Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev built upon President Putin’s earlier suggestion and formally proposed a grand multilateral economic partnership during his trip to China.
“Russia proposes starting consultations with the Eurasian Economic Union and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, including the counties joining the alliance, and with countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the creation of an economic partnership based on the principles of equality and mutual interests.”
This suggestion corresponds to what President Putin said during his 3 December Address to the Federal Assembly, when he announced that:
“I propose holding consultations, in conjunction with our colleagues from the Eurasian Economic Union, with the SCO and ASEAN members, as well as with the states that are about to join the SCO, with the view of potentially forming an economic partnership.”
In the blink of an eye, and at a time when the Western mainstream media is barking about Russia’s purported lack of economic opportunities and “isolation”, Moscow just proposed the world’s most far-reaching economic partnership and took the West completely off guard.
From Minsk to Manila
Russia’s idea is very similar in concept to Charles de Gaulle’s famous quip about a Europe “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. Taking into account current geopolitical realities and the fact that they’re likely symptomatic of new long-term trends, Putin updated the former French leader’s multipolar vision and essentially made it about a ‘Eurasia from Minsk to Manilla’ instead. This reiteration represents the western-most and southeastern-most capitals of the proposed multilateral economic partnership and is an accurate way of describing the vast continental space contained within its borders. Let’s review the membership of each organization that’s envisioned to be party to what could eventually become a Grand Eurasian Free Trade Area (GEFTA):
Eurasian Economic Union:
This nascent organization brings together the economies of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan and stretches over most of the former Soviet Union. While still in its infancy, its members are working hard to coordinate their common economic space and standardize related legal procedures within it. Unlike the EU to which it’s often and misleadingly compared, there is no political component to the bloc and it is strictly an economic group that focuses on equitable shared interest.
Originally known as the “Shanghai Five” and created in 1996 to assist with delineating the boundaries that five former Soviet states inherited with China, it gained its present name after the 2001 inclusion of Uzbekistan. The organization is now a multi-sectoral cooperative platform for its members and has grown past the shared former Soviet-Chinese space. India and Pakistan are currently ascending into the organization, while Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia have observer status
The oldest of the three organizations, it was created in 1967 in order to bring the Southeast Asian states closer together in all respects. The founding members were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, but the group later incorporated Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and finally Cambodia in 1999. Since its pan-regional expansion, the bloc has been one of the fastest-growing regions in the world, and its members just declared the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in late November in order to strengthen their integrational efforts.
GEFTA is a very clever suggestion that seeks to benefit from the intersecting economic interests of its proposed partners. As it currently stands, here’s what the macroeconomic arrangement looks like:
South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC, a FTA stretching from Afghanistan to Bangladesh)
Eurasian Union-ASEAN FTA
Eurasian Union-China FTA
Eurasian Union-India FTA
Eurasian Union-Iran FTA
India-Iran Free FTA
The Challenges Ahead
GEFTA is a long-term vision that will probably take some time to actualize, but in the meantime, there are two primary challenges standing in the way of its full proposed implementation. These are India’s suspicion of China and the US-driven TPP:
It’s no secret that India and China are friendly competitors, but it might be more apt to describe them as geopolitical rivals at this point. While they publicly get along well in large-scale multilateral institutions such as the AIIB, BRICS, and the SCO, they fare a lot worse when it comes to indirect bilateral relations. They have lukewarm ties in dealing with each other one-on-one, but relations are considerably colder when they indirectly deal with the other via their policies with third-party states.
For example, India and China are in a heavy competition for influence over Nepal at this very moment, despite both sides publicly denying it, and it’s aggravating the security dilemma between both of them. Also, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just paid a landmark visit to India where it was announced that Japan will help build India’s first high-speed rail project, share military secrets with it and sell related equipment, and help India in the field of nuclear energy.
Suffice to say, India isn’t behaving too friendly towards China, and when it comes to GEFTA, New Delhi might understandably be reluctant to partner with Beijing if it sees no tangible benefit in doing so. To reference the list in the second section, India has the potential to enter into free trade relations (or is already in them) with all of GEFTA’s proposed members with the exception of China, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan, and it might not see Ulaanbaatar and Tashkent as suitable economic compensation for agreeing to the multilateral deal with China. From India’s perspective, its leaders might instead choose to seal a raft of bilateral trade agreements instead of a massive multisided one that includes China.
Fulfilling its role as the ultimate spoiler, the US is pushing the TPP partly because it knows that this could disrupt any independent free trade negotiations between ASEAN and its prospective Eurasian Union partners. While only a few of the group’s members are officially party to this forthcoming agreement (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam), Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said in late October that his country intends to join, which if it happens, would decisively shift the bloc’s economic gravity towards the US.
ASEAN has now begun an intensified process of self-integration through the AEC, and it’s foreseeable that it will eventually seek to standardize its myriad FTAs. The problem arises when one considers that the TPP’s ‘economic governance’ precepts could seriously hinder the independent policies of some of its members and place them under the de-facto proxy control of the US and its transnational corporations. In the event that the TPP is finalized, the AEC states that are signatories to it would become institutionally loyal pro-American subjects that would have legally waived their right to a sovereign economic policy outside of Washington’s purview.
Considering the New Cold War geopolitical tensions between the unipolar and multipolar worlds, it’s possible that the US might use its TPP influence within the AEC to find a way to revise ASEAN’s existing FTA with China (and Vietnam’s one with the Eurasian Union) on the grounds that they contradict one of the more than two million words absurdly contained in the TPP. The US’ goal is to pry ASEAN away from all economic influences outside of the Pentagon’s control (obviously including Russia and China) and entrap the burgeoning economies in an American-centric net of control.
Even in the unfortunate scenario of India’s non-participation in GEFTA and the US being successful in using the TPP to entice the AEC away from China and Russia, Moscow and Beijing could still shake the economic foundations of the Old World Order by deepening their bilateral trade relations, perhaps through a Eurasian Union-China FTA. India and ASEAN’s multilateral cooperation in this framework would greatly assist in the economic development of a New Eurasia but they’re not absolutely necessary, and Russia and China can still prevail in building an equitable Eurasian future on their own if need be.