Eurasia: The Hype of Continentalism

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Eurasia: The Hype of Continentalism

‘Analysts should not allow geopolitical possibility to overshadow the divisive conflicts that exist throughout Eurasia.’

Eurasia: The Hype of Continentalism
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin

China’s push west, India’s look north, and Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy – each of these countries is looking with greater interest towards Central Asia and the Middle East. Greater attention towards continental Asia by rising powers could represent a challenge to the global status quo. The area from the Himalayas to the Mediterranean and from Russia to India may well help to define the international order of the 21st century, but analysts should not allow geopolitical possibility to overshadow the divisive conflicts that exist throughout Eurasia. Any type of Eurasian system of partnerships will have to overcome fragile economies, a history of shifting friendships, and deep-seated hostilities between nations. Instead of imagining alternative scenarios like a Russo-Sino alliance or a new pole of global power based in continental Asia, analysts should be focused on how a reliance on Eurasia is as likely to sap the strength of a state as to empower it. Thus, Eurasia will prove itself not to be a springboard for increased partnership throughout Asia, but rather a zone of competition for emerging powers.

Continentalism ‘Returns’

Geopolitics, or how geographic attributes influences international relations, fell out of fashion among social scientists in the post-World War II era. Technological advances and ideological competition fostered a sense that geography could be overcome and was not as powerful a shaping factor as once believed. Today, analysts and strategic thinkers throughout the world have recognized that geography does continue to influence international relations, due in part to trends of the post-Cold War period and the reemergence of historically powerful states in Asia.

With geography once again “important,” analysts have given renewed attention to ideas like Brzezinski’s “Grand Chessboard” or Mackinder’s “heartland theory.” Contemporary American analysts, motivated by experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the emergence of violent extremist groups throughout Asia, and greater challenges to American hegemony by other powers (China, Russia and India), have sought to better understand how events in Eurasia affect the international order. Efforts at understanding Eurasia are a key reason why geopolitical analysis has returned to fashion. There is no denying that a geographic perspective can assist in answering key political questions, such as why China is obsessed with its territorial integrity or why Iran is important for Central Asian republics. Yet, while geography matters, it does not determine a country’s trajectory, nor dictate why states rise and fall.

The idea that recent events in Eurasia (the potential of a nuclear deal with Iran, China’s rise, Russia’s aggression, etc.) signals an international climate that will facilitate partnerships among countries challenging the U.S.-led international order is a reflection of older concepts mixing with contemporary events. Premises like Mackinder’s “world-island” are now commonly found throughout analyses examining contemporary Asia, as terms like “great game” and “silk road” become part of strategy once again. Emphasizing geography, and thus land-based power, has drawn valuable attention to Russia’s intentions around its border regions, China’s aspirations for Central Asia and the Middle East, and Iran’s drive to dominate the Middle East. Analysts looking to Eurasia and integrating geopolitical lenses are concerned that the West, particularly the United States, is poorly positioned. With the drawdown in Afghanistan technically completed, some fear that the United States and its Western partners are losing a key baseline for projecting power in Eurasia. Therefore, the United States will return to its traditional domains of power – the air and sea – and leave continental Asia to the designs of other powers.

In other words, while Russia, China, India, and other Asian actors are increasing their engagement throughout Eurasia, the United States and the West are pulling back. The enhanced engagement of these powers is a chance for them to develop a path of influence away from domains dominated by the United States and to develop institutions that recast the international order. It is true that the Middle East and Central Asia offer considerable economic and political opportunities and several states within South Asia have the potential to become leaders. Yet, it should not be forgotten how unstable Eurasia is, the resources the U.S. and its allies still retain, and that powers seeking to project influence throughout Eurasia are as likely to become competitors as partners.

The Hype

Energy deposits, mineral wealth, market incursion, and the development of a swath of territory non-aligned with the established order all make Eurasia attractive to rising powers and isolated states alike. Yet, is the potential boon to states worth the effort?

South Asia is overshadowed by the continuation of Indo-Pakistani tensions. Hostility remains high among both countries and little progress has been made with bilateral relations. Afghanistan, while enjoying a relatively positive relationship with most of its neighbors, severely mistrusts Pakistan (as Pakistan mistrusts Afghanistan). Sri Lanka is still gripped by the aftereffects of its civil war, and Bangladesh and Nepal remain fragile economies. India, as the region’s largest state, simultaneously mismanages relations with many of its neighbors, while overshadowing the region and forcing each neighboring state to take India’s policies into account.

Moving north into Central Asia one finds autocratic regimes that openly mistrust each other. Kazakhstan, the region’s strongest state, enjoys relative stability and moderately positive relations with major powers, but its political leadership fears homegrown political movements and imported radicalism. Tajikistan is plagued by corruption and is locked in a border dispute with Uzbekistan. The Uzbek leadership, in addition to disagreeing with its Tajik neighbors, pursues policies intended to remove virtually all forms of dissent. Kyrgyzstan struggles economically and Turkmenistan remains committed to a neutrality that lends to isolation. China, Russia and the United States have each enjoyed successful engagements in the region, with China and Russia being most involved and often in competition with each other over influence. Iran and India are both becoming more active in Central Asia as well, only adding to the list of non-regional powers seeking to gain a foothold.

The instability in today’s Middle East continues to draw international attention. Israeli-Palestinian violence flared up again in 2014, leading to amplified tensions between Israel and its Western allies. The Syrian civil war is now in its third year, contributing to a refugee crisis in Jordan, the rise of ISIS, increased sectarianism in Lebanon, and renewed sectarian fighting in Iraq. ISIS, formed out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war, now controls substantial territory, endeavors to govern that territory based on its radical ideology, and has thus far largely withstood the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish-led Peshmerga, and the Iraqi military while enduring multinational airstrike operations.

Related to the Syrian civil war is Iran’s continued effort to retain influence in the Levant. As the P5+1 talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue, Iran has used its influence to retain substantial power within Iraq’s government, fights to support the Assad regime and defeat ISIS, and employs Hezbollah in efforts to strengthen Assad’s footing in the Syrian civil war. Through an odd combination of events, Iran’s position in the Levant is threatened by multiple parties yet all the while its influence has never been greater.

Don’t Believe the Hype 

Given the extent of open and potential conflict throughout Eurasia, what state would want to rely on this region for its prosperity? The answer is that two countries see Eurasia as vital to their future – Russia and China. Russia’s involvement throughout Eurasia has been constant since the end of the Soviet Union. Always relying on its geographic resources to exert power, Russia has used former Soviet states surrounding it to keep potential threats at arm’s length. This strategy has had mixed results, as the current situation in Ukraine reveals.

Ukraine, tied to Russia by history, geography and economics, began to drift away from Moscow a decade ago. Pro-Western governments that rose to power were never able to deliver on their promise of greater economic prosperity and political independence, but the possibility of better days by working more closely with the West was enough for Western-oriented MPs to get elected. Putin’s government annexed Crimea and destabilized eastern Ukraine in part to maintain a buffer between the Russian homeland and NATO. Putin’s efforts have destabilized Ukraine, made NATO member states wary of Russian intentions, and led to the creation of a sanctions regime that has already weakened the Russian economy.

While not as dramatic as events in Ukraine, Russia’s relations with the former Soviet states of Central Asia and its actions throughout the Middle East have similarly emphasized security and political calculations over socioeconomic ones. By most measures, Russia is a weakening power, but it does not act as one. It still acts, though it is unclear if it sees itself, as a competitor to the Western-led international order. Thus, beyond its buffer zone against threats, Russia created institutions like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes many former Soviet states in Eurasia, and developed relationships when possible with other states (namely Iran, Syria and, recently, Pakistan).

The Russian regime, led by Vladimir Putin, has survived by transforming the Russian economy into a pseudo-petro state and by exploiting nationalist feelings to develop a Russian vs. non-Russian dichotomy. The Russian economy boomed during the days of record petroleum and natural gas prices, but steady price falls, mixed with sanctions, have severely crippled Russia’s currency and encouraged capital flight out of the country. Putin’s government faces certain recession, which will increase tensions between urban and rural areas and empower opposition political groups.

To offset coming problems, the regime has increased restrictions on dissent and tightened the screws on an already weak free press. Nationalism, long a source of legitimacy for Putin’s government, has become more extreme with promises to protect all Russians regardless of territory boundaries, tacit encouragement of right-wing groups to target homosexuals, ethnic minorities, and other minority groups for harassment, and a more visible presence of state security forces throughout society. Thus, Russia’s internal affairs are entering a period where free expression will become more dangerous while the socioeconomic health of Russia’s people will surely suffer.

Maintaining Russia’s current domestic approach has implications for Russia’s foreign policy. Beyond its continued aggression in Ukraine and more forceful relations with the West, Russia needs to diversify its economy, develop footholds into foreign markets, and strengthen relations with non-Western states. The diversification of the Russian economy is a long-term objective. In the short run Russia can diversify energy exports by moving away from a reliance on European markets and developing agreements with Asia’s rising economies. Russia needs to maintain economic footholds in foreign markets where it has a history of trade and match these ties with new foreign economic opportunities. This means, for instance, that Russia needs to continue to have a strong economic stake in the economies of Central Asia while also improving the scope of trade with South Asian economies, like Pakistan. Beyond economics, the Putin government will also need to strengthen political relations with foreign states, especially states where the West does not have strong ties. This diplomatic push will primarily occur in Asia and seek to exploit instability and conflict for Russian gain. Russia is a weakening state, and to limit its decline Eurasia will remain absolutely essential for the regime.

With the signing of a major natural gas deal in May of 2014 following a meeting between Russian President Vladmir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping and a second deal occurring in November 2014, there is an argument to be made that Eurasia’s two largest powers – Russia and China – have begun an era of cooperation. Whereas Russia’s policies throughout Eurasia have emphasized the political over the economic realm, China’s foreign relations throughout Eurasia have always focused on commerce. The energy deals between China and Russia certainly assist Putin’s government and signal a strengthening of Sino-Russian relations, but Russia’s Eurasia policy centers on Russian primacy. China also seeks primacy in Eurasia and where Putin’s government faces a difficult future, Xi’s government in China possesses the resources provided by thriving economy.

For much of the past century China had no substantial presence in Eurasia. Devastated by a series of wars and inhibited by the failures of the Maoist era, China had little ability to focus its attention beyond its own borders. The arrival of the Deng era brought with it massive economic reforms that opened the country up to foreign investment and global trade. Since this reorientation towards commerce, China has risen to be the world’s second largest economy, in possession of the world’s second largest defense budget (along with the modern military such investment brings), and now possesses both the resources and interest to look beyond its own borders.

China is strongly connected to Eurasia by history, but it is today primarily an Asia-Pacific power. As a late developer, however, China has found its East Asian neighborhood crowded with competitors that have little desire to defer to a new arrival. This has created disputes between China and its East Asian neighbors, particularly within the maritime domain. Added to the complexity of contemporary East Asia is that many of the region’s powers are allied with the United States, increasing nationalist fears within China that neighbors and the United States seek to control China’s rise.

Eurasia is the release valve for complications existing in the east. Above all other complications, China’s rise has made it dependent upon outside mineral and energy deposits in order to continue the construction and manufacturing boom that has sustained the economy for decades. Beginning in the 1990s, China made diplomatic pushes into Central Asia, where it worked with local regimes to develop bilateral trade and gain access to existing natural resource deposits. Kazakh oil and Turkmen natural gas, among other resources, would be pipelined into western China, an area of the country that is severely underdeveloped. Trade brought China and Central Asia closer together. China matched trade with the creation of regional institutions, chief among them the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO began as a minor multilateral institution designed around trade, but has evolved into the principle vehicle for China’s relations with Central Asia and a means by which to move beyond economic cooperation into the realms of politics and security.

Success in Central Asia is not without its drawbacks, as China is presently discovering. By developing relationships and investing throughout the region Beijing has become a stakeholder in the region’s stability. Central Asian states look to China for assistance in keeping order, a role that makes China uncomfortable. Additionally, the success China has had in Central Asia has encouraged the international community, the Afghan National Government, and regional states to ask China to take on a greater role in securing the stability of Afghanistan.

China’s strategy in Central Asia was to develop relationships in order to extract what it needed for its own stability. With that largely accomplished, it is hesitant to become bogged down in regional affairs when its eyes have moved farther to the west – to the resource-rich states of the Gulf. Like Russia, China has historically been a land power and relying on maritime trade to receive petroleum and liquefied natural gas is a strategic problem given that natural resource imports must pass through straits of the eastern Indian Ocean. If a conflict were to emerge between China and its neighbors these imports could be impeded. Without a steady stream of outside natural resources, China’s economy would grind to halt. To combat this potential threat, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is modernizing and expanding its navy as quickly as possible in order for it to become an effective blue water navy capable of facing off against any threat. Yet, the CCP has also sought to develop alternative routes to the Chinese mainland – routes that bypass the straits. Pipelines through Myanmar, a proposed economic cooperation belt in Pakistan, and pipelines, highways and railways through Central Asia are each examples of this approach. In the long run, China hopes to connect existing corridors through Central Asia to the Gulf States and beyond in what is called the Overland Silk Route.

China’s strategy for Eurasia is a comprehensive idea to link the states of “western” Asia to China through trade and commerce. If successful, this system of relationships could be a foundation for projecting global political power, a means to be less reliant on the Western economies of the European Union and the United States, and way to safeguard natural resource supplies. In short, China could use its push west as a means to challenge the international order.

Yet, the speculation of China, Russia, or both developing a Eurasian power base is unlikely when one focuses upon the countries of Eurasia itself and not just the major powers operating within the region. As mentioned above, conflict, or the threat thereof, is present in every corner of Eurasia, making it one of the most unstable areas of the world. To exert power throughout Eurasia would require a massive investment of resources, personnel, and political capital. Russia lacks the resources and capabilities to build such a power base in its current state. It will continue to rely on being a spoiler within the international arena by protecting dangerous regimes (like the Assad regime in Syria) from multilateral action. With Russia incapable, it leaves China to exert itself as a dominant Eurasian power, but its trek west will march into unfamiliar disputes.

China is already navigating the unforeseen consequences of its relations with the Central Asian republics. These complications will only intensify as economic integration progresses. Further to the south, China’s longstanding relationship with Pakistan was once a necessary fortification against potential hostilities with India and a mechanism to protect China’s western border. Today, the relationship with Pakistan, while still positive, is increasingly burdened by Pakistan’s internal instability. That instability has China worried about the security of its borders with Pakistan, the possibility of radicalism emanating into China, and being party to a South Asia dispute not of its choosing. With the Pakistan cooperation corridor delayed by security concerns, China’s larger strategic plans for Eurasia have become more important and more complicated.

Moving to the Gulf region, China’s goal of establishing pipelines, railways, and even roads from the Gulf to western China is dependent on Iran rejoining the community of nations. China is keenly interested in finalizing a nuclear deal with Iran in order for the international sanctions regime to be weakened. If this occurs, Chinese industry can assist in modernizing Iran’s infrastructure and energy sector that would increase the flow of oil and natural gas into China, while establishing Iran as an economic base for its Middle East operations. Iran and China have longstanding diplomatic ties and China has been a consistently sympathetic friend for Iran. A recent development within the bilateral relationship signals that China is pursuing greater security cooperation with Iran, with the maritime domain being key. With the rest of the Gulf States tied to the West, it is only Iran that provides China the economic base it needs.

Of course, helping to achieve a nuclear deal is but one of many problems that will complicate China’s intentions in the Middle East. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are happy to engage with China diplomatically and within a supplier-customer relationship. Yet, the GCC would be far less likely to accept a land-based route to China that takes GCC natural resources through Iranian territory. The animosity that exists between the GCC and Iran (more precisely between Saudi Arabia/UAE and Iran) would disrupt such plans. From the Chinese perspective, such plans are a commercial strategy that has no political element. The conflicts that rage throughout the Middle East right now destabilize the region and make commerce more difficult. In short, politics and economics are entwined in the Middle East.

Finally, it is not China’s plans for Central Asia, ties to South Asia, or its Overland Silk Route to the Middle East that makes Western analysts apprehensive. It is China’s improved ties with Russia that are of real interest. It has been argued that area studies specialists have been too dismissive of the Russia-China natural gas deals, as these two deals combined with Putin and Xi’s good relationship signal a developing overlap of interests that will lead to cooperation. Already, China and Russia have increased joint military exercises, especially in the maritime domain. Improved mil-mil relations are evidence that these two states may be heading towards greater partnership.

The problem with using mil-mil relations as evidence of greater partnership is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is increasing military engagement with most major powers. Mil-mil relations between China and the United States are the most comprehensive in the history of the two states. Increased mil-mil relations are a signal of the PLA’s growing confidence and comfort with its capabilities. The gas deals are certainly a positive development for Russia’s energy sector and Chinese enterprises, but looking beyond the gas deals reveals that there is very little China and Russia have agreed to on a formal level. Increased trade between Russia and China is a significant development, but the most vital markets for China by far remain the European Union and the United States. Russia is an increasingly valuable resource supplier to China, but not yet an all-weather geopolitical partner.

China and Russia agreed to oppose international intervention in Syria, but for different reasons. Russia’s activities in Ukraine have not elicited Chinese condemnation, but they have also not earned Chinese support. Russia has recently signed an arms deal with Pakistan, a development that China sees as potentially destabilizing within Pakistan. On Iran, Russia has signaled a potential willingness to ignore the sanctions regime, as it too is under sanctions and empowering Iran complicates affairs for NATO. China, however, has as much to lose as any actor outside Iran if the nuclear talks fail. Beijing could challenge sanctions, but its economic ties to the West make the cost of such action devastating. When looking towards Eurasia, it becomes clear that China and Russia are as likely to disagree, even compete with one another, on issues as they are to agree. Moreover, within the bilateral relationship, China sees itself as the primary power. Given the Putin regime’s actions in the past several years there is no indication that such a relationship is one that Moscow would accept.


Eurasia will be an important region in this century, but its numerous conflicts make spreading instability as likely as rising prosperity. The wise state will be the one that minimizes the resources it expends on stabilizing Eurasia and the clever state will be the one that helps to facilitate burden sharing when it comes to Eurasian security. It will be interesting to see if any state proves to be both wise and clever.

Jeffrey Payne is manager of Academic Affairs at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.