In perhaps the most significant condemnation to date of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. Turkey’s foreign ministry demanded this weekend that Chinese authorities respect human rights of the Uighurs and close what it termed “concentration camps” in which up to one million people are believed to be imprisoned.
Calling the crackdown an “embarrassment to humanity,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the death of detained Uighur poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit had prompted the ministry to issue its statement.
Known as the Rooster of Xinjiang, Mr. Heyit symbolized the Uighurs’ cultural links to the Turkic world, according to Adrian Zenz, a European School of Culture and Theology researcher who has done pioneering work on the crackdown.
Turkish media asserted that Mr. Heyit, who was serving an eight-year prison sentence, had been tortured to death.
Mr. Aksoy said Turkey was calling on other countries and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to take steps to end the “humanitarian tragedy” in Xinjiang.
The Chinese embassy in Ankara rejected the statement as a “violation of the facts,” insisting that China was fighting seperatism, extremism and terrorism, not seeking to “eliminate” the Uighurs’ ethnic, religious or cultural identity.
Mr. Aksoy’s statement contrastèd starkly with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declaration six months earlier that China was Turkey’s economic partner of the future. At the time, Turkey had just secured a US$3.6 billion loan for its energy and telecommunications sector from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).
The Turkish statement constitutes the first major crack in the Muslim wall of silence that has enabled the Chinese crackdown, the most frontal assault on Islam in recent memory. The statement’s significance goes beyond developments in Xinjiang.
Like with Muslim condemnation of US President Donald J. Trump’s decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Turkey appears to be wanting to be seen as a spokesman of the Muslim world in its one-upmanship with Saudi Arabia and to a lesser degree Iran.
While neither the kingdom or Iran are likely to follow Turkey’s example any time soon, the statement raises the stakes and puts other contenders for leadership on the defensive.
The bulk of the Muslim world has remained conspicuously silent with only Malaysian leaders willing to speak out and set an example by last year rejecting Chinese demands that a group of Uighur asylum seekers be extradited to China. Malaysia instead allowed the group to go to Turkey.
The Turkish statement came days after four Islamist members of the Kuwaiti parliament organized the Arab world’s first public protest against the crackdown.
By contrast, Pakistani officials backed off initial criticism and protests in countries like Bangladesh and India have been at best sporadic.
Like the Turkish statement, a disagreement between major Indonesian religious leaders and the government on how to respond to the crackdown raises questions about sustainability of the wall of silence.
Rejecting a call on the government to condemn the crackdown by the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top clerical body, Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla insisted that the government would not interfere in the internal affairs of others.
The council was one of the first, if not the first, major Muslim religious body to speak out on the issues of the Uighurs. Its non-active chairman and spiritual leader of Nahdlaltul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, Ma’ruf Amin, is running as President Joko Widodo’s vice-presidential candiate in elections in April.
The Turkish statement could have its most immediate impact in Central Asia, which like Turkey has close ethnic and cultural ties to Xinjiang, and is struggling to balance relations with China with the need to be seen to be standing up for the rights of its citizens and ethnic kin.
In Kazakhstan, Turkey’s newly found assertiveness towards China could make it more difficult for the government to return to China Sayragul Sautbay, a Chinese national of ethnic Kazakh descent and a former re-education camp employee who fled illegally to Kazakhstan to join her husband and child.
Ms. Sautbay, who stood trial in Kazakhstan last year for illegal entry, is the only camp instructor to have worked in a reeducation camp in Xinjiang teaching inmates Mandarin and Communist Party propaganda and spoken publicly about it.
She has twice been refused asylum in Kazakhstan and is appealing the decision. China is believed to be demanding that she be handed back to the Xinjiang authorities.
Similarly, Turkey’s statement could impact the fate of Qalymbek Shahman, a Chinese businessman of Kazakh descent, who is being held at the airport in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent after being denied entry into Kazakhstan.
“I was born in Emin county in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to a farming family. I wanted to go to Kazakhstan, because China’s human rights record was making life intolerable. I would have my ID checked every 50 to 100 meters when I was in Xinjiang, This made me extremely anxious, and I couldn’t stand it anymore,” Mr. Shahman said in a video clip sent to Radio Free Asia from Tashkent airport.
A guide for foreign businessmen, Mr. Shahman said he was put out of business by the continued checks that raised questions in the minds of his clients and persuaded local businessmen not to work with him.
Said Mr. Zenz, the Xinjiang scholar, commenting on the significance of the Turkish statement: “A major outcry among the Muslim world was a key missing piece in the global Xinjiang row. In my view, it seems that China’s actions in Xinjiang are finally crossing a red line among the world’s Muslim communities, at least in Turkey, but quite possibly elsewhere.”
China’s economic transformation under “New Normal”
China’s double digit growth, also termed as “old normal growth” had dominated the country’s economy since 1980s. Despite the rapid economic development over the last few decades, this old normal growth has encountered some setbacks, including economic imbalance, income inequality, limited consumption choices against increasing level of demand, and environmental challenges.
Given this context, a comprehensive new development model, “new normal”, incorporating the innovation, coordination, greening, opening up, and inclusiveness, is formulated by Chinese authorities to enable wide-ranging growth and development throughout the country.
Analysts refer to “new normal” as China’s new phase of economic development. The recent trend of “growth slowdown” or “new normal” economic growth is also referred to new strategy of Chinese foreign policy by the analysts.
During the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Beijing held on November 09, 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping first used the phrase as “new normal stage of Chinese economy.” President Xi also referred to China’s stable economic growth in order to improve and upgrade economic structure under the “new normal” conditions.
Subsequent to this, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) incorporates the “new normal” in economic development with a particular vision of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020. The key significant features of China’s “new normal” are:
Slower economic growth
One of the key reforms or significant changes on China’s medium-high economic growth rather fast growth over the past few years is exceedingly evident. To be mentioned, over the past 40 years, China has maintained an average annual growth rate of around 9.5 percent that transformed an impoverished nation to an upper-middle-income nation.
In contrast, the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate lowered from 7.5 percent in 2012-2014 to 6.8 percent in 2017. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the GDP growth rate was relatively same, 6.6 percent, in 2018, with an expected target of around 6.5 percent at the same time.
For the purpose of economic restructure and high-quality development, China’s local governments have also lowered their GDP growth targets in the same year. The new trend of normal flow of growth is projected to be relatively same in the upcoming years.
Yiping Huang, Professor of economics at the National School of Development, Peking University, and an adjunct professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, refers to such transformation of China’s growth model as the transition from “economic miracle” to “normal development,” which is the partial departure from the traditional bottom-up approach.
The World Bank also mentions that, China’s economic slowdown is not unexpected, rather desirable from both from short and medium-term perspectives aiming at fostering China’s transition to a modern economy through the new model. This transition denotes a clear move from high speed growth to slower, steadier, and more sustainable economy.
One of the significant aspects of China’s “new normal” economic model is to facilitate market for playing “decisive role” in allocating economic resources. The “new normal” endeavors for making interest rates, currency exchange rates, and land prices more market-oriented. Incremental steps have already been taken towards the liberalization of interest rate and exchange rate set by market forces, cutting taxes, and reducing costs in order to widen market access, stimulate market vitality, and support economy.
The improvement of market environment, enhancement of private investment and investment-led growth, establishment of comprehensive pilot zones, facilitation of interest rate controls on loans, proactive fiscal policy, prudent monetary policy, and the increase of effective supply among other significant measures have also been outlined in the report on the Work of the Government delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the Second Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress on March 05, 2014.
President Xi first announced the phrase “supply-side structural reform (SSSR)” in late 2015, which injects new impetus into China’s economic policy framework. The SSSR mainly focuses on reducing distortions in the supply side of the economy and upgrading the industrial sector.
A study on China’s SSSR conducted by Reserve Bank of Australia finds five core policy objectives of China’s supply supply-side reform–cutting excess industrial capacity; reducing leverage in the corporate sector; de-stocking of property inventories; lowering costs for businesses and addressing “weak links” in the economy.
In this regard, China has focused on overcapacity reduction, especially in coal and steel production. As for example, more than 65 million metric tons of steelmaking capacity and over 290 million tons of coal-production capacity were eliminated in 2018.
Moreover, the government has already reduced tax to foster business friendly environment. President Xi has underscored the necessity of strengthening areas of weakness to boost the supply of the public goods and services.
Innovation driven economy, the vital part of SSSR, attempts to enhance the quality of products, reduce ineffective and lower-end supply through the advancement of artificial intelligence, big data, and the inauguration of 5G mobile communication equipment etc.
As per the push for services-driven economy, the socio-economic issues for the improved people’s wellbeing have also been addressed in the “new normal”. President Xi Jinping remarks, “Comprehensively deepening reform will not only liberate the productive force but also unleash the vitality of the society.”
The 13th FYP highlights the development of services and measures to address environmental challenges in order to reduce pollution and amplify energy efficiency. During the 2014 Beijing APEC meetings, temporary shutdown of Chinese factories was given “priority of priorities” to curb pollution and ensure air quality. As per the policy, China has started accelerating the development of clean energy industry from 2018.
The green development aside, robust consumption, reducing social imbalances, improving education and healthcare facilities, and expanding social protection get equal priority in the new phase of economic development.
Opening up through Connectivity
The new phase of Chinese economic growth is based on political economy that anticipates trans-border trade and investment facilitation as well as border connectivity through greater integration and sustainable relations among nations. China’s stretching connectivity over Asia, Africa, and Europe through the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, altogether known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is extending influence from South China Sea to Indian Ocean. RMB internalization and China’s leading role from multilateral trade forums to climate change accords clearly signify the “new normal” policy of President Xi Jinping.
Implications on China’s socio-economic development
The “new normal” economic model has far-reaching impacts on China’s comprehensive development and path towards building a moderately prosperous society.
First, China’s has comfortably been maintaining its position as the world’s second largest economy. National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reports, despite the slowdown of GDP growth rate, China contributed more than 30 percent to world economic growth during 2017. Hence, the investment-led growth since 2012 has resulted huge benefits for Chinese businesses and the overall economy.
Second, Chinese people are getting relief from the side effects of old model, mentioned earlier. The country has been witnessing growing equality among people, comparatively equal income distribution, robust consumption, environment-friendly industrialization, quality products, and other developments in other socio-economic sectors.
Third, Qualitative than quantitative aspects of economic growth, balanced and sustainable growth, stable employment, innovation, green development, investment intensification, faster industrial upgrading, and opening up are leading to China’s dream towards a sustainable socio-economic development. For example, the number of Chinese enterprises, around 27 million, and market entities have been increased in China over the past few years under both market and supply-side structural reforms. These new business hubs are boosting the country’s structural transformation and economy.
Finally, China’s new phase of economic growth and new historic juncture reiterate China’s development as per the vision broadly prescribed in Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.
The Slippery Slope of Sino-US Trade War
Change is the only constant. After a struggle for supremacy in geopolitical and geo-economical spheres, now technological realms have also been contested among superpowers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is at the verge of breaking out and it is expected that this stage of modernization will tug the very fabric of society and will alter the way individuals interact with each other and world at large. Ongoing industrial innovation will act as a modus operandi to transform global economies, communities, and politics.
The world is in stern need of a modern global architecture before the fourth industrial revolution starts encroaching on us. That is why a trade tussle emerged on statist lines among all major economic stakeholders of the international economy, especially among those having a larger share in business with the United States. The US President Donald Trump opted a pre-emptive approach and imposed tariffs and nuisance in global economies. Eminent journalist, Bob Woodward highlighted the fact in his book ‘FEAR’ that USA’s protectionist elements are far-greater than ever before and such actions will hinder economic peace with traditional allies or trade partners. Trump’s tariff imposition on China and renegotiation of NAFTA and Free Trade Agreements with EU leaves no doubt about Woodward’s projections. Another famous Nico Colchester prize-winner financial journalist, James Politi of Financial Times referred exchange of tariff brawls between USA and China as “protectionist firepower” by Trump administration aiming against China. To cut short, current trade tariff discourse is in order to contain China in geopolitical, economic and technological leadership.
An ongoing trade war is economic intimidation and coercion by the USA towards China to redevise their trade agreements and get more favorable terms for the country, which will also advance Trump’s populist mantra of America First. Trade tariffs were imposed as a consequence for not responding the sheer allegations on Chinese companies by US administration of unprecedented level of larceny and infringement upon intellectual property rights. US Politicians claim that industrial migration and capital flight from the US to China was the reason of unemployment in the USA, but economists condemned the long-term policies like reliance on imports and not saving much for the future.
China’s rise is perceived as a threat to hegemonic stability, thus an influx of uncertainty is stirring in the realm of international political economies. This rise is analogous to the Thucydides trap and also depict similar characteristics as of power transition theory. But the fault line of this predicament lies in the technological advancement of China by virtue of US private enterprises and regional economic connectivity ventures of the country. In short, it is a feud between the two leading economic powers to overhaul world trading practice (its terms and conditions) coupling with technology and knowledge-based economy with an intent to hedge and wedge each other being the contenders of global hegemony.
Both economic powers, China and USA have been in a state of economic tug of war since June 2018. To resolve his sticky situation, Trump administration imposed 25 percent import tax on $50 billion worth of products of Chinese origin in order to overcome the trade deficit between both economic giants. China countered this move by levying duties on the produce of USA and more than three rounds of tariffs worth $250 billion were exchanged among both parties, in addition, both parties threatened with each other with penalties of $267 billion. However, both countries had annual trade relations of $710.4 billion in 2017 and China is ranked as the third largest export market for the USA.
The Chinese government was alleged for backing their private companies by injecting billions of dollars every year and termed as state-owned private enterprises by several journalists and newspapers. In addition, Chinese companies were suspected to violate patent rights especially the ones related to modern technology and Chinese authorities for restricting foreign companies to access their markets freely. China also announced its strategy named ‘Made in China 2025’ which implies that majority of end-user products will be developed by China in near-term while it is also a challenging situation for the USA for being a techno-center of the world. Vision 2025 asserts that China will be a front-runner in modern technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology in the respective year .
While campaigning for elections, Republican President of USA, Donald Trump also proclaimed that Chinese development is equivalent to ‘rape’ and his administration will levy 45 percent tariffs on total imports from China. Formerly China had been under tariff regime of USA on products worth of $50 billion annually and President-Elect also threatened Chinese government to take a radical stance and impose further 25 percent taxes on January 1st, 2019 on products worth $200 billion. Chinese government retaliated this move by imposing tariffs worth $60 billion despite economic coercion from the US government of striking further duties on all products of Chinese origin.
Joseph Stiglitz, an eminent scholar, and Nobel laureate explained stated that:
“The United States has a problem, but it’s not with China. Predicament lies in America because they saved too little, and borrowed and imported too much“.
USA and China are heading towards a war which no one wants at this point in time.In this modern era, the US and China must see ahead of time and resolve their bilateral relations which is a cause of disturbance in the international economic order. To do so there is a need to establish new norms of trading and economics which incorporate prevalent treaties and meet the requirement of the 21st century. To serve the purpose rules should be developed to cater the technology related matters in international trading practices.
Current global situation of power transition and hegemon desiring stability depict the same case as of Thucydides trap which is an outcome of structural pressures spiraling from an emerging power challenge the ruling one. Although this theory is ancient but very relevant to the on-going trade-brawls of China and USA, a case where the leadership of both countries sings hymns of making their country great again. This conflict has no resolution other than either party accepts the dominance of other whereas in this case China is not going to cap and roll their economic endeavors, and the US will also not concur to Chinese supremacy in Pacific, cyberspace and external space. There are certain stern measures which competing economies will have to take in order or else it could be an all-out war.
Heartland Reunion: Geopolitical Chimera or Historical Chance?
Anyone who has at least some idea about the theory of international relations should remember the oft-quoted formula put forward by the father of British geopolitics, Halford Mackinder: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” For those who are sceptical about geopolitical constructs and terminology, this logical chain may seem like a meaningless shamanic incantation. Over the course of a century, “Mackinder’s formula” was repeatedly criticized, corrected, repudiated, anathematized, parodied and ridiculed. And yet, strange as it may seem, not only has this formula survived an entire century, but it is also perhaps more relevant today than it was a hundred years ago.
Of course, the question hinges on how we understand the concept of Heartland. Mackinder interpreted it as the geographical centre of Eurasia, or, more precisely, as the massive central and north-eastern part of the Asian continent, which on the whole coincided with the Asian areas ruled by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Today, it seems obvious that the “Eurasian core” must be sought south of the harsh, poorly developed and scarcely populated Siberian plains and barren deserts of Central Asia. Just like in the days of Mackinder, Siberia and Central Asia remain repositories of raw materials and energy resources. Just like before, these lands may be considered the “great natural fortress” of the land peoples, adjusted for the new arsenal of means of projecting military power that appeared in the 20th century. However, these lands did not become a true “axis of history”: contrary to Mackinder’s prophecies, their transport infrastructure remained incomplete and disconnected, while their role in the development of the Eurasian continent over the past 100 years has shrunk rather than grown.
At the risk of incurring the righteous indignation of the current geopolitical orthodox, let us postulate that the Eurasian Heartland of the 21st century is actually what Mackinder saw as the “inner crescent.” Primarily China and India, in relation to which the rest of the Eurasian massif – Russia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and even the extended European peninsula of the Asian mainland – act as continental limitrophe states. Despite the undeniable significance of these border states to European history, politics, economics and security, the fate of Europe depends primarily on how relations in the new Heartland (that is, between China and India) unfold. And the future of the whole world to a great degree depends on the fate of Eurasia. This is one of Mackinder’s main points, and it is by no means outdated.
The Prerequisites for Consolidation
It would seem that there are no fundamental obstacles to the consolidation of the Heartland: the interests of Beijing and New Delhi coincide on most major international issues. China and India have much in common. Both countries are, in their own way, historically stable and internally cohesive alternatives to Atlantic civilization. China and India are, along with the Arabic East (and to a lesser extent Tropical Africa south of the Sahara), the two most important points of the crystallization of “non-western” ideals. The fact that China and India are growing stronger is the most significant indicator that the “western” stage in the development of the system of international relations has drawn to a close.
As powerful drivers of economic growth both in Eurasia and around the world, both China and India are currently experiencing a stage of long-term economic, cultural and civilizational upheaval. Neither has fully overcome the deep trauma of national consciousness caused by their status as outsiders in global politics in the 19th and 20th century, and this trauma continues to have an impact on the historical narratives that dominate China and India and the foreign policy ambitions that emanate from these narratives. Beijing and New Delhi are “revisionist” players on the global stage in the sense that both China and India are interested in revising the old rules of the game that serve the interests of the “collective West.” China is leading a broad economic and financial offensive – from Central Europe to Latin America. India, lagging behind China in terms of foreign economic expansion, is focusing instead on closing the political gap by laying claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The two countries are exposed to all the standard “growing pains” – the negative side effects of rapid economic and social growth. Both China and India suffer from severe environmental problems, a shortage of natural resources, growing social inequality and widespread corruption. In addition to this, there are pockets of separatism and terrorism in both countries. China and India are also witnessing a conflict between modernization and traditionalist forces. The concept of “national sovereignty” is paramount in both states, and any attempt to interfere in their domestic affairs is met with hostility. People in both countries question the stability of the current model of socioeconomic development, and many fear or predict inevitable crises and upheavals in the future.
Historically, relations between India and China have always been less conflict-ridden than, say, the relations between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the west of the Eurasian continent. In a sense, it is fair to speak not only of the economic, cultural and spiritual compatibility of these two ancient civilizations, but also of the fact that these aspects have penetrated the other country and even complement one another. There are numerous examples of this – from the epic history of the Great Silk Road to the equally impressive chronicle of how Buddhism spread across Eastern Asia. In essence, the consolidation of a China–India Heartland would not mean the creation of something fundamentally new, but simply the natural reunification of a torn Eurasia, the restoration of a recently lost continental unity.
Hence, there are objective prerequisites for the consolidation of a new Heartland. It is worth adding here that, while recognizing all the difficulties and tactical losses, such a consolidation would serve the long-term interests of both countries. The implementation of the joint China–India project would contribute to the stabilization of the geopolitical situation in the entire Eurasian space and open up fundamentally new opportunities for transcontinental cooperation in various fields.
It would not be out of place to draw a parallel with post-War Western Europe here, when the reconciliation between France and Germany led to the launch of European integration processes. In turn, it was ultimately France and Germany that benefitted most from this process: the political will and the willingness to compromise demonstrated by the leaders in Paris and Bonn paid off time after time in the following decades.
The numerous benefits of consolidating the Eurasian heartland are too obvious to not be a subject of contemplation on both sides of the Himalayas. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi have, for at least the past six decades, developed more along the lines of a rivalry than cooperation – and this rivalry has on more than one occasion turned into direct confrontation. Why is this the case? Could it be the subjective mistakes of the leadership? Personal ambitions of leadership? The underhand practices of internal forces? The tragic accidents of history? Or perhaps there are some objective “ force majeure circumstances” that stand in the way of a new Heartland coming together?
The Dimensions of the Eurasian Schism
Let us start with what everyone already knows – the two countries represent very different types of government. The differences between China and India today are greater than those between France and Germany 50 years ago. While China is much farther away from Europe than India, it is, on the whole, considerably closer in terms of being a nation state in the European mould. Despite the fact that there are a significant number of national minorities in China and substantial regional differences, ethnic Chinese (Han Chinese) are a single people and make up more than 90 per cent of the country’s population. Of the 34 Chinese provinces, including the autonomous regions and cities of central subordination, only Taiwan falls outside the vertical power system of governance, for obvious reasons.
India does not have a dominant national people. In terms of its ethnocultural and linguistic diversity, the Indian subcontinent does not resemble a separate European state or China, but rather the European Union as a whole. And in terms of religious diversity, the multi-structural nature of the economy and the regional disparities, India goes way beyond the whole of Europe put together. India is made up of 29 states and seven union territories, which exist in a state of complex political interaction. India is essentially a grandiose integration project in South Asia that is primarily turned inwards rather than outwards. If we stretch the analogies somewhat further, we can say that, as a single state, China has the same problems in its dialogue with the eclectic and insulated India that centralized Russia has in its interactions with the amorphous and insulated European Union.
Evidently, the historical trajectories of the two countries have also diverged greatly, especially over the past 250 years. India was a British colony, and the nearly 200 years of British rule left an indelible imprint not only on the country’s political system, but also on its culture. China, on the other hand, has never been colonized by a foreign country. While British democracy was a “system-forming” factor for independent India, communist China regarded the Soviet Union of the 1950s as a model to be emulated. Despite the fact that both countries have moved far from their original models of the mid-20th century, there are no grounds to suggest that their political or economic systems have drawn any closer.
In theory, the China–India partnership could even benefit from the fact that their political systems are so different: China would assume the main role in its interaction with various authoritarian regimes, while India would take the lead when it comes to developing ties with western liberal-democratic regimes. In practice, however, the dissimilarity of the systems hinders cooperation and, more importantly, mutual understanding. In is noteworthy that Beijing has found it far easier to establish relations with Moscow in the 21st century than with New Delhi, although the history of China–Russia relations is far more dramatic and controversial than the history of China–India relations.
Since China and India are the two largest countries in continental Asia, competition for natural resources, foreign markets, control of transport corridors and influence over common neighbours is inevitable. The close proximity of the two major powers gives rise to border disputes: the countries share 4000 km border, and the problem right now is not even about resolving territorial disputes, but merely about preserving the territorial status quo and preventing an escalation. The sides feel tempted to support various instruments of influence in each other’s territories. What is more, the question of what best meets the development needs of other Asian countries – Chinese socialism or Indian democracy – remains open.
Trade between China and India is growing at a rapid pace; however, both India and China are more focused on global markets than they are on each other. And for decades they have been purchasing the main resources needed for modernization – investments and modern technologies – from the West, often competing directly with each other for them. Bilateral trade remains asymmetrical, with Chinese exports to India far outweighing its imports from that country. Moreover, Chinese economic activity in India is far from always seen by the latter in an exclusively positive light.
A stable balance of powers between China and India in Asia is hindered by the fact that, right now, China is stronger than India both economically and militarily, and this asymmetry is likely to persist for the foreseeable future. A consolidated Eurasian Heartland would be less of an equal partnership than that of France and Germany in the second half of the 20th century.
India is still dogged by painful memories of the 1962 Sino–Indian Border Conflict. The model of Asia and a “closed” system is thus advantageous for Beijing, with China’s dominance in this system being in no doubt. For the same reason, New Delhi is interested in an “open” Asia, in which the asymmetry in the balance of powers between China and India could be compensated by introducing external players (who are, of course, on India’s side) into the mix.
The Interests of External Players
The interests of the United States in Asia are obvious and depend very little on the change of administration in the White House, although Donald Trump’s team has articulated these interests more clearly and more gruffly than its predecessors. Washington cannot but fear the consolidation of the European Heartland and will therefore continue to capitalize on the deepening contradictions in China–India relations. Naturally, it is trying to manage this process somehow without steering it towards a large-scale military conflict with unpredictable consequences.
Today we are witnessing an attempt by the United States to replicate the successful approaches of Henry Kissinger taken in the 1970s and to build a Eurasian geopolitical triangle. The difference is that the USSR is replaced by China, and China is replaced by India. This explains the increased attention of the United States to New Delhi and the persistent attempts to involve India in multilateral groupings that include allies of the United States that are located on the island periphery of the Eurasian continent, namely Japan and Australia (the concept of a “democratic Indo-Pacific”). If Washington had succeeded in achieving the sustainable institutionalization of these groupings in the form of a military-technical alliance similar to NATO, this would have created long-term guaranteed preventing the consolidation of the Heartland. However, at this juncture, any format of allied relations with Washington is politically unacceptable for the Indian elite, which is pushing for the preservation of the country’s strategic independence. What is more, India cannot sacrifice its continental Eurasian partners (primarily Moscow and Tehran) – not even for the sake of friendship with Washington.
The European Union is less interested in the preservation, much less the exacerbation, of the confrontation between China and India. Of course, the consolidation of the Heartland would present a serious challenge for Europe too, but one that is more to do with economics than geopolitics. The formation of a single Eurasian economic space would undoubtedly speed up the displacement of Europe as the economic centre of activity in Eurasia to Asia and reduce the role of the European Union in the Eurasian and global economies. On the other hand, China and India are two of the most promising foreign markets for the European Union, and the further development of these markets in line with the strategic interests of Brussels.
As far as the European Union is concerned, the main question is: On what basis can the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland take place? Of course, Brussels would like to see Eurasian consolidation based on European standards, in compliance with European procedures and in line with European standards. The worst option for Brussels would be the gradual “economic absorption” of India by China and the implementation of the Eurasian integration process based on something that is entirely different from the European vision (for example, on the implementation of the One Road, One Belt initiative).
Russia’s interests in the various development scenarios for China–India relations are the subject of heated debates within the country’s expert community. On the one hand, it is often argued that maintaining tension in relations between Beijing and New Delhi makes Moscow a more valuable partner for both sides. Right now, Russia’s relations with China and India are better than those between China and India, meaning that it occupies the most advantageous position in this triangle. Based on this logic, we can assume that the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland around the China–India axis would entail a further shift in the Eurasian centre of gravity towards the south of Russia’s borders. This would marginalize Russia even further as a participant in the Eurasian community.
On the other hand, it is safe to predict that attempts to capitalize on the contradictions between China and India will inevitably raise suspicions both in Beijing and in New Delhi, cause them to doubt the sincerity of Russia’s actions, etc. It is easy to imagine a situation in which Moscow will be unable to maintain its neutral position and be forced to choose between its two most important partners in Asia, and whatever choice it makes will inevitably entail major losses. Let us not forget that the escalation of the confrontation between China and India – a factor that stands in the way of the consolidation of the Heartland – would leave the door wide open for the United States, which is not likely to be among Moscow’s friends any time soon. Moreover, such an escalation is fraught with the risk of a major military conflict breaking out on the continent, and this would inevitably affect Russia’s security. To summarize the advantages and disadvantages of consolidation for Russia, the only reasonable conclusion is that the expected benefits of a consolidated Heartland clearly outweigh the potential costs.
Let us make it clear right away – whatever Russia’s role in the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland, it will by no means be decisive. China–India relations have their own internal logic and their own dynamics that no external player (be it the United States, the European Union or Russia) can change. It would appear that, as the stronger party in these bilateral relations, China should go the extra mile to reduce suspicion and gain New Delhi’s trust. We could argue about what steps need to be taken and in what order, but this, strictly speaking, is not an issue for Russian foreign policy. However, this does not mean that Russia does not have a role in this most important issue.
On December 1, 2018, an attempt was made on the side-lines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires to step up the activities of the mechanism of tripartite cooperation between Russia, China and India (the RIC countries) and resume the practice of regular high-level meetings after a 12-year hiatus. According to Vladimir Putin, these meetings should focus on various aspects of security and the fight against protectionism and politically motivated restrictions in international trade. Developing these ideas, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi identified four possible areas for cooperation: regional and global stability, economic prosperity, the exchange of experience in areas of mutual interest, and cooperation on how to respond to emerging challenges. Similar thoughts were expressed by the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, who stressed the special responsibilities of the three powers to support regional and global stability.
In recent years, the RIC format has remained in the shadow of the more representative five-party cooperation structure that includes Brazil and South Africa (together, the five countries make up the BRICS association). Without belittling the significance of the latter two countries, it is worth noting that the geographical expansion of RIC into BRICS entailed certain institutional costs: the two non-Eurasian countries had their own tasks and priorities that differed from the agenda of the original Eurasian members. The fact that the last presidential election was won by Jair Balsonara, a far-right congressman, the so-called “Donald Trump of Brazil” raises a number of questions about the future of the five-party structure. In any case, it would surely be a grave miscalculation for Russian policy to “dissolve” RIC into BRICS completely.
In all likelihood, in the near future, tripartite summits will be held on the side-lines of larger multilateral events (G20 summits, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asia–Europe Meeting, etc.). However, if everything is limited to brief and infrequent interactions between leaders, statements of coinciding positions or even the signing of general political declarations, then this will do little in terms of the consolidation of the Heartland. It is necessary to articulate, in a frank manner, the existing differences with regard to the most serious problems facing Eurasia. The leaders of the three countries should focus on the problems that are standing in the way of consolidation of the Eurasian space.
At the same time, considering the fact that these trilateral meetings are inevitably short, the issues raised should be studied thoroughly beforehand by experts and the relevant ministries in the track 1.5 and track 2 formats and with a view to developing specific “road maps.” It is precisely the specifics that have traditionally been lacking in joint statements adopted at the end of the annual meetings of RIC foreign ministers. Another urgent task that could help solve the problem of trust between the Chinese and Indian militaries is the creation of a permanent tripartite mechanism for military consultations and the holding of regular military exercises.
A practical political trialogue could begin with an open discussion of such issues as the future of Syria and Afghanistan, which are of great importance for all three participants. Equally significant are the development of individual functional dimensions of the Eurasian Heartland – joint initiatives in the fight against terrorism, managing migration flows, food and energy security, issues of international information exchange and the development of artificial intelligence. It is from the widest possible set of such functional regimes, not from old or new rigid institutional blocs, that the new Eurasian Heartland should be built.
India and China are Arctic Council observer states. As one of the leading members of this organization, Russia could suggest to its partners that they discuss Arctic issues together so that none of them could have any suspicions about Moscow possibly harbouring a position on these issues that could be considered “pro-China” or “pro-India.”
And, of course, more active trilateral interaction on issues that go beyond the geographical boundaries of the Eurasian continent would serve as a powerful incentive for the consolidation of the Heartland. The future of multilateral arms control. The reform of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and other global organizations. The development of international public law in the 21st century. Climate change and environmental issues. The management of technological progress. If Russia, China and India develop a united position on these and many other issues, it will carry far greater weight on the international arena than the individual opinions of each of these countries.
Ultimately, the Eurasian Heartland of the 21st century is not just a geopolitical, or a geo-economic concept. It represents, to a certain extent, common or similar views of leading Eurasian states on the future of the world order and a strategy for restoring manageability to a world that is coming apart at the seams. It is a joint sense of global stability and a common readiness to look beyond the narrow horizons of immediate national interests. It is only in the presence of such a community that the new Heartland can become the “axis of history” the illustrious father of British geopolitics and member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom Halford Mackinder wrote about, albeit in an entirely different context and according to a completely different logic.
First published in our partner RIAC
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