THE EURASIAN SUPERCONTINENT REVISITED ONE YEAR LATER
The Dawning of a New Era
Europe and China stand half a world apart. They represent the core of contrasting civilizations, yet they share a common landmass – the Eurasian Supercontinent - the world’s largest and most central continent. The two most populist nations, China and India are located in Eurasia as are four of the world’s five largest economies – China, Japan, Germany, and India. Russia, which occupies by far the greatest landmass of any nation on earth straddles Eurasia from West to East. China is encircled by 14 neighbouring states and beyond these neighbours lies the European Union.[i]
Connectivity has been the catalyst for an explosively growing continent. China lies at the economic heart of Eurasia and, with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has moved to consolidate Eurasia. The BRI, unveiled in 2013 entails a vast infrastructure development of ports, superhighways, high-speed railways, airports, and pipelines, linking China, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe, as well as other countries and continents. An interactive Eurasian continent has emerged together with the birth of new institutions, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). In 2011, Putin announced the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union, serving as a bridge between Europe and the Asia-Pacific Region.[ii]
The BRI brings a global transformation reordering the Washington-centric world. This represents a quantum leap towards the dawning of a new, more multipolar era. 152 nations, including 18 from Europe have signed MOUs to participate in the BRI.[iii] Russia-China relations have deepened, including their defence cooperation. In 2014, they signed a $400 billion 30-year energy deal.
The Bosporus Strait in Istanbul divides Turkey – partly in Europe and partly in Asia. However, negotiations for the accession of Turkey into the European Union have stalled since 2016. Nevertheless, Turkey is and has been a member of NATO since 1952 and is the only NATO member located in both Europe and Asia.
A declining US has put the Euro-Asian convergence, front and centre. The IMF has projected that China’s contribution to global growth will exceed 28% by 2024 while the contribution of the US will fall to 9.2%. The growth in overland trade with China has been facilitated by the launch of more than 50 new freight rail lines linking a dozen Asian countries with a dozen major European cities. Germany has thriving relations with China. Other Asian nations and China have replaced the US as Germany’s top trading partner.[iv] Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline running from Russia to Europe across the Baltic Sea will supply much needed natural gas to Germany and the EU. The EU and China are deepening their economic ties, with both sides seeking to ratify an investment deal that would give European companies better access to the Chinese market.[v]
Xinjiang in the north-western corner of China occupies an area four times the size of California. Its Muslim population has long been seen by China as an incubator of anti-state terrorism. However, the entire infrastructure of Xinjiang is being transformed with high-speed railway lines, six lane expressways and massive airports. Kashgar, located in the far north-west of Xinjiang (close to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) is being positioned as the transport hub for Central Asia and plays an increasingly important role in maintaining stability in China’s west. The BRI has supported Xinjiang becoming the economic powerhouse of Central Asia. China hopes that this will produce wealth and promote political stability amongst its ethnic Muslim population.[vi]
South China Sea
Former US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel described the South China Sea as the “beating heart of the Asia-Pacific and a crossroads of the global economy.” Protecting this water is an issue of national security for China. In 2018, US Admiral Davidson concluded that China was capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with US, and even then, there was no guarantee that the US would win a future conflict with China.[vii] Since then, China’s naval power has grown at an astonishing pace. According to a US 2020 Department of Defence report, the PRC has the largest navy in the world, surpassing the US Navy – and still growing.[viii]
Parag Khanna has proposed a “technocratic peace” by which concerned governments might negotiate a peaceful outcome of the contest in the South China Sea. He suggests that participating nations acknowledge China’s sovereignty on those islands already taken by China (which China will not give up), but on the basis that China relinquishes claims to any other islands in the region. Participating Asian nations would achieve a peaceful “win-win” solution enabling all to share in the resources in the South China Sea, bringing peace amongst the Asian participants without ongoing intervention by Western powers such as the Quad.[ix]
The US Contest with China
Consideration of the US-China contest is indispensable in any consideration of the Eurasian continent. With Washington’s persistent view that it must remain the dominant power in the Pacific, Australia’s Hugh White considers that the US is in danger of making a tragic error, imposing huge economic costs and a real risk of a catastrophic war. China’s increasing power is a given and it will not compromise on its regional ambitions. This could culminate in war, or a humiliating climbdown by US, while Australia risks becoming an isolated Western outpost.[x]
In a prescient observation, Parag Khanna wrote in 2019[xi] that any blockade of Australia’s exports to China, or diversion of Chinese visitors from Australia would create an economic Armageddon for Australia. Most of Australia’s 9 million annual tourists come from East Asia, and nearly 100,000 Chinese students are enrolled in schools across Australia, making education the country’s third largest export. This Armageddon has come to pass in 2020 in response to Australia acting, largely at the behest of US, blatantly targeting and angering China. However, Australia’s Prime Minister Morrison appears unrepented and seems willing to allow the nation to wear the multi-billion-dollar economic consequences.
China sees the presence of the US in the Asia-Pacific as a historical anomaly leading China to substantially increase its maritime force in the South China Sea. It is notable that China’s last foreign military intervention was a brief border war in Vietnam in 1979 which lasted three weeks. Its last major conflict, the Korean War ended almost 70 years ago, and it has since enjoyed 40 years of peace and unparalleled prosperity. China is not going to war unless the US overreacts or pushes Beijing to intolerable limits.[xii]
A Shared Future
Along the Silk Roads (the land component of the BRI) there is a sense of nations working together, building a shared future. A combined population of around 4.5 billion live along the New Silk Roads, accounting for more than 63% of the world’s population. The story is one of consolidation and collaboration. We are living in the Asian Century with the economic centre of gravity moving from West to East. According to 2017 World Bank and OECD data, not one of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies is located in the western hemisphere. In 2018, Germany’s Foreign Minister remarked that China seemed to be the only country with any sort of genuinely global, geostrategic concept and that the West had no coherent idea, no plans, no response and seemingly no ideas.
Although there are clear differences between the Chinese system of government, and those of Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, there is one important feature which they share. This is their belief in strong government institutions, run by the best and the brightest. The emphasis on meritocracy has deep roots in Confucian culture.[xiii]
Disparate political ideologies prevail throughout Eurasia. While Europe is a critical component, membership of the EU requires adherence to democratic principles and a rejection of authoritarianism. Russia, as an authoritarian managed democracy does not satisfy this criterion. China is a one-party state and India, although a democracy, is increasingly authoritarian as is Turkey (a continuing obstacle to its membership of EU).
Can Eurasia actually cohere with so many differing political systems and ideologies? In 2013, President Xi Jinping talked of people of different races, beliefs, and cultural backgrounds being fully capable of sharing peace and development. In 2017, he spoke of boosting mutual understanding and building a new era of harmony and trade, forging partnerships of dialogue without confrontation, and a community having a shared future for mankind. He talked of joining hands and rising to challenges, boosting confidence, taking action, and marching arm in arm towards a bright future. China talks of mutual benefits, enhancing cooperation, and using incentives, and its progress demonstrates that the Western model is not the only one. Perhaps “The triumph of liberal democracy is on hold, if not over.”[xiv] It was Vladimir Putin who remarked at the 2019 G20 Conference in Japan that liberalism was “obsolete’, and that the ideology which had underpinned Western democracies had “outlived its purpose.” That may be an overstatement, but it does underscore the proposition that the Western model is not the only possible way.
Europe and East Asia are the two geoeconomics hubs of Eurasia. Russia seeks to connect them economically into a supercontinent, and this is where Greater Eurasia connects with China’s BRI. Political loyalties will incrementally shift as economic interests turn Eastward, and Europe gradually becomes the western peninsula of Greater Eurasia.[xv]
USA – an Outlier
Xi’s remarks are in direct contrast with those of the US whose messaging is haphazard, erratic, and contradictory. While the US seeks to reshape the world using the stick rather than the carrot, China talks of mutual benefits, cooperation, and incentives.
USA’s recalcitrance is reflected in its refusal to ratify, or even sign treaties, and conventions which most major nations support. Since 1994, the US Senate has not ratified a single UN Convention or treaty. For example, the United States is the only country which has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN Convention on the protection of women from discrimination was adopted in 1979. Almost every country in the world (189 states) has ratified this convention but not the US.[xvi]
Retired US Army Col, Lawrence Wilkerson cuts to the chase: “America exists today to make war. How else do we interpret 19 straight years of war and no end in sight? …… We are going to lie, cheat and steal to do whatever it is we have to do to continue this war complex. That’s the truth of it. And that’s the agony of it.” For the US, it is an existential battle against the whole Eurasia integration process.[xvii]
A headline in the Washington Post on 1 March 2021 says it all: “BIDEN TELLS THE WORLD ‘AMERICA IS BACK.’ THE WORLD ISN’T SO SURE.”
[i] Kent Calder – Super Continent (2019) [ii] Bruno Macaes – The Dawn of Eurasia (2018) [iii] Geoff Raby - China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future - 2020 [iv] Michael Pembroke – Play by the Rules (2020) [v] BBC News 17 February 2021 [vi] Geoff Raby, Ibid [vii] Peter Frankopan - The New Silk Roads (2018) [viii] 2020 China Military Power Report [ix] Khanna Interview with Amanda Vanstone on Counterpoint 22 Feb 2021 [x] Gideon Rachman - Easternisation (2016) [xi] Parag Khanna The Future is Asian (2019) [xii] Michael Pembroke - Ibid [xiii] Kishore Mahbubani - The Economist 17 Nov 2020 [xiv]Peter Frankopan, Ibid [xv] Pepe Escobar, Asia Times 10 February 2021 [xvi] Michael Pembroke – Ibid [xvii] Battle of the Ages to Stop Eurasian Integration, P. Escobar, Global Research, January 2020