China, Russia and the EU's intermarium bloc
China’s geopolitics of trade passageways, expected to revive the ancient Silk Road arteries across the Eurasian continent, is producing the first collateral effect.
The potential integration of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative with a regional infrastructure scheme in Central and Eastern Europe is contributing to altering the balance of power in Euro-Russian dynamics.
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Beijing maintains that the Eurasian landmass exists as an “integral whole” and that Central and Eastern Europe play an important role in its strategy to link the Chinese eastern coast and Western Europe through land and sea-based passages.
In line with this vision, on 23 February, during a meeting in Zagreb with Croatian prime minister Tihomir Oreskovic, representatives of the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission stressed that China was interested in connecting the "Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative” and the Belt and Road project.
The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative was first laid out by Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in September 2015. In her view, it should work as a framework for enhanced cooperation in the political, economic and security realms among 12 European Union countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
In particular, this Croatian-sponsored plan of regional integration aims to promote concrete projects on infrastructure development, so as to improve trade connection and energy independence on the eastern flank of both the EU and Nato.
When in October last year Chinese president Xi Jinping held talks with Kitarovic in Beijing, he welcomed the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative, underlining that the development of a north-south corridor in Europe, based on the ports of Adriatic and Baltic nations, was complementary to China’s Silk Road strategy.
Beijing could in fact exploit the favorable position of Adriatic, Baltic and Black Sea ports to link the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road - the overland and sea-going sections of the Belt and Road, respectively - through a longitudinal and intermodal corridor in the heart of Europe.
Kitarovic keeps repeating that its project is not directed against Russia.
Yet, it is doubtful that the Kremlin buys the Croatian president’s reassurances. And it cannot be otherwise, if Moscow looks at Europe’s map.
The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative has in fact startling similarities with the Intermarium (or “the land between the seas”), an alliance of states from the Baltics to the Black Sea - and potentially down to the Balkans - that in the 1920s and 1930s Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski tried in vain to create to prevent German and Russian expansionism.
Today, Polish president Andrzej Duda has resumed Pilsudski’s geopolitical thinking, overtly endorsing the formation of a modern Intermarium, which in large part coincides with the bloc of states included in the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative.
Russia will inevitably oppose any move that leads to increasing cooperation among the states of Central and Eastern Europe, viewing it as an effort to separate the Russian territory from Western Europe. But, the problem for the Kremlin is that now, unlike in the interwar period, there is China that acts as an independent variable in the eventual creation of an Intermarium grouping.
China’s cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe countries (the so-called China+16) has been underpinned by both its recent accession to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and its push to build synergies between the Belt and Road scheme and the EU $393 billion investment plan.
Particularly, Beijing and Brussels are focusing on improving their infrastructure links through the establishment of a Sino-European connectivity platform.
Ultimately, China and the EU are working to set up corridors between the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), Brussels’ plan to upgrade Europe’s transport system, and the Belt and Road. The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative should fit into this China-Europe infrastructure mechanism.
On a visit to Latvia on 19 February, Chinese National Development and Reform Commission vice chairman Ning Jizhe voiced his government’s interest in boosting the container train traffic from China to the Baltic region and Northern Europe and investing in both the Rail Baltica project and the port of Latvian capital city Riga.
Rail Baltica is a high speed rail project, under the TEN-T initiative, that will link Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, with an extension into Germany; Riga seaport is instead at the northern end of the proposed Baltic-Adriatic Corridor, yet another TENT-T artery.
Thus, China is betting big on the Baltic ports, as also proved by China Merchants Group’s intention to expand the existing Klaipeda seaport, in Lithuania, and turns it into a new transport and logistics center within the Belt and Road scheme.
Chinese plans to reboot Klaipeda seaport should be viewed in combination with Beijing’s interest in building up the Croatian port of Rijeka, the southernmost tip of the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative, and, more importantly, with the potential connection between the new iron Silk Road and the Baltic coast.
The iron Silk Road is a China-Europe land-sea express line connecting Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Illichivsk with Western China via Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
This Euro-Asian transport passageway has been operational since January and has a considerable strategic relevance, given that it circumvents the Russian territory.
Ukraine is currently in talks with Lithuania and Belarus for linking the iron Silk Road and the port of Klaipeda. If the three countries succeed in carrying out their project, Russia will definitely lose its position as a transit space for the Sino-European trade.
China’s drive to integrate the Central and Eastern Europe countries into its Silk Road strategy has the potential to further weaken the grip of Russia on its western neighbourhood.
While there is not much Moscow can do to halt Beijing’s engagement in the European post-Soviet space, its only hope is that historical mistrust among potential participants, combined with harsh competition among them for more Chinese funds and investments, may sink the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative, as well as any other prospective Intermarium-style alliance.
Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign policy analyst. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, Deutsche Welle, and The Jerusalem Post, among others