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Central Asia between the South Korean Eurasia Initiative and the China Belt and Road Initiative

The Eurasia Initiative was introduced by the then President of South Korea in ۲۰۱۳, immediately after the China Belt and Road Initiative, and in ۲۰۱۷ it was reaffirmed by the current President of South Korea stating a new North Korean policy.
June 2020
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Mandana Tishehyar/ Mojtaba Tuyserkani

The Eurasia Initiative was introduced by the then President of South Korea in 2013, immediately after the China Belt and Road Initiative, and in 2017  it was reaffirmed by the current President of South Korea stating a new North Korean policy. The mentioned idea, which seeks to connect Seoul to energy sources and Eurasian markets, has been developed independently of the priorities and goals of the China Belt and Road Initiative and maybe even at first glance it might be assumed as the opposite, but South Korea's participation in the Belt and Road Initiative seems to be its only possible implementation of the Eurasia Initiative. Seoul joining the China Belt and Road Initiative is the only real chance for implementing the South Korean Eurasia Initiative, and considering that Central Asia is the common interface between the two initiatives, Beijing and Seoul's focus on achieving the same goal of reaching to the Central Asian geopolitical atmosphere can be helpful in both initiatives’ development.

South Korea needs to set a delicate balance between its relations with China (its powerful neighbor and main trading partner) and the United States (its strategic ally and security guarantor).

The study of the South Korean Eurasia Initiative without a clear understanding of the economic motivations and strategic policies of the Belt and Road Initiative would be incomplete. South Korea's Eurasia Initiative reflects its national and regional ambitions, along with its security implications for the relationship and interaction between Seoul and Beijing's mutual dreams in the Eurasian supercontinent. While the dreams of Korea and China both seem to follow the same and general aim of connecting Asia and Europe through Central Asia but in the end, their views depart based on a contradictory understanding of the national and regional security and the political and economic roles that each country plays in achieving its aspirations.

Against this background, the Central Asian region, as a joint interface of both the China-Eurasia Belt and Road Initiative, has a high potential for creating a convergence between the geostrategic perspectives of Beijing and Seoul for connecting with Europe from the Central Eurasian route. China's effect in Central Asia has been progressively increasing since the early 1990s. Since the Belt and Road Initiative announcement by China’s president in 2013, so far, hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of bilateral agreements have been signed between China and five Central Asian countries concentrating on infrastructure, energy, and trade. Due to the Belt and Road Initiative, China, with high probability, is likely to remain the region's biggest investor in the future. Trade, transit infrastructure, and energy are Beijing's central motivations for the belt and the road presentation, and China's greatest focus in this master plan is on these three areas. Most of China's goals will be achieved only if China's connections remain with Central Asia.

The South Korean Eurasia Initiative was mentioned to coordinate Seoul's various strategies towards the Russian Federation, Central Asia and the South Caucasus, the Korean Peninsula's connection to Europe-Asia, and the two Koreas' peaceful integration through multilevel cooperation with the Eurasian supercontinent. Also, Seoul needs to vary its economic relations by increasing its corporations with Eurasian governments to pave the way for sustainable economic growth.

The priority of both the Eurasia Initiative and South Korea's new North Policy which was introduced in September 2017 to complete the Eurasia Initiative is a territorial link with Central Asia and Russia, followed by Europe. In the meantime, the position of Central Asia in the Eurasian Initiative, most of all, is under the influence of Seoul-Beijing relations. Establishing strategic relations between South Korea and China, especially in the infrastructure sector, will provide Seoul to transport goods and energy between the Central Asian republics and South Korea through China. Now, if Beijing could use its influence in Pyongyang to make the South Korea-North Korea-China passageway, the importance of South Korea's access route to Europe through Central Asia will increase.

Central Asia plays a main role in both initiatives; in fact, this overlap is the best chance for Beijing and Seoul to participate in each other's infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, owing to the asymmetry of the geopolitical interdependence of the two initiatives, this possibility has been mainly ignored to this day. South Korea's non-participation in the China Belt and Road Initiative is not an obstacle for Beijing, whereas Seoul, is withholding itself of the benefits of the Eurasian Initiative, by not joining the Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, the success of the Eurasia Initiative can be accredited to South Korea's participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, and another condition for implementing the Eurasian Initiative is to draw North Korea's attention for infrastructure cooperation between the two Koreas which, in case of first condition’s achievement, Seoul can count on China’s help for this purpose.

Eventually, it could be said that Seoul joining the China Belt and Road Initiative is considered as the only real chance to implement the South Korean Eurasia Initiative. And since Central Asia is the common interface of both initiatives, the focus of both Beijing and Seoul on the common goal of achieving Central Asia’s geopolitical atmosphere can be effective in the development of both initiatives.

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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