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Chinese Dragon in the heart of Eurasia and the historical mission of Russia

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 - 16:22

As we know, History can give answers to the most complex issues on the agenda of Modernity and Future. All this is true if we talk about the story of Chinese presence in the heart of Eurasia: Modern Central Asia and adjacent spaces. It seems that this story clearly highlights not only the locomotive role of China in the economic sphere, but also a very positive role of Russia in Eurasia in the political, economic and security spheres related to the integration functions in the Eurasian processes established by the Russian government since the XIX century.
In our opinion, without understanding of all of this, Russia, China, Europe and other Eurasian states will not understand the most viable schemes and algorithms for its development and interaction with each other: the countries of the continent will continue to "walk in the footsteps" of the circuits and algorithms of development and interaction imposed from outside. Consequently, a key strategic objective, uniting the Eurasian centers of power, will not be solved: this objective concerns joint development, promotion and defense of Eurasia, and in the end - its long-term stabilization.

China’s Return to Central Asia
In terms of modernity the beginning of the process of Chinese penetration into Central Asia is considered to be the collapse of the USSR - the disintegration of a single economic, political, and defense space of the Soviet Union, and as a result in large areas of Eurasia appeared the so-called geopolitical and geo-economic vacuum, which was "filled with" major global and regional players (power centers), including the People's Republic of China. However, in terms of the History, the Chinese penetration into Central Asia still should be seen through the prism of "China's return to the region," especially since the Sino-Central Asian relations account more than two thousand years, clearly highlighting the two crucial periods:
- The heyday of the Silk Road;
- The decline of the Silk Road.
Let’s consider all this in a conceptual and schematic way. On the one hand, such an analytical and an interdisciplinary approach allows us to get closer to the understanding of the key elements of History, and, consequently, the Modernity and possible Future. On the other hand, this approach implies a high degree of conditionality of basic statements: require «compressing» / «squeezing" the history (describing it briefly, highlighting the most important things and sacrificing a minor things) and, simultaneously, identifying the relationship between political, economic and security issues.

The heyday of the Silk Road
This period began approximately in the II century BC, when the system of Trans-Eurasian land trade transit was formed, and lasted for about eighteen centuries, until the end of the XVI century, thus becoming the longest one in the history of relations between China and Central Asia, as well as the adjacent territories. Chinese presence in the region and Sino-Central Asian connections were mainly trade and economics, and the political and security issues, although there were important, but were generally secondary to economic issues.
Firstly, in economic terms, in the heyday of the Silk Road the state formations on the territory of modern Central Asia served as trade and transport bridge between Europe and Asia, and the land transit was the main engine of economic development and scientific progress in the region, and the adjacent interior spaces of Eurasia.
Secondly, as for the security, the Sino-Central Asian relations were quite important, but they had extremely ambiguous effect on the entire system of international relations of that time. On the one hand, these relations were organically "woven" in the struggle for control of various segments of the land trade communications. On the other hand, China's rulers and rulers of Central Asia did everything possible to ensure the security of the trade flows.
Thirdly, as for politics, the Chinese presence in the region, as well as the mutual interaction of China and Central Asia, was minimal and did not lead to the "geopolitical merger", as well as to the formation of alliance between them. The Central Asian region had two diametrically opposite functions in the interaction between China and other civilizations, states, nations, cultures and religions: a mediating and a buffering function. Such ambivalence was largely due to the large geographical distance between the political centers of China and Central Asia, the strong differences in their cultures and religions.

The decline of the Silk Road
Since the end of the XVI century the rapid development of maritime transport in the Age of Discovery led to the reorientation of world trade from the land routes to the sea, causing tectonic shifts in the entire system of international relations. Both in terms of economy and in terms of politics and security, the value of sea lanes and coastal areas of Eurasia rose dramatically, and the value of interior spaces has decreased significantly.
And although during the XVII-XIX centuries (while the development of coastal areas during the colonial companies of that time) the value of the internal spaces of Eurasia also grew to some extent, but in economic terms it did not approach the value of the littoral. Despite the fact that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was closer economic integration of large parts of inner Eurasia within the Russian Empire, and then - the Soviet Union, technological advances and globalization, the mainstream of global economic development and cooperation up to this day is still closely linked to the sea, and the main industrial centers are located in close proximity to the sea lanes - the main arteries of global trade.
As a result, for over four centuries a land transit between Europe and Asia, and also between Central Asia and China, is in a deep decline, and at the end of the XVI century this fact caused a fundamental change in the nature of the Chinese presence in the region and the format of the Sino-Central Asian cooperation.
Firstly, in economic terms, transportation and communication, industrial, scientific and other ties between China and Central Asia were disrupted along with the decline of the Silk Road and the massive curtailment of land trade relations between Asia and Europe. The Central Asian region and adjacent interior spaces of Eurasia for a long time were in the position of economic and geographic isolation. Although as a result of entering into the Russian Empire, and then - the Soviet Union, Central Asia partially overcame this isolation, but its economic ties with China until the collapse of the Soviet Union remained at extremely low levels, and the region's role as a trade and transport bridge between Europe and Asia has not been restored.
Secondly, political tensions began to increase with the sunset of trade along the Silk Road in China-Central Asia relations. This seems largely due to the fact that the strong influence of the region's peoples to national self-determination of the Uyghur and other ethnic groups is fundamentally contrary to the geopolitical interests of China, forcing it to take decisive actions to control the border with Central Asia Territories, which were under Chinese influence. Therefore, because of political disengagement, the Central Asian region retained only a buffer function in the interaction between China and other civilizations, states, nations, cultures and religions, but it almost completely lost its mediating. As a result, since the end of XVIII century, after the neighboring region of Central Asia - Eastern Turkestan (parts of modern Xinjiang) became the part of Chinese Empire, Sino-Central Asian political relations have been virtually phased out. During the period when the region entered the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, all political issues were the subject of the Russian-Chinese and then the Soviet-Chinese relations.
Thirdly, in the condition of a radical reduction of the importance of economic relations it was logical for China and Central Asia to review key principles of security cooperation: towards greater perception of each other as potential adversaries and the sources of threats. It began to acquire particularly acute forms from the end of the XVIII century, when the East Turkestan entered the Chinese Empire. From the second half of the XIX century, when the Central Asian region became a part of the Russian Empire, and also in Soviet times, all security issues were the subject of the Russian-Chinese and then the Soviet-Chinese relations. This greatly eased the contradictions between China and Central Asia.
In general, the conceptual and schematic analysis of the main stages of China's presence in Central Asia and adjacent spaces leads to the following fundamentally important conclusions.
Firstly, in terms of History, the land transit between Europe and Asia was the main engine of economic development and scientific progress in the interior spaces of Eurasia, including Central Asia, large areas of China and other countries/ regions. In fact, the overland trade transit was as a systemic element in building more sustainable, stable and predictable patterns of international cooperation in economy, politics and security in the heart of Eurasia. Therefore, we must assume that without the restoration of transit trade for Trans-Eurasian land communications, we can not speak of lining up such a scheme and algorithm of inter-state relations in Eurasia, which would meet the interests and simultaneously became the guarantor of the complex, dynamic and long-term development of the continent, including China, Russia and Europe.
Secondly, in terms of Modernity, co-existence of Russia and Central Asia under the unified state entities objectively makes the historical legacy of Russian-Central Asian relations more meaningful and significant in comparison with the legacy of the Sino-Central Asian relations. Although since the Soviet collapse, geo-economic and geopolitical interdependence between Russia and Central Asia has weakened substantially, however, in the short and medium terms, the Chinese presence in the region, as well as proper Sino-Central Asian relations, can not be conceptually appreciated outside the Russian context.
Thirdly, in the terms of the future, the base formula of progress and prosperity of the interior spaces of Eurasia can be found in the institutional framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - a unique structure, which unites Russia, China and Central Asia. In this case there is the reason to believe that the systemic breakthrough in the complex development of the SCO and all member states of the Organization can be achieved through consolidation of efforts of Russia, China and Central Asian countries to jointly develop, promote and defend the internal spaces of Eurasia, and in the first place, the full increase of their transit value in the intensification of cooperation between Europe and Asia in terms of economic, politics and security. Therefore, except the strengthening of the SCO, it requires building sustainable channels for dialogue and cooperation between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the European Union, large-scale coordination of their efforts in terms of development, promoting and protection of its segments of Eurasia.

* * *
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed that there were reopened historically unique perspectives for a multi-faceted inter-state cooperation in Eurasia, the economic foundation of which was the restored Great Silk Road - overland trade transit between Europe and Asia.
But is it really so? It appears that at present it is not really so. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a significant strengthening of China's presence in Eurasia, at the same time, it "automatically" did not cause any rehabilitation of Trans-Eurasian land transit, as well as the formation of a stable scheme of international relations in the center of the continent. As a result, the decline of the Great Silk Road was not completed, and system problems and conflicts, including the problems in relations between Europe and Russia, China and Russia, China and Central Asia were not overcome.
In this regard, it is characteristically that such important power centers on the continent as Russia and the EU, don’t take concerted action to solve existing problems in Eurasia, and also using their modern politics they only contribute to their exacerbation: Russia does not hurry to use its advantageous geographic location for the development of land transit between Europe and Asia, while the EU makes a major stake for the development of Trans-Eurasian transport corridors bypassing Russia.
It seems that in the light of the conceptual and schematic conclusions mentioned above we should consider the nature of current and future development of large spaces of Eurasia, that make the future format of bilateral relations on the continent in the fields of politics, economy and security. The main thing - if you continue to consider this format out of the Eurasian context: the context of relations between Europe and Asia, the key role of Russia, it will lead to the realization of the worst scenarios for Eurasia. Especially it will happen because the tendency to destabilize large areas of the continent gets more and more pulses since the Soviet collapse. But the real question here is not in the "foreign plot against Eurasia," but in the inability of the continent's major power centers to understand the History, to find the most historically justified schemes and algorithms of development and interaction, but in the end - their own long term interests ...

Note: the article is prepared by the order of the Internet project "It’s Time for the East", implemented by the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Prognosis KRSU,

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