The common desire of Moscow and Beijing to develop railways linking Asia with Europe is not making as much progress as the two parties had hoped or as many had expected. This is due in part to international concerns involving third countries, including the Central Asian states, but it mostly stems from domestic political considerations inside Russia.
On the one hand, this situation, as Russian and Western analysts recognize, represents a reprise of what occurred at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, when the Russian Empire built the first railroads crossing Eurasia. Perhaps most notably, Russia opened the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903, linking Vladivostok with Moscow. That development not only sparked the Russo-Japanese War but also prompted Halford John Mackinder to elaborate his “heartland theory” in a paper to the Royal Geographic Society in 1904. That theory held that the country that controls the Eurasian heartland is in a position to dominate the world (Casp-geo.ru, July 10).
On the other hand, the emergence of new domestic and international players complicates Russia and China’s contest for power and influence. Each of them must contend not only with domestic factors, such as regionalism and competition for scarce development dollars, but also with new players in the form of the independent countries of Central Asia. Both also face a West that has been committed for most of the last three decades to the development of transportation corridors between China and Europe that bypass the Russian Federation.
A rail line from China through their territory could help end the geo-economic and geopolitical isolation and dependence of Central Asian countries on Russia. Moreover, an east-west route via Central Asia enjoys the political and financial support of Europe and the United States. Yet China’s continuing brutal repression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and the often arrogant behavior of Chinese officials and workers flooding into Central Asia, have made Central Asian countries far less enthusiastic about such a project (Central Asian Analytical Network, December 17, 2018; Polit-asia.kz, July 4, 2019).
That has put the focus back on the development of rail networks from China to Russia, either directly or via Mongolia. Russia has an advantage in that it already has much of the infrastructure in place for such a routing, but it faces three problems: difficulties raising funds for the development of connecting links, such as bridges and transfer stations; competition among Siberian and Russian Far Eastern regions for the routes; and fears that China may use whatever route is developed to expand its influence and power onto Russian territory (Regnum, July 2, February 18). Each of these factors could prove to be a deal killer. And at the very least, the three stumbling blocks have already hampered the expansion of rail freight from China through Mongolia to Russia. Beijing, Ulaanbaatar and Moscow anticipated much higher volumes by this date when they signed an accord in June 2016 to develop that line using existing facilities.
First of all, a combination of Russia’s systemic economic difficulties, Western sanctions, and fears in the West about Chinese domination of Russia have made it far more difficult for Moscow to attract the necessary cash for investments to develop this rail route. China is ready to pay for almost everything, of course, but that has two downsides that Moscow fears even more. First of all, if China pays for the development of this transit network, it will insist on owning it. That could give it leverage over Russia that Moscow does not want to concede. In response, the Russian government has been seeking to develop expanded trade links with Japan, South Korea and other so-called Asian Tigers in the hopes that it can use them to counterbalance China.
Second, in this situation, various regions of Russia east of the Urals are actively competing for the rail corridor to run through their territories. The Transbaikal authorities prefer the Mongolia route, as it would bring most Chinese trade through that region. Tuva, whose head is a former Russian transportation minister and railway executive, is fighting for the development of an alternative line that would pass through that republic. Other regions along the Sino-Russian border are also positioning themselves as alternatives if these should fail (Regnum, July 2). Moscow views all such proactive activity by the regions as incipient secessionism (see EDM, June 27).
These domestic problems in Russia—both Moscow’s obsession about limiting Chinese influence in Siberia and the Russian Far East as well as regional officials who welcome such influence to boost their own economies and political leverage—have largely remained under the radar in Moscow and the West. Like the Chinese repression of the Muslim population of Xinjiang, however, these factors appear certain to slow, if not halt entirely, the expansion of Chinese trade via Russia, and make maritime routes relatively more attractive than overland transit corridors for ties between Asia and Europe. That is yet another way the railroad competition in Eurasia will cast a larger shadow over the world (see EDM, July 12).