BRI: Russia Ukraine War and Alternative Options | By Dr Mehmood Ul Hassan Khan

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BRI: Russia Ukraine War and Alternative Options

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has now changed the security parameters. It has also changed the rules of economy, politics, geography, sociology and even diplomacy.

Now hot debate is purposefully going on in various Western media outlets about ongoing war and its expected socio-economic, geopolitical and geostrategic spillover ramifications on China’s One Belt & One Road Initiative (BRI).

Majority of the so-called pseudo intellectuals of the West have been disseminating false, fake and fictional analysis, correlations and news items against so-called diminishing returns of Chinese BRI, especially in South Caucasus and European Union since the start of war. Interestingly, reality check is far away from this self-coined misperception, manipulation and schemed propaganda of the US and the West. BRI is still operational and channelizing important supply chains in the world.

According to the latest data (December 2021), the trade between EU and China was $800 billion and EU-Russia trade was $200 billion. Frankly speaking, cutting off Europe from China and Russia either is absurd and genuinely not applicable.

On the contrary, EU politicians are now busy in giving misleading statements and raising so-called serious concerns about the imminent disconnection from China and Russia but their investors, businessmen and financial gurus who generate profits, pay taxes and afloat fiscal balance are still closely associated with China and, of course, its global development project BRI.

In this connection, the New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor connects the rail transportation between China and Europe via Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus. It seems that the ongoing war has somewhat slowed down this BRI network because China shares a good relationship with both Russia and Ukraine. But Chinese wisdom of conflict resolution, diplomacy and dialogue has already urged all the conflicting parties to give a chance to peace. Thus China does not want to derail its connectivity with the EU or another country in the region and beyond because of imperialistic designs of the West and Eastern expansion of NATO.

China is Russia’s closest partner and on the other side, China has been the largest trading partner of Ukraine. China is the major destination of Ukraine’s export, around 15.3 per cent of Ukraine’s export goes to China. China considered Ukraine as one of the strategic locations to get an opportunity to expand the project in the EU since the start of BRI in 2013.

Most recently, China has dispatched substantial humanitarian assistance to Kiev and has also granted financial aid which vividly reflects its firm belief in conflict resolution, peaceful co-existence, diplomacy, dialogue and development.

In 2017, Ukraine joined BRI intending to modernize its rail and road infrastructure. As of 2021, both these countries have signed $3 billion construction contracts in the transportation and energy sector. Despite war China’s commitment towards Ukraine is firm and functional.

At present, 78 lines are operational that connect China to Europe covering 180 cities and 23 countries of Europe. In 2021, the value of goods transported by these freight trains is $74.9 billion. According to the latest report (February 2022) there was ‘1 trip every 30 minutes and 50 thousand trips overall are already completed during 2021. These freight trains have developed new hubs in Poland as well as in Russia. But now due to imposed sanctions on Russia it would face a difficult time. That is why China has opposed imposition of unilateral sanctions against Russia which would have backlashed for the world economy too.

Unfortunately, now the genie of geopolitics has come out of the bottle of self-inserted and self-defined principles of engagement, democracy, security, and economic diplomacy due to which geo-economics has become in the line of fire.

Now  intersection of economy and geography are at stake due to which China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the European Union’s Global Gateway, the U.S.-led Blue Dot Network (BDN), the G-7’s Build Back Better World (B3W), Japan’s Quality Infrastructure Investment (QII), Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) driven by Russia, Iran, and India have become hot topic.

However, it seems that Chinese spirits of connectivity and community development are at war against planned conflicts and conspiracies around the world. But China’s BRI has comparative advantage over these projects because of its size, capacity to produce immense economic goods, diversified utility and immense strategic importance in terms of greater regional connectivity, world class infrastructural development, formation of economic corridors, alternative routes/options for development, green energy resources, befitting industrialization, eradication of poverty and generation of new jobs around the globe and especially in all the member countries of the BRI.

Luckily, China’s BRI is currently the largest geo-economic initiative in the world which has no comparison involving more than 170 countries. For China, the vast Russian landmass is still the most reliable land-route to the rich EU market. Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus have all hoped to be part of the New Eurasian Land Bridge, which is a mainly rail-based connectivity vision.

Furthermore, the 17+1, which is a BRI cooperation platform between China (the “1”) and 17 (originally 16) Central and Eastern European countries, are already core recipients of Chinese funds and a series of mega projects under the flagship project of BRI.

It fears that China-EU connectivity will have to rely more on good old maritime routes, which have proved more resilient than road or rail networks. It is worth remembering that more than 80 percent of global commerce is still conducted via maritime routes. China’s enthusiasm for rail connectivity will have to face a difficult proposition in the short term but hopefully, the dust of war will be settled very soon.

Apparently, China may bypass the Russian-Belarusian and maybe Ukrainian geography. The BRI’s other corridors will inevitably gain more reliability for China-EU connectivity. It forecasts that the Central Asia-West Asia (CAWA) corridor is likely to become more significant in Chinese policy making. By transiting via Central Asian countries, the Caspian region, Iran, and Turkey, the BRI can bypass Russia and reach Europe.

Interestingly, the potential restoration of the Iran Nuclear Deal (IND) and the Sino-Iranian 25-year strategic agreement are already set to enhance the role of the CAWA corridor. The centrality of Iranian geography for China and the attractiveness of unsanctioned Iranian gas and oil for the EU as an alternative to Russia’s could boost the geo-economic role of Iran in the current circumstances.

Seemingly, China’s other option is to rely further on the BRI’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is connected to the Indian Ocean. It is also connected to Iran and Turkey and by extension Europe via road and rail (e.g., the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul train). Even proposed Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan trilateral rail project and QTTA may be further enhanced chances of regional connectivity with all the Central Asian countries in which CPEC may also play a vital role.  China therefore has the option of further integrating CPEC and the CAWA corridor and solidifying China-Pakistan-Iran connections to reach Europe via land.

Moreover, China’s BRI can also be interlinked with Turkey’s Middle Corridor, a geo-economic initiative that includes the Caspian region and Central Asian countries. Turkish policymakers have regularly promoted the potential synergies between their initiative and China’s BRI.

To conclude closer strategic proximity to China’s economic and financial institutions and services is the only immediately viable option for Russia to absorb the shock of the sanctions. After MasterCard and Visa left Russia, China’s Union-Pay is set to replace them.

It is only one sign of the “new era” agreement that China and Russia recently signed and promoted. In the long run, Russia’s and the EAEU’s economic and geographic potentials are likely to be absorbed by China’s economy and the BRI’s geography.

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