SINOGRAPH China offers Russia a bridge to Europe
By Francesco Sisci
In many ways, the grand gas deal between China and Russia announced this month after being two decades in the making (see Ukraine crisis forces Eurasian evolution, Asia Times Online, April 30, 2014) was a certainty once Russian President Vladimir Putin took over Crimea.
For months David Goldman, an American patriot ... not a traitor
paid by Russia ... had warned the West not to antagonize Russia on Ukraine or the world would have to confront unprecedented Russian moves. His warnings were not taken seriously and here we are.
In short, when Putin took over Crimea, he did not anticipate the flight of capital from Russia and the possible sanctions on export of energy to Europe, by far Russia's largest source of foreign currency. Faced with the threat of economic isolation and due in China in May, he rushed to clinch a deal that had been hanging for 20 years. When he caved in, the Chinese initially pushed too hard, then apparently relaxed, partly conceding to Russian requests.
Now a whole new picture for Europe emerges. The bleak side for Europe is that Russia can now play Europe against China and vice versa while not being at the mercy of either.
The bright side is that with this agreement Russia finds a potential future bridge between Asia and Europe. Putin has previously just projected into Europe, hoping to be part of the European theater but in reality still too big and too proud (would Moscow agree to have the same say as Warsaw?) to be an equal partner with the rest of the EU members.
In a way, Putin went now on the geopolitical path described six years ago (See Why the EU needs Russia, by Francesco Sisci and Anna Zafesova, La Stampa, August 3, 2008).
Russia's excessive reliance on Europe seemed a recipe for disaster for every party because Russia was too big to be accommodated by an EU made of small states that had all abandoned their old colonial expansions, while Russia still preserves its in Siberia. So either Russia would need to become much smaller, hitting at the sense of identity of Russia and opening the frightening question of who would take over Siberia, or Russia had to take a step back from Europe. Apparently Putin has chosen, wisely, the latter.
This new role may help Russia to build some kind of new identity and take the edge off the many growing political issues the country has with the West in Europe and the Middle East.
Of course, it is all a double-edged sword. Russia can take this role shifting between the booming East and West and fashion its presence in Central Asia as an imperial mission to move in all directions.
This may not be suitable for Russia's weight and economic structure and could soon bring the total collapse of its world - or it could become a new model of development for trading between East and West.
This latter can be supported by the new class of entrepreneurs Moscow badly needs to foster and better distribute wealth, to take excessive power off the hands of the oligarchs, and to create new reasons and industries for growth.
The EU and China could work together to positively lead and check Russia. In this the role of America could be bigger, not smaller. With a presence in Central Asia and strong interests in Europe and in Asia, the US can help all sides in a positive fashion. Besides, the world does not end in Eurasia, and America is the only country that now and for the foreseeable future has both a truly global reach and global trust.
On the other hand, the new role of Russia as bridge between East and West has to take into consideration the risks. The EU and China cannot place all their bets on Russia, as this could trigger Russia's monopolistic tendencies and ultimately be self-defeating. Then, everybody needs to open - the sooner the better - a southern route through restive Afghanistan and unreliable Iran. This in turn could give a role to Iran besides the production of oil and gas.
Of course, this role comes with abandoning all designs and rhetoric against Israel, which is the island of peace and development in a sea of fights and revolution. If only for that, Iran, thinking of its future in the land route from China to the Mediterranean, should forge a strong alliance with Israel. It would be mere self-interest. Can it happen? And if it does not happen, what would be the consequences?
These elements all require US involvement more than any other country. Moreover, all the variables in this odd equation (the EU, Russia, China, the Middle East) would rather deal with the US than with one another. This is the best premise for America - to be the realistic and cautious conductor of a new concert of nations, rather than the one constantly fixing the violin or the trombone.
The situation needs a deep rethinking from all sides, but as the Ukraine crisis proved, this can be done consciously, with preparations for realities; otherwise, stumbles and blunders will do it unconsciously for everybody.
The next threat here is the EU and Ukraine. More than we forecast, the anti-European forces in the EU have won in the European elections last weekend, while in Ukraine a pro-European president has triumphed. It is not clear how these two elements will reconcile with one another, but it would simply naive to sweep them under the carpet under the illusion that they have no immediate bearings for Europe.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.