Geopolitical and geo-economic shifts have prompted Russia to pivot to Asia. Moscow’s proposed Greater Eurasian Partnership is meant to be a vehicle for connecting Europe and Asia and linking integration initiatives in Eurasia with key economies in East and South Asia, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN states. AsiaGlobal Fellow Mher D Sahakyan, co-editor of the book China and Eurasia Rethinking Cooperation and Contradictions in the Era of Changing World Order, argues that disruptions and disputes among the major powers with interests in the region should not hinder deeper cooperation if all players focus on trade and investment opportunities, particularly in infrastructure development.
Pivot towards the East: President Putin addresses the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok (Credit: Sergei Bobylev/TASS)
If geography is destiny, then Russia is fated to be the world’s great Eurasian power. The largest country in the world by far, it stretches from the Pacific to the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea, across a vast sweep of land, two thirds in Asia, a third in Europe. Its strategic location, rich natural sources, world-leading nuclear arsenal, and one of the strongest armed forces of any nation gives the Russian state its authority and geopolitical muscle, providing Moscow the opportunity to play an important and influential global role, more significant than its economy’s size (outside the top 10) might imply.
Historically, Russia has been a unique force of globalization. In the 20th century, as the leading country of the Soviet Union, it tried to spread communism in the world, creating a bloc of socialist nations. After the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, Russia’s next major integration project was the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), launched in its current format in 2015. The grouping brings together former Soviet states including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, with Moldova and Uzbekistan as observers. (Cuba too has observer status.)
In the short period of time since its establishment, the EAEU has signed free-trade agreements with Serbia and ASEAN members Singapore and Vietnam, and an interim accord with Iran. Free-trade negotiations with Cambodia, also part of ASEAN, are ongoing. The overarching mission of the EAEU, however, is to drive economic cooperation and integration in the Eurasian continent. To this end, in 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) which aims to consolidate related integration projects from Vladivostok to Lisbon.
But what lies behind the GEP – what are the opportunities it offers and the obstacles that could hamper its implementation? What political and economic benefits can the concept provide to Russia and its fellow EAEU members?
The Greater Eurasian Partnership strategy
The Eurasian continent is home to different civilizations, nations, states and organizations, which not only cooperate with each other but also compete or even clash, their contradictory interests leading in the past to bloody wars. Russia and the other EAEU members are geographically and logically the main bridge between Europe and Asia. But after the end of the Cold War, lingering incongruities between Russia and Europe have prevented any serious integration between the European Union and the EAEU and its precursors.
There are, for example, differences over norms of the world order, the Ukrainian crisis, the political transition in Belarus, human rights, and democratic values, among other matters. Tensions between Moscow and Washington have also been an impediment to closer ties. After all, the EU and the United States have deep economic relations and strongly aligned strategic interests, underpinned by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, which reaches right up to the borders with Russia and Belarus. US sanctions on Russia in response to Russian activity in Ukraine have limited the EU’s room for maneuver.
Russia’s differences with the EU have been the main obstacle to Moscow’s making headway with the GEP to its West. Instead, it has pursued its own “pivot towards the East”, where its overtures may be more welcome. For Russia, turning eastward means greater interaction with China, as well as stronger relations with India and ASEAN and opportunities for cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
Russia and China: Shared interests
In this era of a shifting world order, Russia and China have deepened ties based on a range of shared interests. The two countries need each other. Moscow provides energy and natural resources to China’s vast market. China also requires Russia’s modern weaponry. Beijing and Moscow regard each other as strategic partners in the struggle to counter Western dominance and promote a multipolar world as an alternative to the US-dominated liberal rules-based international order.
In 2015, Russia agreed with China to integrate the EAEU and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s signature foreign economic policy. Three years later in Kazakhstan, the Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the People's Republic of China was signed. This accord set out a roadmap for joining together the EAEU and the BRI. In September 2021, in a speech delivered by video to the Eastern Economic Forum, Chinese leader Xi Jinping stressed the importance of deepening this collaboration.
A key forum for facilitating this goal has been the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia, China and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan are also members, while Iran’s bid to join was recently accepted at the last SCO meeting in Dushanbe in September 2021. The GEP framework is also meant to enhance further the harmonization of EAEU integration projects with the BRI.
Both the SCO and GEP serve as platforms for resolving differences and contradictory interests among participating countries. The relationship between China and India, for example, is especially fraught. The two non-Western powers engaged in bloody border battles last year. Given its role as a strategic partner to both, Russia could play the role of mediator, as it did after the Galwan Valley clashes. Moscow is able to bring Delhi and Beijing together in the context of multilateral cooperation under the SCO and BRICS (including Brazil and South Africa) formats.
Russia is certainly in a good position to connect the triangle, given its key role in India’s International North-South Transport Corridor and its desire to integrate the EAEU and the BRI. Of course, Russia and SCO cannot solve all the problems between New Delhi and Beijing, but the GEP could prove a useful vehicle for promoting joint economic projects that would build trust and a stronger spirit of cooperation.
Exploring economic opportunities with Japan and South Korea
In its eastward turn, Russia also harbors ambitions of deepening economic partnerships with Japan and South Korea. Again, geopolitics have proven an obstacle. The long-running territorial dispute between Moscow and Tokyo over the Kuril Islands (the Northern Territories, as they are referred to in Japan) and the strategic alliance of the two East Asian countries with the US – American troops are stationed in both – are difficult hurdles to overcome. Russia stages military exercises with China and supports Chinese naval operations in Asian waters, just as the US does with South Korea, Japan and other partner countries. The rebooting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, by the US, Japan, India and Australia has generated some consternation in Moscow because Russia’s longtime strategic partner India has joined what is widely viewed as a partnership designed to contain China, with which Russia is deepening its strategic links.
Moscow is trying to resolve or at least mitigate its dispute with Japan by proposing joint development projects in the Russian Far East. In a plenary session at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September, President Putin told participants that Russia is ready to provide special investment opportunities to Japanese companies in the disputed islands. Incoming Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio will have to respond to this offer. Russia has also sought to conclude a peace treaty formally to end World War II hostilities between the two countries as a way to de-escalate tensions and open the way to deepening collaboration and full involvement of Japan in the GEP initiative. Japanese companies could provide financing and technology.
Washington, however, is likely to oppose such rapprochement, as the US regards Russia, along with China, as its chef security threats. Indeed, the US could prove to be the spoiler of Russia’s overtures to the East, especially if Moscow and Beijing edge closer. The US, the UK and Australia have announced the AUKUS cooperative alliance aimed primarily at developing an Australian nuclear-powered submarine program and sharing defense and military technology. AUKUS could drive Beijing and Moscow to build a military-technology cooperative arrangement of their own.
The US as potential spoiler
And then there is the North Korean security challenge. In response to Pyongyang’s missile tests, the US in 2017 deployed its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, arguing that the move was only meant to protect its ally. But of course, Moscow and Beijing have viewed this as a threat to their security and have pressed for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean problem is a hindrance to Russia’s hopes to foster closer economic ties with Seoul and to attract South Korean investment to its Far Eastern region.
The US is not a Eurasian power but its influence across the region is strong. Washington will likely use its own partnerships across the region to thwart implementation of the GEP, in the same way that it has been critical of the BRI and sought to offer alternatives, such as the Quad’s infrastructure development program and the G7’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative. In Eurasia, Turkey, a NATO member, could play key role in counterbalancing Russian and Chinese initiatives. With Ankara’s help, Washington may try to edge Russia and China out of Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In the 44-day Artsakh (Karabakh) war last year, Turkey helped Azerbaijan in the fight against Armenians in the region. This opened Turkey’s roads towards Central Asia. The Turkish may seek to step up its regional profile by taking advantage of their political, linguistic and cultural affinities with the people of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
Central Asia will be a crucial region for promoting EAEU and BRI harmonization. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan that has led to the return to power of the Taliban, who have declared the country an Islamic Emirate, has raised further concerns in Beijing and Moscow about instability in the region and risks to the EAEU and to China’s plans for a China-Central Asia-Western Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC), which is integral to the Silk Road Economic Belt. Russia, China and other SCO members will likely lean on Pakistan which has significant influence on the Taliban. Beijing could also neutralize the threat by offering economic assistance to Afghanistan.
For peaceful integration, focus on trade and investment
The implementation of the Russia-led GEP from Lisbon to Vladivostok has the potential to contribute to the peaceful development of this strategically important yet underdeveloped region. It is no secret that the economic and political center of gravity in the world order is shifting from West to Asia. The Indo-Pacific region will be the global hub of economic growth. Cooperation and harmonization of the economic projects of the EU, EAEU, BRI, India and ASEAN will bring socioeconomic and political benefits to all states of greater Eurasian continent, even if geopolitics causes disruptions.
Perhaps the model for such a modus vivendi is the relationship between China and Japan – both sides have serious political grievances but they have nonetheless sought to develop a working relationship, giving priority to bilateral trade, investment and people-to-people exchanges. The US and some of its allies and partners are casting the struggle to strengthen the world order as a contest between democracies and autocracies – and there are many of both in the Eurasian continent. The key to preventing conflict and promoting prosperity, peace and stability would be to focus on trade and investment that would be mutually beneficial to all stakeholder countries.
Russia’s proposal of the Greater Eurasian Partnership is constructive, but the GEP is still a concept, with many steps required to make it a reality. All sides should create a cooperative institution or platform for dialogue that will allow Eurasian powers to meet and discuss disagreements and to find ways to settle problems peacefully. A key objective should be to plot roadmaps for creating economic, transportation and other cooperative networks and links to connect and integrate the Eurasian continent.
While the building blocks for GEP projects are in place, it is not clear which states or institutions should finance them. A “Greater Eurasian Partnership Bank” is needed to address this challenge. Strengthening infrastructure interconnections and providing the financial resources for developing Eurasian economies should be the top priority. Interested parties should explore ways to harmonize digital projects of the EAEU, EU, China, India, ASEAN and other players in Eurasia, especially given that the pandemic has served as a powerful catalyst for digitalization. The globalization of Greater Eurasia must continue – indeed, it cannot be stopped, even by the disruptions and disputes that are the hallmark of today’s Great Power geopolitics.
Arase, David. (April 15, 2021) "The Belt and Road Initiative Enters a Second Phase", AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Calder, Kent E. (2019) Super Continent: The Logic of Eurasian Integration, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, USA.
Eastern Economic Forum. (September 3, 2021) “Plenary Session”, video, Eastern Economic Forum, Vladivostok, Russia.
Eastern Economic Forum. (September 4, 2021) "The Value and Values of the Greater Eurasian Partnership", video, Eastern Economic Forum, Vladivostok, Russia.
Reyes, Alejandro. (August 22, 2019) "Whose Rules-Based International Order is it Anyway?", AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Sahakyan, Mher; and Gärtner, Heinz (eds). (September 2021) China and Eurasia: Rethinking Cooperation and Contradictions in the Era of Changing World Order, Routledge, London, UK.
Yip, Jason. (August 19, 2021) "Afghanistan at a Crossroads: Perspectives on the Ground", AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
2022 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong, and the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research