The Chinese Delusion of a Greater Eurasia

Eurasia is back. Ever since the publication of Halford Mackinder’s famous 1904 essay, “The Geographical Pivot of History”, military-minded schoolboys have fantasised about the possibility of a Eurasian empire stretching (in the much more recent words of Vladimir Putin) “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. Mackinder was perhaps the most influential geographer of his day, and he reckoned Central Asia’s “potentialities in population, wheat, cotton, fuel, and metals so incalculably great, that it is inevitable that a vast economic world, more or less apart, will there develop inaccessible to oceanic commerce”. He forecast that by the end of the twentieth century, Central Asia would be crisscrossed by a railroad network to put the American Midwest to shame. He was so enamored of his vision of a Eurasian “world-island” rising to become the core of the global economy that in a 1919 follow-up book he slipped from prose into verse:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.

In reality, Mackinder’s world-island remained a political and economic backwater throughout the twentieth century, but the announcement of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 and the return of Russia to great power politics in 2014 brought Eurasia back into fashion. Eurasianism, in one form or another, has become a kind of house ideology of Chinese and Russian strategists. Of course, Chinese and Russian scholars may have no choice but to be enthusiastic about Eurasia, but two new books from Western authors also take the idea very seriously. The Norwegian political scientist Glenn Diesen explores Russia’s Eurasian dream in his thoroughly analytical Russia’s Geoeconomic Strategy for a Greater Eurasia, while the Portuguese diplomat and banker Bruno Macaes focuses more on the economic pull of China in his half-history, half-travelogue The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order. Both books provide eminently readable and thoroughly up-to-date treatments of the meaning of Eurasia today, and both authors buy into Mackinder’s basic thesis that Eurasia will “once again” be the geographical pivot of history.

This essay appears in the March Quadrant.
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“Once again”, because it is a Eurasianist trope that during the era of the great khans, various Mongol hordes sat at the centre of the world-island’s (and thus the world’s) political economy. This view of history transforms Genghis Khan from the bloodthirsty slaughterer of the steppes into a ruthless but effective unifier of East and West. Eurasianists inevitably invoke the caravan routes of the past, comparing them to the pipeline routes of the present and the rail corridors of the future. Writing in 1904, Mackinder thought that Moscow would soon become the Chicago of a Eurasian rail network; a century later, Diesen seems inclined to the same view, while Macaes seems to think Kazakhstan a more likely nodal point. All Eurasianists tend to forget that seaborne trade is far cheaper than land transportation of any kind, whether camel caravan or rail freight. The camel trains of Eurasian lore were made necessary only by the periodic closure of the (much cheaper) sea routes around India and up the Persian Gulf leading to the short hop overland to Damascus and Constantinople. Once Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, the world never looked back.

The Portuguese Macaes should know this, but perhaps the Norwegian Diesen can be forgiven for taking the overland route to Asia. Diesen places twenty-first-century terrestrial infrastructure networks at the centre of his analysis. He finds an intellectual framework for this analysis in the emerging field of geoeconomics (defined by Diesen as “the economics of geopolitics”), and devotes his book to elucidating Russia’s optimal geoeconomic strategy for Eurasian dominance.

Geoeconomics is a new discipline, and it has not yet developed a master suite of theories and methods that are accepted as the consensus of its practitioners. Diesen is thus somewhat on his own in laying down the scientific terms of his analyses, and he brilliantly rises to the challenge of theorising political power in geoeconomic terms. Diesen’s understanding of geoeconomic power centres on the importance of what he calls “balance of dependence” logic. Diesen sees the balance of dependence as the economic analogue of the balance-of-power logic that prevails in geopolitical theory. Whereas geopolitical power is ordinarily wielded through positive actions like the use of military force, geoeconomic power is wielded by withholding engagement in ways that could harm a counterpart’s economy. For example, if Russia and China depend on American interbank payments networks, but the United States does not depend on Russian or Chinese networks, then the United States can wield geoeconomic power by threatening to impose economic sanctions that would in effect exclude Russia or China from the global financial system. In this case, the balance of dependence favours the United States. And in fact this unfavourable balance of dependence has prompted both Russia and China to sponsor independent payments networks that cannot be cut off by US sanctions.

Meanwhile in the balance of dependence between the European Union and Russia, Russia depends on European markets for exports to generate hard currency while the EU depends on Russian oil and (crucially) natural gas to provide for its core energy needs. Here the geoeconomic balance of dependence seems to tilt decisively in Russia’s favour, as the 2014 Ukraine crisis amply demonstrated. Although the EU and several of its most powerful member states condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, dependence on Russian gas deterred European countries from taking any meaningful action in response to the crisis. In theory, the EU could have crippled the Russian economy by placing an embargo on Russian energy, but to do so would have plunged much of Europe into cold and darkness. Fixed pipeline routes ensure that Russia’s ability to restrict gas supplies to Europe is a much more powerful geoeconomic tool than Europe’s ability to restrict purchases from Russia.

The geoeconomics of Eurasian gas pipelines explains why the United States has consistently pressured Europe to develop liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals. Of course the United States wants to sell its own gas to Europe, but European LNG imports could equally well come from Iran, Qatar or even Russia itself. The key geoeconomic difference between ocean-borne LNG and terrestrial pipeline gas is that the former is not subject to balance-of-dependence logic, but the latter is. A plurality of providers ensures that, in extremis, countries can always seek alternative sources of supply for LNG imports. Road, rail and (most of all) pipeline imports, by contrast, are constrained to follow fixed routes.

A country can gain even greater geoeconomic power by developing multiple export routes for strategic commodities for which other countries have only one import route. Thus Russia is eagerly building oil and gas pipelines to China and Japan to complement its existing westward-facing pipeline network. Diesen calls this Russia’s “swing” strategy. The swing strategy represents more than simple export market diversification. Diversification would give Russia greater ability to withstand the closure of any one market, since the overall economic impact of the loss of any one export market would be relatively less catastrophic. But mere diversification does not confer serious geoeconomic power. It is the ability to choose whether to send any given quantity of energy to Europe or to Asia that really shifts the geoeconomic balance of dependence. A fully integrated Eurasian energy market centred on Russia would give Russia the power to shift between export destinations—each of them dependent on Russian supplies—with little or no economic loss to itself.

Though Diesen makes much of this possibility, the reality is that Russia’s Europe-facing and Asia-facing pipeline networks are separated by thousands of miles, and even if they were connected, it would be wildly uneconomic to maintain sufficient excess capacity to be able to switch supplies between the two networks. Russia has nothing like the American Henry Hub for gas and Cushing Hub for oil, places where gigantic storage facilities are connected to dense pipeline networks leading in every direction to the continent’s major consumer markets. And no wonder: the distance between the west Siberian head of Russia’s Europe-focused gas network and the east Siberian head of Russia’s Asia-focused oil network is some 1000 miles. That’s as the crow flies, not as the pipeline wiggles. And in Siberia, the pipeline wiggles a lot: the road distance between the two pipeline heads is nearly twice as long. The two networks might in the future be bridged with a bidirectional switching pipeline, but they will never be integrated in a way that makes the swing strategy viable.

Nevertheless, Diesen astutely applies geopolitical balance-of-dependence logic to Russia’s strategy of playing China against Japan in seeking funding for the Eastern Siberia oil pipeline and Power of Siberia gas pipeline. Here Russia was able to extract concessions from both countries as the price of connecting them to Russian resources. China is especially keen to access Russian energy because of its potential to reduce Chinese dependence on seaborne oil and gas imports, which could in theory be choked off by the United States at any time due to American mastery of the high seas. But in dealing with China, Russia is dealing with fire. It may be inconceivable that the European Union would take aggressive action to ensure its energy supplies from Russia, but it is perhaps not inconceivable that, at some point in the middle future, China would act against Russia in Siberia if its core energy supplies were threatened. In ordinary times, geoeconomics trumps geopolitics, but in extraordinary times, geopolitics is more likely to be the ultimate arbiter of a country’s fate.

Crossing the continent in the other direction, both Diesen and Macaes see the Caspian Sea as a potential route for the north-south integration of Eurasia, and Macaes even goes one further to assert that “China and India are bound to develop the world’s largest trading relationship”. Eurasian fantasies like these are fostered by viewing the world in terms of political geography rather than physical geography or human geography. Mackinder of all people, one-time Director of the London School of Economics and President of the Geographical Association, should have known better, but he has seduced generations of later analysts into what might be called a “mappist” view of the world. A simple look at the map shows that the Caspian has the potential to connect northern Iranian ports to Russian Astrakhan and thence via the Volga and Russia’s canal network to the entire Russian industrial heartland, as Diesen points out in his analysis of north-south integration. But what does Russia have to export to Iran except missiles and tanks? On the other side of the relationship, what use has Russia for Iranian oil and gas? Iran’s largest non-energy export is pistachios.

Macaes has actually sailed on the Caspian Sea, where he reports that the water is not blue or green but “breaks apart in patches of endlessly shifting colours”. He describes the Caspian as “more a barrier than a bridge”, where there are no passenger ferries and the few cargo ships plying the waters are tramp traders running on no fixed schedule. Searching for the centre of Eurasia, the “middle point on the trade route between Europe and China” where in ancient times adventurous Greek traders met their equally adventurous Chinese and Indian counterparts, Macaes settles instead on the remote Central Asian settlement of Tashkurgan, now a small town on the eastern edge of China’s restive Xinjiang province. Tashkurgan is only about twelve miles from the border of Tajikistan, but there is apparently no road over the mountains. So much for east-west integration. Tashkurgan is, however, on the Karakoram Highway running south from China through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

The Karakoram Highway is a two-lane road that Chinese Belt & Road engineers are now expanding into a four-lane divided highway that has been under way since the beginning of the decade and is still unfinished. It is a flagship project of China’s BRI, and it reeks of mappism. In theory, the highway will give the world’s second-largest economy (China) a direct outlet to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and its Chinese-built port of Gwadar. It will also, in theory, connect China to energy supplies from Iran and markets in India. So good, so far—in theory.

In practice, the Karakoram Highway is literally the only paved road over the mountains that separate China from South Asia. That’s one paved road across a Eurasian continental divide that stretches for more than 2000 miles from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. And the intercontinental road connections in Afghanistan and Myanmar are meagre, to say the least. In all that stretch (and more) there are no railroads and no pipelines across the continental divide. The Karakoram Highway itself is often closed for months at a time due to snow or rockslides. Even if it does ultimately succeed, it has nowhere to go. India is perpetually cut off from Pakistan due to political hostility, and it is much cheaper to get Iranian oil and gas to Shanghai by sea than overland. Imagine even a single Chinese province of 50 million people sucking its energy supplies through the straw of an avalanche-prone highway across a politically unstable country, and you immediately understand the futility of BRI Eurasian mappism. On a map, the ancient city of Tashkurgan looks like a key meeting place of east and west, north and south. In reality, it is a three-petrol-station town (thank you, Google Maps) in the middle of the middle of nowhere.

Macaes also makes the now-obligatory BRI pilgrimage to Khorgos, the shining new dry port on the border between China and Kazakhstan, or as Macaes would have it, “the border between China and Europe”. Like all pilgrims to Khorgos, he reports breathlessly on the machinations of the “three giant yellow cranes, shining in the morning sunlight” that tranship containers from China’s standard gauge railways to the former Soviet Union’s wide gauge. For all the hoopla around the new rail freight routes now connecting Europe and China, the trains themselves can’t actually make the journey because of differences in gauge. The three Khorgos gantry cranes that shift containers from Chinese to former Soviet railways are, for Macaes and other BRI boosters, part of “an ambitious new project to build one of the world’s greatest ports”. He might as well have visited the corresponding transhipment points—complete with their own giant gantry cranes—on the border between Belarus and Poland. There’s the same break in rail gauge there, from Soviet wide gauge back to European standard gauge. But no one touts Belarus as the new economic crossroads of the world merely because you have to change trains there on the way from China to Europe.

Ultimately, Macaes does come down to earth, as when he seemingly accepts the judgment of a German foreign ministry official that the Eurasian dreams of Chinese and Russian geoeconomists are really no more than bread-and-butter politics aimed at “diversifying the economy, increasing options”. Macaes fully understands that the Chinese economic commitment to Eurasia is driven by the state and based firmly on strategic considerations, not economic ones. Himself a former diplomat, Macaes thinks the European Union should be less squeamish in playing the great game for the heart of Eurasia; that Europe should, when necessary, play more by the rough-and-tumble rules of China and Russia, since the game can’t really be played any other way. Macaes takes it for granted that the game must be played, arguing that the EU “must increase its presence in countries that play the decisive role of gateways and connecting nodes along the new routes linking Europe and Asia”. A non-Eurasianist might wonder: why bother?

If Diesen’s Russia’s Geoeconomic Strategy for a Greater Eurasia is an intellectual tour de force that theorises Eurasia in the hard-nosed terms of analytical social science, Macaes’s The Dawn of Eurasia is a magic carpet ride through time and space that uses the legendary past as a jumping-off point for an imaginative future. The two books are complementary, presenting what are in many ways parallel arguments in very different terms and for very different audiences. If they both suffer from the same Eurasianist mappism, they nonetheless both represent the best in class of their own treatments of Eurasianism. You won’t find a more incisive analysis of Eurasian geoeconomics than Diesen’s Russia’s Geoeconomic Strategy, and you won’t find a more romantic guide to the Eurasian vision than Macaes in The Dawn of Eurasia.

But for those who like to go back to beginnings, the best place to start the Eurasian journey may be Nikolai Danilevskii’s Russia and Europe: The Slavic World’s Political and Cultural Relations with the Germanic-Roman West, first published in 1871 but only recently made available to English readers in a translation by Stephen M. Woodburn. It is incredible that a book so important in European thought should not have been translated into English until 2013, and Woodburn—a historian, not a professional translator—is owed a debt of gratitude by all English readers who want to more fully understand the intellectual roots of Russian Eurasianism. Woodburn has given us a finely written and well-annotated edition of Danilevskii’s Eurasian masterpiece.

Nikolai Danilevskii (1822–85; also Romanised as Nikolay Danilevsky) was a Russian naturalist and explorer who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, led several expeditions into remote areas of the rapidly expanding Russian empire. In 1869 he published his ideas on Slavic unity and Russia’s Eurasian heritage in serial form in an obscure St Petersburg journal; these were collected and published in book form in an 1871 second edition. In his book, Danilevskii emphasised the Eurasian origins of modern Russia, which incorporates many institutional elements of the Mongol hordes that ruled over much of Russia’s Slavic population from 1240 through to the early sixteenth century. Danilevskii made much of the fact that the Mongols didn’t just rule over Russia; they ruled with Russians, and in negotiated dialogue with Russians, in a relationship that ultimately tilted in the other direction. Even today, the Turkic and Mongolian republics of Central Asia live in a continuously negotiated condominium with Russia and Russians.

Danilevskii maintained that Russia was never part of the “Germanic-Roman West” centred on the early medieval empire of Charlemagne, nor were any of the Slavic peoples, who for him constituted a single “cultural-historical type”. Danilevskii thought it a mistake for Russia to play a major role in (Western) European affairs and would have had Russia instead focus on providing leadership to the Slavs. For Danilevskii, as for Mackinder, Eastern Europe was the heartland of Eurasia, but Danilevskii did not share Mackinder’s taste for conquest and continental dominance. Danilevskii sought instead the internal development of the Slavic world—though of course under Russian tutelage. Danilevskii imagined that a pan-Slavic union led by Russia would be governed from Constantinople (to be renamed “Tsargrad”). His proposed union would have been led by the Russian Tsar in a personal capacity, not ruled from Moscow as provinces of a Russian empire. But Russia never got to Constantinople, and so never obtained the dominance over Eastern Christianity and access to the Mediterranean dreamt of by Danilevskii and his fellow Slavophiles.

Today’s Eurasianists may be more focused on Central Asia than Eastern Europe, but Russia’s actual foreign policy objectives continue to focus on Mackinder’s Eastern European “heartland”. Here Russia seems intent on playing Diesen’s “balance of dependence” game, exerting selective pressure on weaker members (and would-be members) of the European Union to adopt policies more favourable to Russia. In doing so, Russia may be making headway, but it certainly isn’t making many friends.

Danilevskii would not be surprised. Poetry runs in the veins of Eurasianism, and Danilevskii prefaced his second chapter with the epigram:

We hear the slander, we suffer the insults;
Betrayal, envy, and fear if ill results,
In the press with its Hydra-headed lies,
Friends for our Russia nowhere arise!

Danilevskii did not offer a source for the couplets, and Woodburn considers it possible that they may have been his own. It is certainly true that Russia suffers more than its fair share of slanders, insults, betrayal, envy and fear. But then again, most other countries have long since given up on dreams of creating a “greater” version of themselves through the subjugation of their neighbours. There have in history been greater Polands, greater Hungarys, and even greater Bulgarias, but these days most countries seem content to live within their own borders.

Eurasianism may or may not be an impossible dream. But its revival sparks a bigger question: what’s the point in dreaming it at all? Even if, as Mackinder believed, whoever rules the “heartland” may command the “world-island”, what use is it to command the world-island? Russia and China are both still relatively poor countries with only one-fifth the national income per capita of the United States. b


Russia’s Geoeconomic Strategy for a Greater Eurasia
by Glenn Diesen

Routledge, 2017, 194 pages, $242 The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order
by Bruno Macaes

Allen Lane, 2018, 320 pages, $22.99 Russia and Europe: The Slavic World’s Political and Cultural Relations with the Germanic-Roman West
by Nikolai Iakovlevich Danilevskii; translated by Stephen M. Woodburn

Slavica, 2013, 464 pages, US$39.95

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts, recently published by Polity.


2 thoughts on “The Chinese Delusion of a Greater Eurasia

  • whitelaughter says:

    Having been a “military-minded schoolboy”this article was a great answer to many childhood fantasies. Anyone tempted by the Eurasian dream should find your rebuttal points self-evident the moment they are pointed out.
    The only thing I would add is to remember that Russia was built on river trade, and the rivers run north-south – trade between Scandinavia and Constantinople was easy, but a Polish scholar was denying the existence of the Urals as late as the 16thC.

  • sbabones says:

    Funny! Thanks for reading.

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