Cold War or Competition on the New Silk Road
by Robert Berke
OilPrice.com (May 26 2015)
Note: In Part 1 of “The New Silk Road”, we examined the China’s plan for rebuilding the Silk Road, stretching from Europe to Asia. In Part 2, we look at currently proposed projects, and geopolitical rivalries that could stall and hamper progress.
Silk Road Projects
It is important to understand that the new “Road’ is not a formal plan in any sense but merely a broad outline of goals, a work in progress, being filled in, opportunistically, with projects as they are developed, and as negotiations with target countries allow. The Road is also not a ‘start-up’ from scratch, but builds upon and extends a number of projects that have been ongoing with China’s partners.
The Iran-Pakistan-China project (described in Part 1) is one of the few that provides more details, but it is still very much in the planning stage. The second proposed project, only recently made public, focuses on Russia. China is also proposing a partnership with India for its third project.
The Pakistan program is an important economic development project that ties in with the Road as one of the connecting dots along the way, while the proposed program for Russian could become the nexus for the entire Road project, and the proposed India project could become the crucial piece in tying it all together.
Russia and China, the Emerging Partnership
What makes Russia important enough to include in the plan? A better question might be: How is it possible to leave out Russia, the largest country in Eurasia, from a plan to build across the entire region?
In a recent meeting in Moscow, celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the allied victory in World War Two – which saw Indian, Chinese, and Russia troops parading in Red Square – China and Russia signed multiple agreements to tie development of the Chinese sponsored Silk Road to the Russian sponsored Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
The EAEU plan is a Kremlin-sponsored trade union between Russian, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia, that has been pilloried in the western press as part of Russia’s supposed underlying agenda to re-establish the Soviet Union. With Russia’s inclusion, the plan for the Silk Road will extend from Beijing to the border of Poland. The blossoming cooperation between Russia and China is not something to be ignored, according to former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar:
Clearly, the cold blast of western propaganda against the EAEU failed to impress China … China’s integration with the EAEU means in effect that a real engine of growth is being hooked to the Russian project. In reality, China is the key to the future of the EAEU. Significantly, Xi has combined his visit to Moscow with a tour of Belarus and Kazakhstan, the two other founder members of the EAEU … This is vital for the implementation of the Silk Routes via Russia and Central Asia.
The Chinese/Russian agreements cover eight specific projects, starting with the development of a high speed railway that will connect Moscow and Kazan (Tatarstan Republic), and will be extended to China, connecting the two countries via Kazakhstan. China’s Railway Group has won a contract for $390 million to build the road, with China contributing an initial $5.8 billion toward total estimated costs of $21.4 billion. Eventually, the planners hope to link this project to Russia’s planned high speed railway to Europe.
Also, China’s Jilii province has offered to build a cross-border high speed railway link between the two countries connecting with Russia’s major Pacific port city, Vladivostok. In addition, the two nations are expanding their energy partnership through a variety of projects. As OilPrice reported in a May 12 article, “the Russian hydropower company RusHydro and China Three Gorges Corporation have signed a deal to cooperate on a 320-megawatt hydroelectric power project in Russia’s Far East … near the border between China and Russia”. As described, this is the largest dam project in China or Russia, already under construction, and is expected to generate 1.6 trillion watts of electrical energy per year, with an estimated cost of around $400 billion.
China has also proposed developing an economic corridor between Russia, Mongolia, and China, a plan likely to include the EAEU member states, the initial step in development of one of the major components of the Silk Road, the Eurasia Economic Corridor, a preferential trade zone stretching across the region.
Several smaller joint project deals were also signed, including establishing a $2 billion agriculture financing fund.
Geopolitics on the Silk Road
Until very recently, it was widely assumed that the US would lead its western allies in a campaign against the Russian/Chinese deal to develop the Silk Road, but events have been reversing with remarkable speed.
With Obama desperately trying to keep the wars in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq from metastasizing across the region, Obama’s Middle East policy is at a crossroads, with none of the big issues likely to be resolved before his term ends. Clearly, the US President wants to concentrate on Asia and reduce the US presence in the Mid-East, a region that has bedevilled every President for more than a generation.
The Deal to Get Out
In the midst of all this, and after more than a two year absence from Russia, Kerry and his entourage requested an immediate urgent meeting with Putin and Lavrov that was granted by the Kremlin.
There is widespread speculation over what might have taken place in the Kremlin meeting on May 8th. Yet, the fact that the meeting took place at all may be more important than any agreements reached, because it clearly shows some form of thaw in a relationship that’s in process.
The rumour out of Russia is that Kerry requested Putin’s help in resolving the mid-east conflicts and closing the nuclear deal with Iran, with the Russian President agreeing. The quid pro quo for Russia was the US lowering tensions in Ukraine. The issue of Crimea was apparently not even raised, while the visit ended with Kerry’s unprecedented warning to Kiev to abide by the Minsk 2 agreement for a truce in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
Much of the news media is speculating that the US is starting to remove the ‘crime scene tape’ around the Kremlin. Whether this is really a US offer of an olive branch to Russia is still pretty much guesswork, and even if it were, how far the US is willing to go in accommodating the Kremlin is largely unknown. Stratfor, the popular internet intelligence newsletter, speculates that the US is willing to start easing sanctions on Russia.
Israel and the Gulf Kingdoms
For the Israelis, any easing of tensions with Iran and Russia is very bad news. In the Middle East, Israel is the canary in the coal mine, and is always among the first to discern the faintest signs of political unrest in its region.
There’s no denying the significance of Israel’s reaction to the US/Iran nuclear deal and US coordination with Iran and Russia in Syria and Iraq. Israel placed all of its chips on its ability to stop the deals, and lost badly, while perhaps severely damaging its relationship with it largest ally, the US.
Now, the howls of protest and betrayal pour out of every media source in the region, and Israel is not the only one. Saudi Arabia also feels left out in the cold with the Iran deal.
Proposed Partnership with China and India
If it were possible to put politics aside, there’s no question that China’s single best partner for the Road would be its giant neighbour India, bringing together the two most important markets for traders on the original ancient Silk Road. As the Associated Press reported on May 14 2015:
Both countries are members of the BRICS grouping of emerging economies, which is now establishing a formal lending arm, the New Development Bank, to be based in China’s financial hub of Shanghai and headed by a senior Indian banker. India was also a founding member of the embryonic China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The cooperation between China and India is only growing, and their needs appear to be compatible, as the Associated Press goes on to note:
China is looking to India as a market for its increasingly high-tech goods, from high-speed trains to nuclear power plants, while India is keen to attract Chinese investment in manufacturing and infrastructure. With a slowing economy, excess production capacity and nearly $4 trillion in foreign currency reserves, China is ready to satisfy India’s estimated $1 trillion in demand for infrastructure projects such as airports, roads, ports and railways.
If India chooses to partner with China in the Silk Road, it could keep China building for the rest of the century, in a project that would combine the world’s most populous nations, with more than 2.6 billion people. With Russia already a partner, and Iran waiting in the wings to join, the project could add almost another quarter of a billion people, with a combined total of over one third the global population. A better fit would be hard to find.
But there is no shortage of historical baggage between China and India, ranging from a half century of unresolved border disputes; China’s growing relationship with Pakistan, India’s longtime adversary; and India’s close relationship with the US and Japan, both opposed to China’s claims in the South China Sea.
In a recent meeting in Beijing, China and India signed agreements for $22 billion in development projects, disappointing to many observers when compared to the $47 billion committed to the China/Pakistan deal. A former Indian diplomat, Bhadrakumar, argues, “that strategic distrust cannot be wished away”, and “… that India is not ready to replace the west as its development partner”.
It seems like the US influence with India has at least slowed prospects of recruiting India as a major Silk Road partner. Yet, the results are not so simple to predict since so many countries involved are dependent upon trade with China to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and are also active trading partners with both Russia and Iran.
Even in the cold war, India became adept in its studied policy of co-existence with the Soviet Union and the US, which allowed India to play both sides. For pragmatic India, the choice of development partners may depend on the simple formula of ‘following the money’, given the fact that China is one of the few countries in the world with sufficient resources to finance the rebuilding of India’s infrastructure.
The rush of western allies, including India, to join China’s sponsored Asian Infrastructure Bank speaks clearly to the fact that western business is eager to take part in the Road projects. There are probably few banks in the world that would hesitate to finance major components of the project. However, whether the recent sea change in the US/Russian dynamic is a prelude for US support of the Silk Road project remains an open question.
Coming in June, Part 3: Prospects for Success and What it Means for Investors.
Robert Berke is an energy financial analyst with experience as a government consultant to the State of Alaska: http://oilprice.com/contributors/Robert-Berke