The COVID-19 has a strong impact on international politics and the world economy, but the epidemic has not put Eurasian integration off the region’s agenda, instead it has given it a new impetus.

However, Eurasian integration still faces challenges as before, and its development and breakthrough mainly depend on whether it can solve a series of “traditional” constraints.

Diversification or Fragmentation?

Eurasian integration has a common name but no common mechanism. It is not a single regional or project cooperation mechanism, more precisely, it is a process made up of many different strategies, regional organisations, cooperation mechanisms, and initiatives, such as the SCO, the Eurasian Economic Union, OBOR, the Greater Eurasian Partnership, Central Asian integration process, the Turkic speaking countries cooperation committee, and so on.

They are all part of Eurasian integration, but no one of them does represent the whole Eurasian integration. This has resulted in the diversity of the concepts, structures and mechanisms of Eurasian integration.

The diversity of the Eurasian integration is a natural reflection of the complex national, historical and cultural composition of the Eurasian region. All of them aim to promote the cooperation among relevant countries, and by doing so contribute to regional integration in Eurasia to varying degrees.

The problem is, however, under certain circumstances, if they are confining and isolating each other, it could also possibly lead to the institutional fragmentation of the sub-regions of the Eurasian region, which restricts regional cooperation as a whole or on a larger scale.

The SCO is the only region-wide organisation in the region. It includes eight full member states and four observer states, which are the major countries of the region, covering most of Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia.

It can be said that the SCO connects the major sub-regions of the Eurasian region and has the broadest representation. If Eurasian integration requires a common platform, the SCO is the most suitable one.

China has been most active in advocating regional integration on the framework of the SCO. As early as in 2003, China proposed to establish the SCO free trade zone and set up the SCO development bank. But up to now, the SCO has not made a breakthrough in formation of regional integration mechanisms. Creation of the SCO bank is still in flux.

The EEU has reached a higher level of regional integration and has been the most successful organisation for Eurasian integration. However, the membership of the EEU is made up of former Soviet republics, which requires its members to have specific political backgrounds, which limits its potential as a broad framework for Eurasian integration.

The EEU has expanded its scope of cooperation mainly by establishing free trade zones with other economies. It has signed agreements with Vietnam, Iran, Serbia and Singapore, and is in talks with Egypt, Israel and India to establish free trade zones. However, it is very cautious about establishment of free trade zone with China, its largest trading partner.

Five Central Asian Countries have made many integration attempts from the beginning of being independent. They had set up Central Asian Union, Central Asian Economic Community & Central Asian Cooperation Organisation. Although many documents had been adopted and specific targets had been set, little had been achieved.

In 2005, after the Central Asia Cooperation Organisation merged into the Eurasian Economic Community, the first phase of integration of the five Central Asian countries ceased.

Since taking office as Uzbekistan’s President in 2016, President Mirziyoyev has activated a new stage of Central Asian integration. In 2018 and 2019, the five heads of Central Asian states have held two consultative meetings on Central Asian integration.

The Central Asian countries have very close geographical, historical, ethnic and religious ties and share many common problems and concerns, so integration has a natural need and basis. It is still difficult to determine how far the Central Asian integration will go.

However, as it is essentially in the Central Asian region, it is limited to sub-regional scope in the Eurasian region.

The integration of Central Asian countries itself is reasonable, but one fact should be recognised that the United States has the purpose of using the integration of Central Asian countries to separate the Central Asian countries from Russia and China.

It could be observed in the greater Central Asia plan, a well circulated idea of the United States after the Afghanistan war, the New Silk Road Strategy of the United States of 2011, and the Indo-Pacific strategy at present time.

The United States has made it no secret that, by encouraging the integration of Central Asian countries, it pursues also for geopolitical purposes. Objectively, it could add geopolitical elements to Central Asian integration, which is undesired.

In 2015 the Turkic Speaking Countries Cooperation Committee proposed the concept of Turkic world integration & adopted the relative document in 2018. The Turkic Speaking Countries Cooperation Committee has 5 Members namely, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with Hungary as observer State. Turkmenistan is the only Turkic Speaking State that has not joined it.

Turkic-speaking Countries are all Eurasian Countries, among them Central Asian countries are the majority. Therefore, Turkic-speaking world integration is also a part of Eurasian integration. The linkages for integration of Turkic speaking states are language and culture, which is both its advantage and limitation.

It does not include Persian-speaking Tajikistan in Central Asia, and Georgia and Armenia in Caucasus, so it’s impossible for it to expand to a greater regional cooperation mechanism.

Both China and Russia have their own designs and strategies for regional integration in the Eurasian region. China and Russia are both big countries with key interests in Eurasia. As major Countries, they have a greater sense of regional responsibility and are more accustomed to viewing the region from the overall perspective of the region.

In 2013, China put forward the One Belt One Road initiative. The OBOR Initiative covers the SCO as well as the greater Eurasian Region. This Initiative enables China to choose the directions and forms of regional integration independently and freely, alongside with the platform of the SCO.

Russia proposed the Greater Eurasian Partnership. It was first proposed by President Putin at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2016 and was confirmed in his State Address the same year. By putting forward the concept of the Greater Eurasian Partnership, Russia wants to come up with its own regional grand strategic concept, of which Russia lacks.

The Concept of Greater Eurasia Partnership enables Russia to step out of the traditional Eurasian area, namely the space of former Soviet Union, and to move towards greater Eurasia, including Eastern Europe, Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions with its own integration platform.

The diversity of integration mechanisms and forms in Eurasia is a unique phenomenon, which is caused by the complicated politics, histories, geography and culture of Eurasia region. Diversified forms of integration are best suited to the reality of Eurasian region.

However, what needs to be avoided is fragmentation, that is, the lack of mutual coordination or even becoming a mutual limiting factor. Some of these mechanisms are closed or semi-closed, they are not open to all countries in the region, and, in the absence of coordinated development, they may become certain restrictions to each other and affect the development of bilateral economic relations between Member States and No-Member States.

Large number of integration mechanism could enhance economic relations in sub-regions, but it does not necessarily promote the integration of the larger scope or the greater Eurasian Region.

Political Thinking & Economic Logic’s

Political thinking and economic logic’s are both serve as important driving forces for Eurasian integration, but sometimes they contradict each other, which restricts the Eurasian integration from going forward quickly. This is also one of the important reasons why it is difficult for the Eurasian integration to achieve a major breakthrough.

This is particularly true in relations between China and Russia, the two most important countries of Eurasian integration, without which the so-called Eurasian integration is impossible.

In the past 20 years, there have been various predictions and comments of conflicts between China and Russia in Central Asia, such as conflicts over resources in Central Asia, conflicts over competition for influence in Central Asia and so on. However, such conflicts have never occurred.

China and Russia have begun cooperation in Central Asia and Eurasia since formation of the “Shanghai Five” in 1996, in the year when both countries declared strategic partnership, and the two countries have maintained cooperative relations since then.

But, due to their different historical backgrounds and economic positions, China and Russia have different ways of thinking about Eurasian integration. Specifically, China attaches more importance to economy and economic thinking, while Russia attaches more importance to politics and political thinking.

China takes the Eurasian integration first of all as an economic project, and motivated mainly by economic logic’s. China has been actively advocating to reduce barriers to economic integration, lower the cost of economic cooperation, to achieve the most economically rational allocation of resources, to make full use of complementary economic structures, and to create favourable conditions for regional economic cooperation and integration.

Russia, while values the economic importance of Eurasian integration, it sees it as a political project as well. Like any empire in history, Russia has been suffering from certain “empire syndrome” since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia regards the former Soviet Union space as its sphere of influence, and is politically and psychologically sensitive to the entry of other powers into the region, especially when the influence of these great powers is likely to surpass that of Russia.

The same is true for China. Russia has experiencing an ambivalence in its attitudes towards China in Eurasian integration. On the one hand, Russia recognises importance and necessity to cooperate with China, and it is willing to promote Eurasian integration jointly with China.

On the other hand, it does not want to see China’s presence in the region too deep. This has left Russia both on the accelerator and the brake in its cooperation with China in promoting Eurasian integration. From an economic point of view, Russia likes push at full speed, but from a political point of view, Russia purposely limits the speed.

Russia, therefore, holds very cautious position to deep economic integration with China in Eurasia. It serves one of the reasons why economic cooperation in the SCO region has lagged, and why the EEU has been able to establish free trade zones with other countries but China is not included.

China’s disproportionately large economy is an important driver and resource of Eurasian integration, but it also puts pressure on other countries, including Russia. It is another one major problem for China’s Partners in Eurasian Integration.

It raises understandable concern in Russia that incautious deep integration with China could place Russia in unfavourable economic position and give China an overwhelming role, let China’s goods dominate the markets of Russia. Thus, it’s in Russia’s interest to have China being balanced to avoid the region being dominated by one country.

This is one reason why Russia had actively advocated the membership of India in the SCO. Enlargement has increased the geopolitical weight of the SCO, but with increase of its member states and geographical expansion, it has made SCO’s regional economic integration even more difficult.

New Paths Needed

Regional integration is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to optimise regional resource allocation and promote regional economic and social development. The same is true of Eurasian integration.

Unlike Europe, Eurasian countries differ in political cultures and religious beliefs greatly, and their economic development gap is huge. Due to these unique conditions, it is extremely difficult to form the overall mechanism of Eurasian integration.

So, it is inevitable that the integration in Eurasia will take many forms. But in all these forms, the one that affects Eurasian integration most is connection between the SREB and the EEU. If the Eurasian integration could make a breakthrough, it is the most likely breakthrough point.

China and Russia are the major countries in SREB an EEU connection. Therefore, in some sense, it is the integration between China and Russia, and to a large extent progress of SREB and EEU connection will also represents the advance of the Eurasian integration.

Its advantage is, unlike the SCO, it does not have as many bodies. The SCO has eight bodies, and reaching agreement is not only difficult but also costly. The SREB and EEU project is between two parties, and the objects of negotiation are clear.

China and Russia issued a special joint statement, announcing the implementation of the strategy of linking the Silk Road Economic Belt with the Eurasian Economic Union, which shows that China and Russia attach great importance to this. So far, China and the EEU have held six rounds of meetings, certain progress has been achieved, but no breakthrough has been made.

The alignment of the SREB and EEU is not only a question of economic cooperation, but it concerns strategic and political mutual understanding between China and Russia as well. Without deepening of China-Russia strategic mutual understanding a breakthrough in integration between China and Russia is unthinkable. Therefore, it requires simultaneous development of political and economic cooperation.

A breakthrough on connection of SREB and EEU could be achieved only with change of political thinking, balance of economic benefits, and mitigating of the related concerns of each side. Only by removing or alleviating concerns about the negative consequences of integration on the national economy and seeing the economic benefits that integration can bring can they be willing to promote deep integration.

Industrial chain construction can become an important way to promote Eurasian integration. The COVID-19 Outbreak has been damaging the global industrial chains severely, showing the vulnerability of overly long and overly complex industrial chains.

The deterioration of political relations between major countries such as China and the United States also poses a threat to the global industrial chains.

There is reason to believe that the global industrial chains will undergo some restructuring after the pandemic. Countries will pay more attention to reducing its vulnerability, and the regional nature of the global industrial chains will be strengthened. Eurasian integration should take this opportunity to develop closer regional industrial chains, which will bring stable economic and social benefits to Eurasian countries and serve as an important driving force for regional integration.

The Eurasian integration should increase its paths so that to provide more power sources to keep the process going forward. One of the possible areas of cooperation is public health, prevention of contagious diseases, eliminating the consequences of natural disasters, plant diseases and pests’ control.

It’s not a quick fix with the outbreak of COVID-19 but a long-term development need. The geographical proximity of Eurasian countries makes it even more necessary to strengthen cooperation in these areas. Relatively, these non-traditional security areas have obvious common interests and are easier to cooperate with each other.

It’s used to be thinking of these fields as resources-consuming, but in fact they have great industrial, scientific and technological value, and could create enormous economic benefits. It could also be a New approach to Eurasian Integration.

Author: Zhao Huasheng, Professor at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University. He has served as Vice Chairman of the Chinese Society for the Study of Sino-Russian relations.
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of the editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.