What is Russia’s strategic approach to the BRI?

Dmitri Trenin and Alexander Gabuev say Russia sees advantages in nurturing its relationship with a powerful neighbor.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center from 2008 to early 2022.

Moscow’s current relatively benign attitude to the BRI took some time to emerge. Its immediate reaction was largely negative, driven by fears that China wanted to expand into Russia and Central Asia, territory that Moscow considers important in security and economic terms.

On closer inspection, however, Russia decided that the BRI was less of a threat and more of an opportunity—provided it was smart enough to take advantage of it.   

Russia came to see the BRI as the inevitable foray of a rapidly growing country that wants to boost its economic and political influence. More broadly, Russia decided that China – a great power neighbor bent on becoming a superpower – should be treated as a friend. Although a major adversary in recent history, China is now an important partner to Russia during its current confrontation with Washington.

Unlike China, Russia is not in the running for superpowerdom or even primacy on the Eurasian continent. Russia is, however, concerned with protecting its sovereignty and  national interests, while avoiding unnecessary collisions with a powerful neighbor.

Alexander Gabuev
Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Russia certainly does not want to offer its resources and territory for China-led projects that would make Moscow more dependent on Beijing. It is particularly careful not to incur too much Chinese debt. Moscow does not want Beijing to own any projects: they must be joint ventures, over which Russia exercises ultimate control.

Nor are too many Chinese workers welcome in Russia. The Russian government wants infrastructure projects to stimulate employment but also wants to avoid interethnic tensions.

Russia also wants to make sure the BRI does not undermine the Moscow-supported Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It seeks to “harmonize” the EEU and BRI, meaning that the BRI should work with the EEU, rather than completely overshadowing it – while strengthening bilateral ties with its former Soviet neighbors.

Finally, Russia is also promoting its own symbolic answer to the BRI, the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP). This is not a counter strategy, as Russia does not have the resources to compete. But Russia wants the GEP to show that Moscow has its own grand vision. When Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sign joint statements, the Kremlin will trade its support for the BRI for Beijing’s nominal support for the GEP.

Has the mood in Europe changed toward the Belt and Road Initiative?

Tomáš Valášek claims Europe is hardening its stance on China and the BRI.

For now, China is right to be dismissive of European attempts to show more unity and resolve against Chinese overtures. Evidence of a serious pushback is very thin—mainly just a few blocked Chinese purchases of European companies producing sensitive goods (such as highly tensile metals that are primarily used to make weapons) and a new EU strategy paper describing China as a “systemic rival.” Countries continue to buy into the initiative: only a few days after the strategy paper’s release, Italy and Luxembourg both signed memorandums of understanding on the BRI. So, so far, the response is unimpressive.

Tomáš Valášek
Valášek was director of Carnegie Europe and a senior fellow, where his research focused on security and defense, transatlantic relations, and Europe’s Eastern neighborhood.
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But I would bet on a more substantive change coming, because the mood in Europe has turned against China, and it is likely to last for two reasons. First, there is growing concern that China’s industrial policies are no longer just stymying European business in China; they are now beginning to pose a threat to European business in third party countries, as a recent paper by the Federation of German Industries (BDI) points out. It argues that European companies are competing with their Chinese counterparts on uneven ground: China’s government might extend a loan to a developing country to, say, build a highway, that is directly linked to giving business to Chinese firms.

There are also concerns that Chinese companies pose an existential threat to their European rivals because of their size, financial and political support from government, and willingness to play dirty. One example is the purchase of a 9 percent stake in Daimler by the Chinese carmaker, Geely. The contract was designed in a way that avoids investment disclosure obligations under German law.

Second, Europe has become more competition-minded. This is only partly due to China; U.S. President Donald Trump has left Europe with no other option. With the United States now openly regarding Europe as an economic foe, Europe now faces two global competitors willing to throw their entire political weight behind their industries. No European country alone can match Beijing and Washington on size and resources. This explains the European Union’s apparent determination to show more unity and firmness on issues such as reciprocity and foreign investment.

How is India responding to the inroads China is making in its neighborhood?

Darshana M. Baruah illustrates India’s concerns about the BRI and how New Delhi is responding by partnering with its neighbors.

India has eyed the BRI with suspicion since its announcement. New Delhi turned down Beijing’s invitation to the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in May 2017. Instead, it has made pointed statements about transparency and debt burdens. Suffice to say, India is not attending the second Belt and Road Forum.

India’s biggest objection is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a section of the BRI that runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir. New Delhi views this as a violation of India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Darshana M. Baruah
Darshana M. Baruah is a fellow with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where she directs the Indian Ocean Initiative. Her primary research focuses on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific and the role of islands in shaping great power competition.
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India believes China is using the BRI to expand and leverage its strategic advantages in the region. While acknowledging the need for infrastructure projects, India is acutely aware of a growing Chinese presence in its neighborhood. And China’s lack of support for India on the global stage – such as through blocking New Delhi’s efforts to place sanctions on a Pakistan-based terror outfit – has also deepened strategic mistrust.

As a result, India is trying to improve business relationships with its Asian neighbors, with multiple new projects. New Delhi has revived regional institutions such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This allows India to collaborate with other South and South East Asian countries on connectivity and infrastructure development. New Delhi is also taking advantage of Japanese expertise in building infrastructure, by partnering with Tokyo to seek opportunities for joint projects in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

What is the United States getting right and wrong about the BRI?

Paul Haenle argues that the United States should develop its own strategy, rather than only criticizing the BRI.

All countries, including the United States, should have a strong interest in supporting better infrastructure and connectivity. In this way, they should welcome China’s contribution to global infrastructure development. However, China also needs to address the BRI’s shortcomings, in areas such as transparency and sustainability.

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He served as the White House China director on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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The United States and others in the international community have expressed legitimate concerns about how the BRI is being implemented. BRI projects have been prone to corruption and lack built-in economic sustainability measures, regulatory transparency, and good governance. Such weaknesses can run the risk of encouraging more badly managed, poor-quality projects.

If China can show that it’s making sincere efforts to put in place standards that promote transparency, fairness, and sustainability, then the BRI could generate more positive responses from the international community and move China toward a more responsible model of development.

Beijing has stressed time and again that there are no geopolitical calculations behind the BRI. Yet the initiative’s massive scale means that it will necessarily have geostrategic ramifications. Given the rising tensions between the United States and China, more skeptical observers in Washington view the BRI primarily as a Chinese strategy to alter the geopolitical landscape in China's favor.

Washington must develop a strategy that recognizes the BRI’s positive impact, mitigates its negative aspects, and promotes U.S. interests abroad. At the same time, the United States and other countries should be more proactive in addressing global development gaps. It is not enough simply to point out the BRI’s flaws. Washington needs to put forward its own ideas and initiatives.

As it stands today, in many countries, China’s projects are the only game in town. There’s plenty of room for other nations to step up and address this global challenge.

How is China trying to influence other countries’ understanding of the BRI?

Feng Yujun and Ma Bin explain that China is refining its BRI communications strategy.

Feng Yujun
Feng Yujun is vice dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University and director of the institute’s Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies.

China has made efforts to increase the BRI’s transparency. It encourages its officials, media commentators, and scholars to explain the policy by interpreting, studying, and discussing it. By doing this, it hopes that domestic and international communities will better understand China’s point of view.

China is also trying hard to encourage foreign governments, businesses, and social organizations to share positive examples of their experiences of working with China on the BRI.

Ma Bin
Ma Bin is assistant research fellow at the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies and the Research Center for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both at Fudan University.

Finally, Beijing is keen to prove that it will not coerce countries to sign onto BRI projects. To get this message across, China is refining its communications strategy to publicize that it will only work with willing partners.