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October 14, 2014
THE PLANET OF THE FUTURE -- A BEIJING-MOSCOW-BERLIN ALLIANCE
Forward by Tom-Dispatch Editor
During Iraq War II (2003-2011), I used to imagine that the Chinese leadership would
gather weekly in the streets of the Forbidden City, singing and dancing to celebrate
American idiocy. Year after year, when the U.S. might have faced off against a rising
China, as its leaders had long had the urge to do, it was thoroughly distracted by its
disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. I can't help but think that, with a bombing
campaign revving up in Iraq and now Syria, the boots of 1,600 military personnel ever
closer to the ground, and talk of more to come, with Iraq War III (2014-date unknown)
predicted to go on for years, they are once again rejoicing. For all the talk in recent
years about the Obama administration's military “pivot” to Asia, there can be no
question that its latest Middle Eastern campaign will put a crimp on its Pacific
In the meantime, the mood in China has clearly been changing as well. As Orville
Schell wrote recently, after a contentious visit to Beijing by 90-year-old Jimmy Carter,
the president who more than 30 years ago sponsored a full-scale American
rapprochement with the new capitalist version of Communist China:
“In short, what used to be referred to as ‘the West’ now finds itself confronted by an
increasingly intractable situation in which the power balance is changing, a fact that
few have yet quite cared to acknowledge, much less to factor into new formulations for
approaching China. We remain nostalgic for those quaint days when Chinese leaders
still followed Deng [Xiaoping's] admonition to his people to ‘hide our capacities and
bide our time’ (taoguang yanghui). What he meant in using this ‘idiom’ (chengyu) was
not that China should be eternally restrained but that the time to manifest its global
ambition had not yet come. Now that it is stronger, however, its leaders appear to
believe that their time has at last come and they are no longer willing even to press
the comforting notion of ‘peaceful rise’ (heping jueqi).”
At the moment, of course, the Chinese have their own internal problems, ranging from
an economy that might be bubblicious to an Islamic separatist movement in the
backlands of Xinjiang Province and the latest Occupy movement making waves in that
modernistic Asian financial hub Hong Kong. Nonetheless, go to Beijing and the world
looks like a different place. Pepe Escobar, TomDispatch’s peripatetic wanderer on
the Eurasian mainland, which he’s dubbed Pipelineistan, has done just that. He's also
visited other spots along the future “new Silk Roads” that China wants to establish all
the way to Western Europe. He offers a vision of a different Eurasian world than the
one reflected in news reports in this country. If you want to understand the planet we
may actually be living on in the near future, it couldn’t be more important to take it in.
Can China and Russia Squeeze Washington Out of Eurasia?
The Future of a Beijing-Moscow-Berlin Alliance
By Pepe Escobar
A specter haunts the fast-aging “New American Century”: the possibility of a future
Beijing-Moscow-Berlin strategic trade and commercial alliance. Let’s call it the BMB.
Its likelihood is being seriously discussed at the highest levels in Beijing and
Moscow, and viewed with interest in Berlin, New Delhi, and Tehran. But don’t mention
it inside Washington’s Beltway or at NATO headquarters in Brussels. There, the star
of the show today and tomorrow is the new Osama bin Laden: Caliph Ibrahim, aka
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive, self-appointed beheading prophet of a new mini-
state and movement that has provided an acronym feast -- ISIS/ISIL/IS -- for hysterics
in Washington and elsewhere.
No matter how often Washington remixes its Global War on Terror, however, the
tectonic plates of Eurasian geopolitics continue to shift, and they’re not going to stop
just because American elites refuse to accept that their historically brief “unipolar
moment” is on the wane. For them, the closing of the era of “full spectrum
dominance,” as the Pentagon likes to call it, is inconceivable. After all, the necessity
for the indispensable nation to control all space -- military, economic, cultural, cyber,
and outer -- is little short of a religious doctrine. Exceptionalist missionaries don’t do
equality. At best, they do “coalitions of the willing” like the one crammed with “over 40
countries” assembled to fight ISIS/ISIL/IS and either applauding (and plotting) from the
sidelines or sending the odd plane or two toward Iraq or Syria.
NATO, which unlike some of its members won’t officially fight Jihadistan, remains a
top-down outfit controlled by Washington. It’s never fully bothered to take in the
European Union (EU) or considered allowing Russia to “feel” European. As for the
Caliph, he’s just a minor diversion. A postmodern cynic might even contend that he
was an emissary sent onto the global playing field by China and Russia to take the
eye of the planet’s hyperpower off the ball.
Divide and Isolate
So how does full spectrum dominance apply when two actual competitor powers,
Russia and China, begin to make their presences felt? Washington’s approach to
each -- in Ukraine and in Asian waters -- might be thought of as divide and isolate.
In order to keep the Pacific Ocean as a classic “American lake,” the Obama
administration has been “pivoting” back to Asia for several years now. This has
involved only modest military moves, but an immodest attempt to pit Chinese
nationalism against the Japanese variety, while strengthening alliances and relations
across Southeast Asia with a focus on South China Sea energy disputes. At the same
time, it has moved to lock a future trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership
(TPP), in place.
In Russia’s western borderlands, the Obama administration has stoked the embers
of regime change in Kiev into flames (fanned by local cheerleaders Poland and the
Baltic nations) and into what clearly looked, to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s leadership,
like an existential threat to Moscow. Unlike the U.S., whose sphere of influence (and
military bases) are global, Russia was not to retain any significant influence in its
former near abroad, which, when it comes to Kiev, is not for most Russians, “abroad”
For Moscow, it seemed as if Washington and its NATO allies were increasingly
interested in imposing a new Iron Curtain on their country from the Baltic to the Black
Sea, with Ukraine simply as the tip of the spear. In BMB terms, think of it as an attempt
to isolate Russia and impose a new barrier to relations with Germany. The ultimate
aim would be to split Eurasia, preventing future moves toward trade and commercial
integration via a process not controlled through Washington.
From Beijing’s point of view, the Ukraine crisis was a case of Washington crossing
every imaginable red line to harass and isolate Russia. To its leaders, this looks like a
concerted attempt to destabilize the region in ways favorable to American interests,
supported by a full range of Washington’s elite from neocons and Cold War “liberals”
to humanitarian interventionists in the Susan Rice and Samantha Power mold. Of
course, if you’ve been following the Ukraine crisis from Washington, such
perspectives seem as alien as any those of any Martian. But the world looks different
from the heart of Eurasia than it does from Washington -- especially from a rising
China with its newly minted “Chinese dream” (Zhongguo meng).
As laid out by President Xi Jinping, that dream would include a future network of
Chinese-organized new Silk Roads that would create the equivalent of a Trans-Asian
Express for Eurasian commerce. So if Beijing, for instance, feels pressure from
Washington and Tokyo on the naval front, part of its response is a two-pronged,
trade-based advance across the Eurasian landmass, one prong via Siberia and the
other through the Central Asian “stans.”
In this sense, though you wouldn’t know it if you only followed the American media or
“debates” in Washington, we’re potentially entering a new world. Once upon a time
not so long ago, Beijing’s leadership was flirting with the idea of rewriting the
geopolitical/economic game side by side with the U.S., while Putin’s Moscow hinted at
the possibility of someday joining NATO. No longer. Today, the part of the West that
both countries are interested in is a possible future Germany no longer dominated by
American power and Washington’s wishes Moscow has, in fact, been involved in no
less than half a century of strategic dialogue with Berlin that has included industrial
cooperation and increasing energy interdependence. In many quarters of the Global
South this has been noted and Germany is starting to be viewed as “the sixth BRICS”
power (after Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
In the midst of global crises ranging from Syria to Ukraine, Berlin’s geostrategic
interests seem to be slowly diverging from Washington’s. German industrialists, in
particular, appear eager to pursue unlimited commercial deals with Russia and
China. These might set their country on a path to global power unlimited by the EU’s
borders and, in the long term, signal the end of the era in which Germany, however
politely dealt with, was essentially an American satellite.
It will be a long and winding road. The Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, is still
addicted to a strong Atlanticist agenda and a preemptive obedience to Washington.
There are still tens of thousands of American soldiers on German soil. Yet, for the first
time, German chancellor Angela Merkel has been hesitating when it comes to
imposing ever-heavier sanctions on Russia over the situation in Ukraine, because no
fewer than 300,000 German jobs depend on relations with that country. Industrial
leaders and the financial establishment have already sounded the alarm, fearing such
sanctions would be totally counterproductive.
China’s Silk Road Banquet
China’s new geopolitical power play in Eurasia has few parallels in modern history.
The days when the “Little Helmsman” Deng Xiaoping insisted that the country “keep a
low profile” on the global stage are long gone. Of course, there are disagreements
and conflicting strategies when it comes to managing the country’s hot spots: Taiwan,
Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, competitors India and Japan, and
problematic allies like North Korea and Pakistan. And popular unrest in some Beijing-
dominated “peripheries” is growing to incendiary levels.
The country’s number one priority remains domestic and focused on carrying out
President Xi’s economic reforms, while increasing “transparency” and fighting
corruption within the ruling Communist Party. A distant second is the question of how
to progressively hedge against the Pentagon’s “pivot” plans in the region -- via the
build-up of a blue-water navy, nuclear submarines, and a technologically advanced
air force -- without getting so assertive as to freak out Washington’s “China threat”-
Meanwhile, with the U.S. Navy controlling global sea lanes for the foreseeable
future, planning for those new Silk Roads across Eurasia is proceeding apace. The
end result should prove a triumph of integrated infrastructure -- roads, high-speed
rail, pipelines, ports -- that will connect China to Western Europe and the
Mediterranean Sea, the old Roman imperial Mare Nostrum, in every imaginable way.
In a reverse Marco Polo-style journey, remixed for the Google world, one key Silk
Road branch will go from the former imperial capital Xian to Urumqi in Xinjiang
Province, then through Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey’s Anatolia, ending in
Venice. Another will be a maritime Silk Road starting from Fujian province and going
through the Malacca strait, the Indian Ocean, Nairobi in Kenya, and finally all the way
to the Mediterranean via the Suez canal. Taken together, it’s what Beijing refers to as
the Silk Road Economic Belt.
China’s strategy is to create a network of interconnections among no less than five
key regions: Russia (the key bridge between Asia and Europe), the Central Asian
“stans,” Southwest Asia (with major roles for Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and
Turkey), the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe (including Belarus, Moldova, and
depending upon its stability, Ukraine). And don’t forget Afghanistan, Pakistan, and
India, which could be thought of as Silk Road plus.
Silk Road plus would involve connecting the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar
economic corridor to the China-Pakistan economic corridor, and could offer Beijing
privileged access to the Indian Ocean. Once again, a total package -- roads, high-
speed rail, pipelines, and fiber optic networks -- would link the region to China.
Xi himself put the India-China connection in a neat package of images in an op-ed
he published in the Hindu prior to his recent visit to New Delhi. “The combination of
the ‘world’s factory’ and the ‘world’s back office,’” he wrote, “will produce the most
competitive production base and the most attractive consumer market.”
The central node of China’s elaborate planning for the Eurasian future is Urumqi,
the capital of Xinjiang Province and the site of the largest commercial fair in Central
Asia, the China-Eurasia Fair. Since 2000, one of Beijing’s top priorities has been to
urbanize that largely desert but oil-rich province and industrialize it, whatever it takes.
And what it takes, as Beijing sees it, is the hardcore Sinicization of the region -- with
its corollary, the suppression of any possibility of ethnic Uighur dissent. People’s
Liberation Army General Li Yazhou has, in these terms, described Central Asia as
“the most subtle slice of cake donated by the sky to modern China.”
Most of China’s vision of a new Eurasia tied to Beijing by every form of transport
and communication was vividly detailed in “Marching Westwards: The Rebalancing of
China’s Geostrategy,” a landmark 2012 essay published by scholar Wang Jisi of the
Center of International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. As a response to
such a future set of Eurasian connections, the best the Obama administration has
come up with is a version of naval containment from the Indian Ocean to the South
China Sea, while sharpening conflicts with and strategic alliances around China from
Japan to India. (NATO is, of course, left with the task of containing Russia in Eastern
An Iron Curtain vs. Silk Roads
The $400 billion “gas deal of the century,” signed by Putin and the Chinese
president last May, laid the groundwork for the building of the Power of Siberia
pipeline, already under construction in Yakutsk. It will bring a flood of Russian natural
gas onto the Chinese market. It clearly represents just the beginning of a
turbocharged, energy-based strategic alliance between the two countries. Meanwhile,
German businessmen and industrialists have been noting another emerging reality:
as much as the final market for made-in-China products traveling on future new Silk
Roads will be Europe, the reverse also applies. In one possible commercial future,
China is slated to become Germany’s top trading partner by 2018, surging ahead of
both the U.S. and France.
A potential barrier to such developments, welcomed in Washington, is Cold War 2.0,
which is already tearing not NATO, but the EU apart. In the EU of this moment, the
anti-Russian camp includes Great Britain, Sweden, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic
nations. Italy and Hungary, on the other hand, can be counted in the pro-Russian
camp, while a still unpredictable Germany is the key to whether the future will hold a
new Iron Curtain or “Go East” mindset. For this, Ukraine remains the key. If it is
successfully Finlandized (with significant autonomy for its regions), as Moscow has
been proposing -- a suggestion that is anathema to Washington -- the Go-East path
will remain open. If not, a BMB future will be a dicier proposition.
It should be noted that another vision of the Eurasian economic future is also on the
horizon. Washington is attempting to impose a Transatlantic Trade and Investment
Partnership (TTIP) on Europe and a similar Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Asia.
Both favor globalizing American corporations and their aim is visibly to impede the
ascent of the BRICS economies and the rise of other emerging markets, while
solidifying American global economic hegemony.
Two stark facts, carefully noted in Moscow, Beijing, and Berlin, suggest the
hardcore geopolitics behind these two “commercial” pacts. The TPP excludes China
and the TTIP excludes Russia. They represent, that is, the barely disguised sinews of
a future trade/monetary war. On my own recent travels, I have had quality agricultural
producers in Spain, Italy, and France repeatedly tell me that TTIP is nothing but an
economic version of NATO, the military alliance that China’s Xi Jinping calls, perhaps
wishfully, an “obsolete structure.”
There is significant resistance to the TTIP among many EU nations (especially in the
Club Med countries of southern Europe), as there is against the TPP among Asian
nations (especially Japan and Malaysia). It is this that gives the Chinese and the
Russians hope for their new Silk Roads and a new style of trade across the Eurasian
heartland backed by a Russian-supported Eurasian Union. To this, key figures in
German business and industrial circles, for whom relations with Russia remain
essential, are paying close attention.
After all, Berlin has not shown overwhelming concern for the rest of the crisis-ridden
EU (three recessions in five years). Via a much-despised troika -- the European
Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission --
Berlin is, for all practical purposes, already at the helm of Europe, thriving, and
looking east for more.
Three months ago, German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Beijing. Hardly
featured in the news was the political acceleration of a potentially groundbreaking
project: an uninterrupted high-speed rail connection between Beijing and Berlin.
When finally built, it will prove a transportation and trade magnet for dozens of nations
along its route from Asia to Europe. Passing through Moscow, it could become the
ultimate Silk Road integrator for Europe and perhaps the ultimate nightmare for
In a blaze of media attention, the recent NATO summit in Wales yielded only a
modest “rapid reaction force” for deployment in any future Ukraine-like situations.
Meanwhile, the expanding Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a possible
Asian counterpart to NATO, met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. In Washington and Western
Europe essentially no one noticed. They should have. There, China, Russia, and
four Central Asian “stans” agreed to add an impressive set of new members: India,
Pakistan, and Iran. The implications could be far-reaching. After all, India under
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now on the brink of its own version of Silk Road
mania. Behind it lies the possibility of a “Chindia” economic rapprochement, which
could change the Eurasian geopolitical map. At the same time, Iran is also being
woven into the “Chindia” fold.
So the SCO is slowly but surely shaping up as the most important international
organization in Asia. It’s already clear that one of its key long-term objectives will be
to stop trading in U.S. dollars, while advancing the use of the petroyuan and
petroruble in the energy trade. The U.S., of course, will never be welcomed into the
All of this lies in the future, however. In the present, the Kremlin keeps signaling
that it once again wants to start talking with Washington, while Beijing has never
wanted to stop. Yet the Obama administration remains myopically embedded in its
own version of a zero-sum game, relying on its technological and military might to
maintain an advantageous position in Eurasia. Beijing, however, has access to
markets and loads of cash, while Moscow has loads of energy. Triangular cooperation
between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow would undoubtedly be -- as the Chinese
would say -- a win-win-win game, but don’t hold your breath.
Instead, expect China and Russia to deepen their strategic partnership, while pulling
in other Eurasian regional powers. Beijing has bet the farm that the U.S./NATO
confrontation with Russia over Ukraine will leave Vladimir Putin turning east. At the
same time, Moscow is carefully calibrating what its ongoing reorientation toward such
an economic powerhouse will mean. Someday, it’s possible that voices of sanity in
Washington will be wondering aloud how the U.S. “lost” Russia to China.
In the meantime, think of China as a magnet for a new world order in a future
Eurasian century. The same integration process Russia is facing, for instance, seems
increasingly to apply to India and other Eurasian nations, and possibly sooner or later
to a neutral Germany as well. In the endgame of such a process, the U.S. might find
itself progressively squeezed out of Eurasia, with the BMB emerging as a game-
changer. Place your bets soon. They’ll be called in by 2025.
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for
RT, and a TomDispatch regular. His new book, Empire of Chaos, will be published in
November by Nimble Books. Follow him on Facebook.
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Copyright 2014 Pepe Escobar