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Roadblocks in the Way of Eurasian Integration
When the West took a head start in the globalization race, the East had been lagging far behind. Nevertheless, the scales have visibly tilted over the past decade. Eurasian discourse has found prominence in the political and academic mainstream, signifying a curious combination of Europe and Asia spanning from the British Isles in the west to the Japanese archipelago in the east. The idea of Eurasian integration simply implies that it is finally time for the East to claim its share in the globalization project. Stumbling steps towards Eurasian integration started to be taken back in the 1990s, with the formation of Shanghai Five in 1996 up till its transformation into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001.
At present, the institutional arrangement elevating the idea of Eurasian integration is characterized by such initiatives as the SCO, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Greater Eurasian Partnership. Although China and Russia, both key states spearheading the idea of Eurasian integration, seem hell-bent upon revitalizing Eastern connectivity mechanisms, there are certain roadblocks that hinder the comprehensive attainment of their objectives.
First and foremost, there is a structural impediment in the sense that Eurasia lacks coherence among all these initiatives, along with an absence of a central mechanism. Although a symbol of diversity, sometimes this structural arrangement reeks of division among the regional countries. SCO is the only Eurasian body so far which can proudly claim to be most representative, having member states from South Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia. The membership of the Eurasian Economic Union is only limited to former Soviet states. Whether the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative would complement or contradict each other is still not clear. Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to address this structural intricacy when he proposed the Greater Eurasian Partnership in 2016 at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Russia and China are in talks to achieve an integrated setup under the Greater Eurasian Partnership, but no breakthrough has been achieved so far.
Apart from that, the simmering Afghan issue is acting as a dagger in the heart of the East’s global resurgence agenda. With the U.S. pulling out of Kabul and leaving behind a mess, regional states are exploring all strategic avenues to offset the prospect of civil war and bring some semblance of stability to Afghanistan. As history stands witness, it is in the countries plagued by social disorganization and socio-political turmoil that terrorist outlets find their refuge and breathing space. Spillover of terrorism across borders is beginning to manifest itself in Pakistan in the form of deadly terrorist attacks, most of which are being perceived to be targeted against CPEC and the associated personnel.
Moreover, there are credible indications that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has beefed up its operations across the Wakhan border, with China’s Xinjiang province facing the heat from this terrorist resurgence. Tajikistan is one of the most vulnerable Central Asian states in terms of fragile governance structure which has faced an onslaught of civil war in the past. Vladimir Frolov, a former senior Russian diplomat, in his discussion with Reuters has raised alarms regarding the specter of civil war in Tajikistan due to the spillover effect from Afghanistan. Any security deterioration in Central Asia is a big headache for Russia which regards the region as its southern defensive flank and its sphere of influence.
In addition, it goes without saying that the Belt and Road Initiative can not realize its full potential without peace and stability in Afghanistan. Central and South Asian connectivity is hard to achieve if Afghanistan keeps sinking under the weight of unbridled chaos. In essence, regional states are now compelled to divert their attention away from geoeconomics and instead focus primarily on the plethora of geostrategic dimensions arising out of Afghanistan. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group has been working under the shadow of U.S. presence since 2005, but now it has a chance to make its presence felt by acting as the top broker of peace in Afghanistan. A meeting of foreign ministers, under the format of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact group, was held on 14th July. If the SCO is able to solve the Afghan riddle timely and wisely, it would surely establish its credentials as the most significant security bloc in the world. Needless to say, resolution of the Afghan issue would remove one of the biggest hurdles in the way of Eurasian integration.
Similarly, the continuation of the U.S.-China global showdown would make it difficult to turn Eurasian integration into a solid reality. The U.S. still perceives global politics through the lens of a zero-sum game, which makes the conflict a real possibility at all times. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World initiative is, in a way, a strategic move in the guise of an economic initiative to steer Europe away from the larger Eurasian integration process. Except for those states siding visibly with the United States, some European states still prefer to take an independent foreign policy stance. For example, Germany and Italy do not perceive China as an adversary and the latter has already embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the same lines, the modern show of realpolitik between the U.S. and China across the Indo-Pacific would make it harder for both Russia and China to go ahead with their Eurasian integration agenda.
Apart from that, what doesn’t get its fair share of analytical study in Eurasian matters is the Kashmir dispute vis-à-vis the SCO. If the security environment of South Asia is going to be defined by Pak-India animosity in times to come, as has been happening for decades, the region cannot achieve connectivity and socio-economic growth in the true sense, hence, acting as an impediment in the way of overall Eurasian integration. Although Pakistan and India are full-time members of the SCO, New Delhi’s strategic proximity with the United States makes it harder for regional states to come on the same page vis-à-vis regional issues.
This deprives the SCO of its power to settle regional issues because the member states don’t see eye to eye in international relations. America’s strategic attempt to drive a wedge between India and other regional states, in its overall Asia-Pacific strategy, is also an indirect assault on the collective strength of the SCO. Given the two countries’ history of amicable relations, Russia can play its diplomatic cards well by building a well-defined relationship with New Delhi that is compatible with the goals of Eurasian integration.
Having said all that, there is no doubt in the fact that Russia and China attach utmost importance to the idea of Eurasian integration; and both have exhibited the capability and political will to turn this into a tangible reality. However, geoeconomics always goes hand in hand with geopolitics, with geopolitics sometimes becoming a burden upon the gains to be achieved through geoeconomics. If China and Russia, along with regional countries, are able to deal with regional issues through political wisdom, they can establish a balance between their geostrategic and geoeconomic paradigms and eventually attain the long-sought goal of Eurasian integration in letter and spirit. It is only after the significant completion of the Eurasian integration process that the global order can possibly have a fundamental reshuffle.
Shah Muhammad is a member of the Future Leaders Connect Programme, British Council. He is doing his postgrad degree in Peace and Conflict Studies at NUST University, Islamabad. His focus is primarily on conflict resolution, global governance, and public policy.