Across the unending steppes of Central Asia and the frozen forests of Siberia, the spheres of Russia and China meet. In this vast landscape deep in the hinterland of Eurasia, a rising alliance between the two powerful neighbors is utilizing geographic advantages and an array of common interests to cement the foundation of an alternative power axis to the West and its US-dominated East Asian network of allies.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the lone global superpower. With Russia crumbling under a corrupt oligarchy and an impoverished China just emerging from the isolation following the Tiananmen massacre, the unchallenged stature of US supremacy drew some to label the United States as the world’s first hyper-power.
Global industry and trade were dominated by the Group of Seven industrialized nations, whose total output made up nearly 60% of the world’s gross domestic product in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms. Western domination characterized by US leadership, buoyed by its alliance network comprising the European Union states and Japan, formed a ring around the Eurasian continent, with the Pacific and Atlantic oceans setting the stage for global trade and commerce.
The Eurasian hinterland, in contrast, lay as a fallow expanse of failed states, poverty, corruption and backwardness. Russia and China found themselves shut out as equal participants of this power axis.
While Russian society fell into an abyss of chaos and crisis, the West continued its encroachment into Eastern Europe, incorporating swaths of Russia’s former sphere of influence into Western institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU.
China, which had just started to tie itself to global commerce, was contained by Japanese economic might and US military power.
The Eurasian fortress
Chinese and Russian ties began to coalesce around a shared set of interests as the two great powers found themselves the odd ones out of the new world order that had emerged after the Cold War. China was useful as a growing market for Russian commodities and a reliable political ally against Western encroachment, while Russia was invaluable to China as a source of military and space technology.
Over time, with Russia’s political resurgence under the strongman rule of Vladimir Putin, and China’s astronomical ascent into global economic prominence, the marriage of convenience between the two powers has transformed into a comprehensive and overarching strategy aimed at tilting the global balance of power toward their favor.
Russia and China are the world’s largest and third-largest nations by land area. With a combined area of more than 26 million square kilometers, the two powers are the greatest land empires of the Eurasian continent.
Peace between the two giant neighbors guaranteed the freeing of immense resources that would otherwise have been spent warily manning lengthy land borders, thus solidifying a massive Eurasian fortress, turning geographic advantage into a source of power projection out to the coastal margins of the continent – geographic margins that are constituted by the economically vibrant but geographically small nation-states allied with the United States.
The world today looks vastly different than it did in the early 1990s. China now is the world’s second-largest economy and growing more competitive every day in increasingly sophisticated industries that were once the sole preserve of Western and Japanese companies and institutions.
Russia is now a resurgent political power that allegedly infiltrates Western elections and has gained traction among circles of nationalists attempting to overturn the liberal Western order.
The United States, meanwhile, has begun to turn inwards with tensions flaring between the new Donald Trump administration and its European allies.
Everywhere we turn, the once-unquestioned dominance of the Western consensus is fading.
New Silk Road, new world order
In mid-May, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed leaders of and delegates from the 68 countries involved in his country’s One Belt One Road initiative. Although many heads of state failed to arrive, the grandiosity of the summit underlined China’s determination to use economic integration and investment to herald a new world order.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), spearheaded by China and strongly supported by Russia, spells a comprehensive plan to combine the construction of massive infrastructure including roads, trains and ports to the focused agenda of cross-border investment and lending, much of which will be supplied by China.
If the plan comes to fruition, what we will witness in the decades to come is the transformation of a gigantic swath of humanity, from the steppes of Eurasia to the savannas of Africa. Huge populations who were once mired in poverty and isolation will eventually be key nodes of the global economy.
The ultimate goal of the BRI agenda is to shift the center of global trade and power to its favor. However, through the course of this, the plan must also ensure that Eurasia and Africa as a whole share in the growing prosperity, in order to fill the vast potential of their markets and economies.
Without a doubt, this strategy backed by potentially tens of trillions of yuan over the course of decades represents the greatest tip in the balance of global power that we have seen in nearly a century, since an industrializing United States became the world’s greatest economy.
Undoubtedly, if the plan comes to fruition, what we will witness in the decades to come is the transformation of a gigantic swath of humanity, from the steppes of Eurasia to the savannas of Africa. Huge populations who were once mired in poverty and isolation will eventually be key nodes of the global economy.
In the future, it will not only be China challenging the economic power of the United States, but it will be countries like Iran, Nigeria, and Pakistan challenging the economic heft of Japan, Germany and the UK.
All of the commercial roads of this massive geographic continuity will lead to China, and become a sphere dominated by the Sino-Russian alliance. An impenetrable Eurasian fortress.
US cannot afford isolation
In the words of US Defense Secretary James Mattis, the United States is an exceptional nation with two great powers. One is the power of intimidation, its military might. The other is the power of inspiration, its economic and cultural might.
Even as China and Russia strategize to build an opposing pole of power, neither is immune to these truths. Both nations still crave positive relations with the United States.
However, the window of US advantage to use its leverage is also closing. Therefore, it is imperative that the United States leverage its powerful alliances and global influence so that it negotiates effectively with both China and Russia to gain access to new markets and, more important, is not left out as a major underwriter in the architecture of the new world order. Failure to do so will see the US locked out of an emerging “Eurasian Fortress”, where the fortunes and dramas shaping our future will be made.