Who Lost Eurasia?
For Chinese leaders, the One Belt, One Road plan -- an "economic partnership map with multiple rings interconnected with one another" -- is seen as an escape route from the Washington Consensus and the dollar-centered global financial system that goes with it. And while "guns" are being drawn, the "battlefield" of the future, as the Chinese see it, is essentially a global economic one.
On one side are the mega-economic pacts being touted by Washington -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership -- that would split Eurasia in two. On the other, there is the urge for a new pan-Eurasian integration program that would be focused on China, and feature Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and India as major players. Last May, Russia and China closed a deal to coordinate the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with new Silk Road projects. As part of their developing strategic partnership, Russia is already China's number one oil supplier.
With Ukraine's fate still in the balance, there is, at present, little room for the sort of serious business dialogue between the European Union (EU) and the EEU that might someday fuse Europe and Russia into the Chinese vision of full-scale, continent-wide Eurasian integration. And yet German business types, in particular, remain focused on and fascinated by the limitless possibilities of the New Silk Road concept and the way it might profitably link the continent.
If you're looking for a future first sign of detente on this score, keep an eye on any EU moves to engage economically with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Its membership at present: China, Russia, and four "stans" (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). India and Pakistan are to become members in 2016, and Iran once U.N. sanctions are completely lifted. A monster second step (no time soon) would be for this dialogue to become the springboard for the building of a trans-European "one-belt" zone. That could only happen after there was a genuine settlement in Ukraine and EU sanctions on Russia had been lifted. Think of it as the long and winding road towards what Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to sell the Germans in 2010: a Eurasian free-trade zone extending from Vladivostok to Lisbon.
Any such moves will, of course, only happen over Washington's dead body. At the moment, inside the Beltway, sentiment ranges from gloating over the economic "death" of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), most of which are facing daunting economic dislocations even as their political, diplomatic, and strategic integration proceeds apace, to fear or even downright anticipation of World War III and the Russian "threat."
No one in Washington wants to "lose" Eurasia to China and its new Silk Roads. On what former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski calls "the grand chessboard," Beltway elites and the punditocracy that follows them will never resign themselves to seeing the U.S. relegated to the role of "offshore balancer," while China dominates an integrating Eurasia. Hence, those two trade pacts and that "pivot," the heightened U.S. naval presence in Asian waters, the new urge to "contain" China, and the demonization of both Putin's Russia and the Chinese military threat.
Thucydides, Eat Your Heart Out
Which brings us full circle to Xi's crush on Jeremy Rifkin. Make no mistake about it: whatever Washington may want, China is indeed the rising power in Eurasia and a larger-than-life economic magnet. From London to Berlin, there are signs in the EU that, despite so many decades of trans-Atlantic allegiance, there is also something too attractive to ignore about what China has to offer. There is already a push towards the configuration of a European-wide digital economy closely linked with China. The aim would be a Rifkin-esque digitally integrated economic space spanning Eurasia, which in turn would be an essential building block for that post-carbon third industrial revolution.
The G-20 this year was in Antalya, Turkey, and it was a fractious affair dominated by Islamic State jihadism in the streets of Paris. The G-20 in 2016 will be in Hangzhou, China, which also happens to be the hometown of Jack Ma and the headquarters for Alibaba. You can't get more third industrial revolution than that.
One year is an eternity in geopolitics. But what if, in 2016, Hangzhou did indeed offer a vision of the future, of silk roads galore and night trains from Central Asia to Duisburg, Germany, a future arguably dominated by Xi's vision. He is, at least, keen on enshrining the G-20 as a multipolar global mechanism for coordinating a common development framework. Within it, Washington and Beijing might sometimes actually work together in a world in which chess, not Battleship, would be the game of the century.
Thucydides, eat your heart out.