11.10.2022 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

Western pressure as an incentive for Eurasian integration

As is known, Russia has long been a supporter of the idea of Eurasian integration, and the most actively pursued integration project in Eurasia is the Chinese transport and economic project “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI).

The BRI is designed to unite as many states as possible in a single economic space. Almost all African countries are involved there, and the maritime sub-projects of the BRI also include Australia, Oceania and some Latin American states. For the time being, however, the BRI’s main field of activity remains Eurasia, where its most important land transport projects, designed to connect China with Europe and give Chinese products access to the European Union (EU) market, are being implemented. Russia could play an important role in connecting the PRC with the EU. Through the vast territory of the Russian Federation, stretching from west to east, a direct route from the borders of the PRC to those of the EU could be established. If one bypasses the Russian Federation, trains and cars from China would have to cross several countries on their way to the EU, which requires many more formalities and increases the time and financial costs involved. So the fact that the Russian Federation is keen on active cooperation with the PRC and is a supporter of Eurasian integration and the implementation of the BRI can be considered a great stroke of luck for China.

A project for a land route from the PRC to Europe via Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus is now ready and has been known for several years as the Shanghai-Hamburg route. The Russian section of the route is called “Meridian” and is to pass through the Orenburg, Samara, Saratov, Tambov, Lipetsk, Orel, Bryansk and Smolensk regions of the Russian Federation. While the total length of the Shanghai-Hamburg route is around 8,500 km, the Russian section will be around 2,000 km long. By 2022, the value of the Meridian project was estimated at around $10 billion.

However, in February 2022, the special military operation by Russian troops in Ukraine began and the future of all joint EU-Russian projects came into question. Nevertheless, Russian-Chinese relations continue to develop and if the implementation of the Russian-European part of the Shanghai-Hamburg project is postponed indefinitely, Moscow and Beijing should choose another area for mutually beneficial activities. All the more so as PRC relations with the West are also gradually deteriorating.

 It was decided to change the route of the Meridian highway: it will now turn towards the Caspian Sea, Iran and other countries lying in that region. This option is now more desirable, since with the weakening of trade relations with Europe, trade with Asian countries, including those in the Caspian region, has begun to grow, and it has become more profitable for Russia to build roads there.

The Meridian project was decided to be combined with the South-Eastern Chord project, which should better connect the Russian Far East with its southern regions. Once successfully implemented, the project will create a network of motorways connecting the Russian Far East and China (via Kazakhstan) with the northern and southwestern regions of Russia, and further to the Caspian region. The result would be an autonomous Russian-Asian transport system, free from European influence.

Details of the transformed Meridian project were discussed on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2022.

As is known, “when God closes a door, He opens a window”. The severing of ties with the West has been a strong incentive for Russia to develop ties with the PRC.

The most important component of land transport is the railways, without which it is difficult to imagine truly large-scale freight transport. And the summer of 2022 brought positive news on the subject of Russian-Chinese railway links. At the end of July 2022, the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation announced its intention to strengthen it manifold in the near future. By 2030, more than $30 billion will be allocated for this purpose. Reportedly, 369 km of railway tracks will be laid in Russia, as well as about 3,000 km of tracks in China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. New border crossings will also be built.

The backbone of this group of projects will be the Russia-Mongolia-China international transport corridor, which will connect the PRC with the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest railway in the world, connecting the Russian Far East with its European part. The need to strengthen the connection between the Trans-Siberian Railway and China has been long overdue. It will be followed on Russian territory by the Elegest-Kyzyl-Kuragino railway, which will then lead to the PRC via Mongolia.

The Russian Federation will also build a 226-km railway on Mongolian territory. It will link Mongolia’s Zuunbayan station with China.

In addition, there are plans to additionally connect the Russian Primorsky Krai with the PRC by building the 56-kilometer Lesozavodsk-Hulin road.

Furthermore, Russia will take part in the construction of a railway in Kazakhstan, which will connect the Kazakhstani city of Ayagoz with the village of Bakhty near the Kazakhstan-China border. The road will be 270 km long.

The gossip is that Russia is being forced to make huge expenditures to build railways in foreign countries because of deteriorating relations with the West, and it is not known whether these projects will pay off. However, experts in the field argue that, first, the volume of freight traffic in the region has been growing steadily for a long time, and even before the start of the Ukrainian special operation there was a need to radically increase the capacity of the railway system linking Russia with China. Second, the railways would finally allow hydrocarbon fuels from Russia full access to the Chinese market, putting an end to the paradoxical situation in which Russia is one of the world’s main energy producers and borders China, the main consumer of these fuels, but occupies only a small part of the Chinese market. The situation does not benefit Russia or China, which is forced to carry Middle Eastern oil by sea through the narrow Strait of Malacca at exorbitant prices.

It should be recalled that, apart from transport costs, the current way of delivering hydrocarbons to the PRC makes Chinese energy security dependent on Beijing’s relations with the US. After all, the Strait of Malacca is controlled by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which have such strong partnerships with the US that Singapore even has a US military base. The US Navy has a permanent presence in the region, as does the Indian Navy, the PRC’s main rival in Asia. All these forces are enough to block the Strait of Malacca and deprive China of its Middle Eastern oil tankers. However, the launch of a full-fledged rail link with Russia will make this threat less sensitive to the PRC.

It should be recalled that in September 2022 there was an attempt to destroy two branches of the Russian Nord Stream pipeline running under the Baltic Sea. The details of the incident are not yet known, but there is reason to believe that it was the result of sabotage by US intelligence agencies. Pro-Western experts rejoiced: in their view, politically, Russia has lost its last leverage over the EU, and the EU can now completely stop holding back on new anti-Russian sanctions and arms deliveries to the Kiev regime. The US business community also welcomed the news: to escape an imminent energy crisis, EU countries, especially Germany, will now have to buy gas from the US or from US allies at whatever price they can afford.

Before rejoicing, however, the Americans should consider that permanently cutting off energy supplies to Europe means a complete reorientation of Russian hydrocarbon exports towards Asia, primarily China. After the implementation of the Russian-Chinese railway projects described above, this could mean many times greater Chinese energy security and less dependence on the situation in the Strait of Malacca. This in turn means a great deal more leeway for Beijing, in particular over such issues as the position of Taiwan and ownership of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. And all this could call into question not only US dominance, but also the very presence of the US in the East Asian region.

Whether or not events unfold in this direction is Beijing’s choice. Either way, improved land connections between Russia and China will ensure that the two countries enjoy stable trade and move them closer to their long-held dream of an integrated Eurasia, one that can both cooperate on an equal footing with the US and do without it.

Among other things, the large-scale railway construction in Kazakhstan, approved by Almaty’s main partner, Beijing, will lead to a significant increase of the Russian presence in the country. Against this backdrop, we may see a new upsurge in Russia-Kazakhstan relations, which to some experts now seem not very warm, for example because of Kazakhstan’s recent refusal to recognize the independence of the LPR and DPR. However, it cannot be ruled out that Almaty will reconsider its decision.

It has long been known that everything in the world is interconnected. Any ill-considered impact that Western powers have on other regions will sooner or later have an impact on themselves. And modern transport technologies only make the process faster.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.