_ Muratbek Imanaliev, President of the Institute of Public Policy, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, former Secretary General of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Bishkek, February 8th 2016.
What are the prospects of linking the Eurasian Economic Space with the Silk Road Economic Belt?
The geo-economic development of the Eurasian space has been gaining momentum and increasing its scale in the past few years. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the United States’ New Silk Road are the most important and promising Eurasian projects.
Central Asian countries are obviously enthusiastic about these projects. However, for all of their overt and covert benefits these projects lack clearly defined substance that would direct the activities of people and states, and that would embody a combination of some identity model, in this case Eurasian.
Large-scale projects, especially those striving to become globally significant, should not be limited to only economic parameters. Clearly, the “project documentation” should include the formation of models of joint rather than uniform cultural and humanitarian cooperation. I believe it should be based on complete mutual understanding, free of media bias and other world-view distortions of the past, and, what is particularly important, it should establish positive images and symbols for a common future. I do not mean to overlook the obvious importance of developing industrial production, transportation, financial and material resources.
Naturally, the issue of modern Eurasianism cannot be considered outside the context of current global developments, which can now be characterized as being in crisis, particularly, in socio-economic spheres, religion, humanitarian values, international law, etc.
Geo-economic planning and implementation of relevant global and regional programs are bound to produce geopolitical consequences. They reflect the interests of the great powers whose interests do not always coincide with those of smaller project participants with less influence. But for all of the latter’s vulnerability, they can mobilize themselves and generate development potential. What could Kyrgyzstan do in this regard?
In terms of Eurasian economic planning, Kyrgyzstan can develop several forms of economic and other cooperation.
First and foremost, it can develop Central Asian models of cooperation with non-regional actors. This is probably the most promising option, but one that is least likely to be implemented at this moment of history.
Another option would be to cooperate under Eurasian models. I’d like to make two important points in this context. Paradoxically, but for all their shortcomings, Eurasian models have more chances to be carried out than Central Asian ones. Inertia, both politically and psychologically, especially in state apparatuses, has a rich history and remains strong, not only in Russia but also in all Central Asian countries without exception, although with varying degrees of acceptance and, obviously, chances of success.
Emphasizing Russia’s special role in Eurasian cooperation projects, I’d like to point out the principle change in its current status as a leader from what it was 150 years ago. Today, Russia is an integrator.
Indicatively, China’s gradual incorporation into the Eurasian economic space is obvious to all and this process will only increase in scale and speed. It is also clear that China will move in the Eurasian space without offering any extravagant economic integration projects, and will carefully use its growing economic might and the “soft power” of its culture. And it will do this without resorting to any sophisticated political and ideological concepts and will welcome partnerships both on old and new projects.
The idea of creating the Silk Road Economic Belt, suggested by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Central Asia’s countries in 2013, is nothing less than a model for closer trade, economic, transportation and infrastructure cooperation with Eurasian countries. This is a model of cooperation rather than integration because, as I believe, China is self-sufficient and does not really need integration.
Thus, the idea of developing the Eurasian economic space suggested by the great powers is gradually shaping a rough outline of the boundaries and parameters for future cooperation, which will be conducted on two or three announced or already operating projects.
But the coexistence or conjunction of projects will require the elaboration of rules and procedures. Their participants must make sure that their goals are compatible. Any other modelling of the Eurasian space will provoke even greater and uncompromising competition between participating states and organizations, both geopolitically and strategically.
It would appear that there are no grounds to view Eurasian geo-economic planning as an added dimension of already existing geopolitical competition between the great powers. Diplomats at bilateral and multilateral levels will have to prevent any conflicts, while striving for compromise on large and small issues and that emerging contradictions are evened out.
Kyrgyzstan does not take part in pipeline projects. At first glance, the absence of oil and gas diplomacy may seem a serious shortage for a small country. Moreover, it does not participate in major infrastructure projects in the global economy. This is why its opportunities, which then determine its requirements, are fairly narrow in scope. However, they exist and must be fully exploited.
I see two opportunities. Taking lessons from history, Kyrgyzstan can “saddle” the Russia-Kazakhstan economic axis in the EAEU space. This axis is a constant of political and economic life in Eurasia and exerts influence on Central Asia.
Distinct from this axis, China is practically a new partner for Kyrgyzstan. However, even now the China-related Kyrgyz media are exerting major influence on public opinion and decision-making at all levels. Cooperation with China has become highly important and topical for Kyrgyzstan today.
Currently Russia and China, just like other countries, are drafting new economic development models that are in tune with present-day realities. Will they be able to harmonize them to a certain extent? Most likely, yes. It would be useful for Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states to pay closer attention to such efforts.
I described above Kyrgyzstan’s potential strategy in Eurasia. It can also take advantage of opportunities opened by the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt as a mechanism for carrying out this strategy.
To reach the goal set forth by the Russian and Chinese leaders in their statements on the marrying of the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt, Moscow and Beijing should further build up trust and develop mutually advantageous cooperation and pursue compatible interests in Central Asia. But I feel that Central Asian countries should be more actively involved in the discussion of relevant issues and decision-making.
I believe it would be useful to channel any Eurasian planning into a process, one capable of becoming the new norm for international communication and not prejudice the interests of small states, and in doing so create a new format of leadership in the region that could serve to prevent the Silk Road space’s excessive militarization. Naturally, Eurasian countries should step up their common efforts in countering terrorism, extremism and other manifestations of cross-border crime.
How should Kyrgyzstan position itself in this situation?
Under the circumstances Kyrgyzstan needs to have at least something that has the potential to be “linked”, “conjugated” with others in the region. It might consider drafting a national development concept on the basis of nationwide consensus that could become a kind of a socio-political contract for its future. This contract should envisage the observance of social and ethnic discipline, the establishment of a national state, the formation of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society and, finally, the elaboration of the basic elements of a national identity. Last but not the least, Kyrgyzstan should begin planning its own large-scale projects.
Second, the formation of Kyrgyzstan’s national section of the Economic Belt should not contradict its participation in the EAEU activities. It is obvious that its membership in the EAEU can provide incentives for improved mobilization of its resources and realization of its potential with its EAEU partners. The Economic Belt may facilitate this mobilization and the active use of this potential by China and other Asian and European countries, thereby expanding the geography of their cooperation.
Third, Kyrgyzstan’s accession or participation, either fully or partially should be included in multilateral programs and projects planned by other participants.