations in unstable countries.

At home, demographic pressures might force Beijing to reconsider its ability to deliver. As younger Chinese move up the income ladder, their expectations from their government will increase. Simultaneously, the preponderance of single young men in urban regions and ageing rural populations makes Chinese society susceptible to violence and unrest. What will these demographic pressures portend for the project of Eurasian integration? Will the Chinese state have the political capital to recklessly buy influence across the world? Will demographic complexities allow others to cobble together a viable counter to the Beijing consensus?

New Delhi will, however, be one among a constellation of actors—and its ability to adapt to and perhaps even shape their visions will influence Eurasian conversations for decades to come.

Russia, which plays second fiddle to China due to economic necessity and a common disdain for American power, shares a perverse relationship with the middle kingdom. The original Eurasian superpower is currently nothing more than a glorified policeman — or more charitably, a crafty risk management consultant for Chinese expansionism.

The two economic visions they seek to integrate—the BRI and the Eurasian Economic Union– operate under different logics. The first seeks to reorient multiple markets in order to position China as the engine of trade, while the latter seeks to create a single market to expand Moscow’s limited economic influence. Simultaneously, China has so far avoided hard security commitment’s in the region in deference to Moscow’s concern—a position that is hardly tenable in the long term.

The contrast between Moscow’s modest regional capability and China’s multi-continental ambition begs the question: What happens if both autonomously and organically come to two different visions of Eurasia?  Will Moscow defer to China’s objectives? Or will competition between the two create complex security dynamics in an already volatile region?

The rupturing of West Asia, however, sent a wave of refugees into their debt-ridden economies, forcefully reminding Europeans of their proximity to the continent.

Now Europe fractures, both from within and without. Even as ageing European societies struggle with reactionary populism and the splintering of a well-established political and economic consensus, their borders are being chipped away by the Belt and Road Initiative. The EU must now make difficult choices: either act to preserve and expand its agency or be acted upon, one slice at a time.

The US, for its part, has expended blood and treasure over the past nine decades to maintain its privileged place in these two regions. However, in a quest to balance Russia and China, and to prosecute a “war on terror,” its power and influence are diffused between NATO, Central Command and the recently renamed ‘Indo-Pacific’ Command, each with their own strategies and legacies. Can America, now unexpectedly flirting with economic nationalism, claim leadership in a world that is cohering and integrating faster, perhaps, than its institutional capacity to respond?

It is critical that all of them, and more particularly India and the US, imagine an arrangement beyond the Indo-Pacific, into the heart of Eurasia. This imagination must look past the normative considerations of democracy; Eurasian geopolitics will be defined by the provision of finance and technology, of connectivity and trade and a willingness to accommodate diverse political arrangements.

China’s continental-sized question requires a super-continental answer. It is for the liberal world to stand up and be counted, or step aside and let Pax-Sinica unfold.

A shorter version had appeared in The Times of India


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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

One thought on “The Revenge Of History: Eurasia Rises – Analysis

  • June 10, 2018 at 12:39 pm
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    The writer is remarkably correct in describing the fundamental importance of Eurasia as the dominant continent in our world from long past history to present. With a declining Europe and its descendants in the coming years, because of the continuous and non stop power shift, one can understand that no powers, no matter how strong at any period in time will remain dominant forever. Being a life long student of history of China and the rest of the world, it is natural for the historical dominant power of Eurasia, China, through its ups and downs throughout the past over 4000 years will again be the dominant Eurasian and global superpower. China not only survived, endured from over one hundred years of invasions, defeats and semi colonizations by Europe, America and Japan, but succeeded in re-emerging to be the next global super power whihc will have no comparison in the world. The demographic factor in China is being dealt with by liberating Chinese birth control from two children per couple to free for all in the coming year, the many young men who are single due to the one child policy in the past several decades in many ways will be resolved by these young men to seek out brides from neighboring countries as Russia, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and the rest of the world. The author’s concern and even wishful thinking regarding Russia and China may enter in conflict in a large measure will be resolved by the two nations to set up a Common Wealth of markets and free movements of people to jointly develope the natural and mineral resources of The Heartland region, to borrow a word empolyed by MacKinder in his artile “The Heartland article” mentioned by the author of this article and the immense human energy and resouces of both Russia and China to make this huge Eurasian region stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic seas and beyond. These immesurable benefits will be derived by the setting up of this overwhelmingly huge area will benefit not only Russia and China, but also will be spreading to all the neighboring countries and the rest of the world. China has been throughout history the dominant power in Eurasia for the past over 2000 years since the Han Chinese Dynasty to the 1912 with the ending of the Quing Dynasty of China. The fundamentally important evolution of the Chinese Civilization since the Han Dynasty to present has been the continuous, non stop invasions, rules and assimilations of all the Northern Monglian warrior tribes; be they Hunnic, Turkic, the Various Tungus tribes (including the Manchus) and the Mongol tribes. China Has been enormously benefited by all these invasions and subsequent assimilations of all these Northern Mongolian warrior tribes because they provided China with renewed energy and vitality to continuouly renovate and energize the Chinese Civilization. This is why with the coming set up of my proposed Russian and Chinese Common Wealth will without a doubt energize both these two countries in all aspects of cultural and life for many decades to come.

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