BEIJING — Russia appears to be shifting its stance on China’s Belt and Road development initiative in Eurasia, envisioning a bigger role for itself in the process, in what could be a sign that Moscow is worried about waning influence among its neighbors.
When Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing last month for China’s Belt and Road Forum, he described Russia-China relations now as “the best they have been in their entire history.” He also said the Belt and Road initiative is “intended to strengthen the creative cooperation of the states of Eurasia.”
But Putin’s enthusiasm for participating came with a polite demand, asking China to accommodate Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). It was originally meant to be a Russia-led alliance on political, trade and infrastructure construction issues in Eurasian countries. But the plan has suffered because of Moscow’s paucity of funds.
From Russia with love
In his speech, Putin indicated that Russian cooperation is essential to overcome challenges to BRI in the Eurasian region.
“(Furthermore,) it is necessary to eliminate infrastructure restrictions for integration mainly by creating a system of modern and well-connected transport corridors. Russia with its unique geographic location is willing to engage in this joint activity,” Putin said in his speech.
Putin proposed an integration between different programs and institutions like EAEU, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and One Belt, One Road (old name of Belt and Road Initiative).
Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies at Honolulu, said Putin insists on calling the Chinese plan by the old name to expose China’s attempt to show that all roads lead to Beijing.
“By drawing attention to Moscow’s own EAEU initiative and stressing the need for OBOR to partner with the EAEU, the SCO and the ASEAN, Putin is indirectly criticizing Beijing’s ‘go it alone’ approach which is already facing global backlash,” he said.
It is also a reminder from Putin that Russia still has a significant presence in Central Asia, especially on security issues but also in trade and investment, said Zach Witlin, senior analyst at Eurasia Group.
Analysts said Putin is engaged in political posturing and some amount of bargaining for Chinese investments, but he does not have the deep pockets to match Beijing’s clout and implement Moscow’s Eurasian initiative.
“It is a sign of just how little bargaining leverage he has that he has to make such a plea in public and lump Russia together with all the rest as supplicants,” said Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
“Implicitly he is also trying to induce China to invest in the Arctic and other major infrastructure and transportation projects in Asia,” he said.
China included a road link passing through Russia when Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced the Belt and Road plan in 2013. It took six years of wrangling before Russia recently agreed to implement the project, which is the Russian section of the Meridian toll highway. The road is meant to link China’s western neighbor Kazakhstan with Belarus.
But Putin did not mention the project in public discussions during his Beijing visit last month.
In Russia, the project has been given least importance with just one line being mentioned in the 110-page blueprint on “National Projects” published last February: “By the end of 2024, the Russian section of the Meridian toll highway will be built.”
The Chinese have been patient with Moscow for their own reasons.
“Russia is very important for the Belt and Road, you need its cooperation to achieve success with Eurasian countries,” Bloomberg quoted Wang Yiwei, a former Chinese diplomat and now professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “You cannot bypass Russia.”
But bargaining with Beijing for collaboration in other parts of Eurasia and South East Asia would not yield much result.
“China will not cede primacy to Russia anywhere in the BRI,” Blank said.
The U.S. sent a relatively low-ranking delegation to the Belt and Road Forum meeting and issued a press release criticizing the BRI on several counts. Some analyst believe Washington is making a tactical mistake by allowing high-powered growth of the Chinese program in crucial areas like Eurasia.
Malik said the Obama administration had outlined its “New Silk Road” vision for joint investment projects and regional trade in the region.
“However, Washington dropped the ‘New Silk Road’ plan under pressure from Beijing,” he said adding that the Obama administration largely ignored China’s growing outreach in Central Asia.
“In contrast, the Trump administration has reassessed the challenge that OBOR poses and turned extremely critical and hostile to it,” Malik said.
U.S. officials routinely warn countries that China’s infrastructure deals can carry long-term financial costs that countries can struggle to repay.
When Italy signed on to Beijing’s development plan in March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told U.S. lawmakers that such deals with China ultimately hurt the country signing onto them.
“It may feel good in the moment: You think you got a cheap product or a low-cost bridge or road built. And in the end there will be a political cost attached to that which will greatly exceed the economic value of what you were provided,” he said.