Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Four Eurasian scenarios and the genius of OBOR

Having been reading a lot lately about China’s history of engagement with powers westward over land and over the sea, having read biographies of China’s ‘westward’-facing great emperors Taizong and Kangxi, and having observed China’s recent engagement with Iran – I am coming to appreciate the strategic depth and flexibility of the One Belt, One Road project. As American observers, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the OBOR is set up merely to compete with us and to edge us ‘out of the loop’ of global trade. And to some extent, that’s a true perception… but it simply doesn’t tell us the whole story.

China’s manœuvre in building two roads – one over land and one over the sea – is aimed not so much as edging America out of the global market, as it is at looking toward a Eurasian future, and essentially hedging bets as to which of the two rising powers in the middle of Eurasia will become preeminent, and which of the two powers will be better-disposed to dealing with China in the long run. This analysis directly relates to my earlier post on the concept of li in antique Chinese discourse and how it influences modern gæopolitics.

I do think the Chinese strategists responsible for the two-track development of a maritime route and an overland route have already begun to consider the future development of Eurasia from a strategic perspective. They see the ‘polarity’ o f the continent as resting between China, Iran and Russia – and are already moving dynamically to hedge their bets. As a result, they are preparing for four possible futures.

  1. Eurasia United. From the Chinese perspective, this is the most ‘optimistic’ scenario, because it involves a peaceful (at least internally speaking) trilateral cooperation between China, Iran and Russia with more or less equal roles for Iran and Russia. In this scenario, the three ‘corners’ of the informal alliance are able to fend off threats from outside while being able to move goods and money between themselves with relative ease. This is in general the ‘win-win’ scenario that most Chinese strategists are taught to look for, and which of course serves Chinese national interests best. However, it is also metastable because it essentially relies on there being an outside threat in the form of the Triad (Washington-London-Tôkyô), possibly also joined by New Delhi.

    Œconomic features. First of all, both routes of the OBOR go full steam ahead. Iran and Russia both provide raw materials and energy to the Chinese market, and China is able to export manufactured goods to both countries. Chinese FDI becomes a major factor in both Iranian and Russian œconomies – for better and for worse. Industrial development and experimentation with non-capitalist modes of production in both Iran and Russia is primarily guided along the lines of the China model: with state-owned enterprises taking the lead. Space and nuclear technology becomes broadly distributed across Eurasia for mutual defence and clean energy. The smaller Central Asian states in the middle find themselves losing certain degrees of autonomy and œconomic clout to any or all three of the rising powers.

    Gæostrategic features. The obvious flash points from a ‘Eurasia United’ strategic posture would be in the Arabian Gulf, on the Indian subcontinent and on the Pacific Rim. Japan would find its relations with both Russia and China becoming colder than they are even at present. In addition, the Gulf States would probably find themselves pressured by an increasingly-assertive Iran, and India would find itself increasingly isolated and pressured from multiple directions. As I mentioned above, this strategic posture would only make sense in light of continued pressure on all three actors from the outside in the form of residual American imperialism and Western European intransigence. These factors are what drive Iran and China to find common cause with each other on realist grounds.

    Ideological features. Eurasianism obviously gains greater currency in both Russia and China, though it is more clearly and explicitly shaped by Chinese prerogatives and preferences. (Expect to see the name of Gong Zizhen become more prominent in Chinese ideological discourse as relations with Russia grow closer, as well as that of Abai Qunanbaiuly.) A general idea of ‘Eurasian values’ and ‘cradles of civilisation’ takes hold, stressing the commonalities and long histories of interaction between Chinese, Russian and Iranian cultures. Chinese thought begins to take on a more traditionalist-conservative tone than it does at present, even if it still presents itself within a Marxist, ‘socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics’ framework. Aleksandr Dugin’s ideas may be selectively adapted within that framework, which by the way would begin to take on a much more muted tone with regard to religious rights. However, the Chinese state would not yet begin to show a marked preference for one religious confession over the others.

  2. The Qing Strategy, aka ‘Russia in, Iran out’. If for some reason, Iran begins to decide that engagement with China is not in its best interests: expect to see China start to lean harder on its New Eurasian Landbridge and Mongolian Corridor initiatives, and emphasise cooperation with Russia. Energy cooperation and land investment initiatives will become more important. Coinciding demographic interests may also be stressed. And there will be an increase of interest in the historical contacts with Russia going back to the Yuan Dynasty and the Golden Horde.

    Œconomic features. China will begin to rely on Russia not only for energy but also as its ‘breadbasket’, as Russian production of organic food – particularly vegetables – grows not only to meet domestic subsistence demand but opens to a massive export market with a possible quick transit corridor. Chinese importation of American and Brazilian soy is therefore likely to fall off – not dramatically, but enough to continue to hurt both of the latter œconomies. Chinese-Russian cooperation will likely also have some interesting effects on the high-tech sectors in both countries. Look for alternative internet infrastructures to start popping up, as well as joint space ventures. In this scenario there is also a major stress on the development of the SCO and bilateral security arrangements.

    Gæostrategic features. There is probably going to be a concomitant development of Siberia, not least to accommodate agricultural and transport demands. Expect to see a new ‘wave’ of KVŽDists, with young unmarried Russian women prominent among them looking for Chinese grooms, and vice versa. (This was already a meme when Shıza came out, by the way.) The development of the ‘north’ of the OBOR in neglect of the south is likely to see Iran try to develop a concept of ‘Greater Iran’ in response, positioned in opposition to Russian and Chinese claims in Central Asia. Major flash points would therefore be in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Russia and Iran would likely directly compete for influence over the Levant as well.

    Ideological features. China would provide direct state recognition to Eastern Orthodoxy in light of reliance on an alliance with Russia across Northern Eurasia – much to the delight, I’m sure, of the Albazinians and Evenkis in China who currently practise Eastern Orthodoxy without state recognition. The greater interest in common history will likely mean a ressourcement of Yuan Dynasty history and an interest in the historical forms of Christianity particular to China – such as Nestorianism. There may be some resurgence of leftist interest in the early years of Sino-Soviet cooperation and a wave of ‘red nostalgia’ in both countries, but it is likely to be muted given the ambivalent attitude of both governments to the legacies of Stalin and Mao. Chinese Marxism is much more likely to show an interest in the confluences of Marxist thought with Daoism and the indigenous expressions of Christianity under this gæostrategic schema. Islâm on the whole is likely to be left out in the cold.

  3. The Ming Strategy, aka ‘Iran in, Russia out’. This was the dream scenario of at least some in the Trump Administration, and continues to be the strategy preferred by many traditionalists and conservatives in the West who want to ‘bring Russia in from the cold’ while keeping China out. In this scenario, Russia decisively pivots to the West and cuts its ties with China. The response will look much like the Sino-Soviet split of the 60s. China will likely begin to emphasise in its domestic history Russia’s ties to the imperialist Eight-Nation Alliance and begin revamping its commitments to the Non-Aligned Movement and the concept of the Third World. Its relationship with Iran will obviously be pivotal; however, it will continue to reach out to other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa in order to spearhead the Global South along the southern route of the old Silk Road and along the Maritime Road.

    Œconomic features. China’s œconomic policy will, first of all, begin to look more decisively ‘leftist’ and it will couch it in more radical terms. Iran, rather than Russia, will become China’s primary source of energy resources, and China will continue to invest its resources in Southeast Asia and within the Indian Ocean. Infrastructure projects will centre on developing China’s naval and coastal resources in the South China Sea as well as on China’s current close partners in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean: Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan.

    Gæostrategic features. There will be a New Great Game for Central Asia in this scenario – though this time it will be between southern Eurasia as represented by China and Iran, against a Westernised Russia in combination with the EU and the US. China is likely to double down its security game in Xinjiang and Tibet while at the same time easing up on restrictions to religious worship (see the ideological features of this strategy below). Maritime East Asia and in particular Hong Kong will continue to be a huge flash point in this scenario: because it will be correctly perceived by Western powers as an exploitable weak point in the staging for the NMR, as well as a beachhead (particularly among the current generation of student protesters) for white-supremacist and anti-Third World ideas.

    Ideological features. China will likely play up its historical links to Southeast and South Asia, with muted reference to the tributary system that prevailed in the Ming Dynasty. Wei Yuan will become the household name to watch for here. China will begin actively promoting Buddhism in order to shore up links with Southeast Asian countries on the Maritime Route. Although there won’t be as enthusiastic an embrace of Islâm by China in this scenario, China will certainly seek common cause with its Muslim communities and foreign allies, and crack down (harder) on Christianity within the country (citing foreign influence).

  4. The Caucasian Wall, aka ‘China out’. This is the doomsday scenario for China in Eurasia, one in which Russia and Iran form a north-south axis against both China and the West. It may be difficult to imagine how this might come about, but unfortunately there is some degree of precedent. In this scenario, Russia and Iran’s joint strategy will be to dominate energy pipelines in the same way that steppe peoples in past centuries tried to dominate and manage the historical Silk Road. China is likely to try to salvage what it can from the Maritime Route and leverage its current developmental and security links with East Africa.

    Œconomic features. A direct competition between China and both of the other Eurasian powers to its west will get fairly ugly fairly fast, but the smaller Central Asian states will find that they have a great deal more influence and diplomatic manœuvre space between the Russian-Iranian axis on one side and China on the other. For China’s part, they will quickly revert to a pure, doctrinaire Marxist œconomic policy complete with anti-religious, militantly-atheist features. Rather than expressing a Eurasian or Third World belonging, the China Model will be tooled to emphasise its distinctive features and stand in contradistinction to the other illiberal projects of civilisational realism and theocratic democracy in Russia and Iran respectively. China will also begin focusing much more strongly on development and œconomic linkages in the Pacific Rim.

    Gæostrategic features. Obviously, in this ‘doomsday scenario’, Central Asia will become a minefield of proxy conflicts and political gamesmanship, with Russia and Iran attempting to sway the loyalty of the Turkic and Iranian states along that corridor toward them and China doing the same. The Pacific Rim will also become strategically important as China is forced to develop its naval power projection. And even though the entirety of the overland New Silk Road project would be disrupted by what I’m tentatively terming the ‘Caucasian Wall’, China would still have enough logistical support in the Indian Ocean to attempt to bypass Iran and rely on its East African trading and strategic partners for security as well as development purposes. There’s a reason China has that base in Djibouti, and it’s not there just for decoration.

    Ideological features. As I said above, there is unfortunately some ideological precedent for this scenario. The Russian Slavophiles (despite Khomyakov’s stated sympathy with Qing China over-against British imperialism) pioneered the concept of iranstvo and the opposite concept of kushitstvo in order to distinguish themselves both from a culturally-Romanised West and a culturally-Sinicised East… and to establish a cultural continuity between the Russian state and the Iranian-speaking Scythian tribes of antiquity. The illiberal Russian and Iranian projects could conceivably both posit themselves as the pole of a confessional order in which religion takes a key public prominence, in contradistinction to the officially-atheist China. As a result, China’s ideological move would logically be the inverse of that: they would emphasise the militantly-sæcular elements of the Marxist tradition in an effort to justify their governmental model to the rest of Asia. Like I said, though: this would be the least-desirable scenario for China’s leadership. They do not want to be isolated by gæography and forced to compete with the United States directly in the Pacific.

I am looking at the full spread of possibilities; but obviously, I have my own preferences here. In general, if we care about Christians in Asia and desire their good on their own terms, the warmth of the China-Russia relationship (either on its own or in concert with Iran) is something to be valued. Certainly the native Evenki and Han Christians in China would appreciate that closer tie, and the resulting thaw in religious relations with the Chinese state that such would entail.

I’m also somewhat adapting here the Eurasianist idea – and believe there is some degree of support for it – that a tellurocratic strategy for China lends itself to both a more equitable distribution of goods (a more even development of inland and coast, as it were), and a more ‘conservative’ cultural posture. The first two scenarios, which will make full use the tellurocratic overland road for OBOR, will see China relaxing its anti-religious postures and attempting to utilise and encourage at least one of its own native religious traditions in concert with a paired religious tradition from elsewhere on the Silk Road: Confucianism/Perennialism in case of the Eurasia United scenario; and Daoism/Nestorian-Christianity in the case of the Qing Strategy scenario. In the third scenario, the Ming Strategy, China’s ruling party will emphasise Buddhism more as the semi-thalassocratic Third World linkages with Southeast Asia become more important, and its common history with nations professing Islâm. And in the Caucasian Wall scenario, China will emphasise the irreligious doctrines of Marxism, make more linkages with Western Marxist parties and organisations, and devote itself fully to thalassocratic dominance. I’m being somewhat Marxist myself in my analysis here, since I’m aware that Chinese government’s posture toward religious bodies is significantly dependent on material and strategic conditions.

As it stands, though, China is preparing itself at an admirable strategic depth for whatever scenario in the emerging multipolar order in Eurasia presents itself. This should not be surprising to anyone. It is a longstanding tradition for China’s leadership to read Luo Guanzhong’s classic novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and apply its lessons to strategic problems. They are fully aware that they are not the only power in Eurasia, and they are equally aware that the other two powers they share Eurasia with have their own agendas, interests, goals and ideological postures… which are never at any given moment fully in line with China’s. It is my belief that the structure and development of the OBOR project is neither a purely-reactive posture on China’s part, nor is it a purely-exploitative and -grasping project focussed only on material gain within China. Instead, it reflects a certain cautious strategic posture that is envisioning both best-case and worst-case scenarios in the middle- to long-term.

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