London, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) --A leading Russian expert on Asian affairs says China has the potential to fill what he called the vacuum of political dominance created by the collapse of the Soviet Union within an enormous arc across central Asia.
Academician Vladimir Myasnikov, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Beijing's influence could stretch from southern China to the Caspian Sea, and from Tajikistan to the Korean Peninsula.
However, he welcomed Beijing's decision not to pursue a policy of military expansion, or the creation of blocs or spheres of influence, but instead to place its emphasis on economic development.
Myasnikov spoke at a conference at Britain's Reading University that debated the future of what's now called the "Euro-Asian heartland", an area including the five former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
He said China has reacted to a weakening of political leadership in the region -- a reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union -- by unveiling plans aimed at the economic transformation of "Eurasia".
He said this drive is linked to the dream of reviving the historic "Silk Road" running through the Caucasus, Central Asia to the Chinese border -- a sort of superhighway linking up to Europe.
Other analysts say that China, the second largest energy user in the world, is looking to the oil and gas fields of the Caucasus and Central Asia to help meet its predicted tripling in demand for fuel.
Myasnikov said Beijing wants to unite "the peoples of Europe and Asia into a new type of commonwealth, a union for the sake of development." He said its plans envisage the rapid development of the Eurasian region in the 21st century with the creation -- by joint efforts -- of a vast network of new transport, power and communications links stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
He noted that Beijing interprets the concept of "the Eurasian space" to include China, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
He said Beijing aims to put in place a system of economic "corridors" whose territory will include 60 of the world's largest cities, with a combined population of more than one billion people.
He said the Chinese plans to link Europe and Asia via the new "Transcontinental Bridge" across Central Asia are linked to the new dialogue between Asian and European leaders that began in Bangkok in March, 1996, and will continue in London in 1998.
So what are China's plans for the Eurasian region? Myasnikov said it wants to construct a new railway that will start on China's Yellow Sea coast, cross Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, and proceed via Moscow-Minsk-Warsaw to the Netherlands port of Rotterdam.
He said the transport networks planned for the Eurasian region will use the latest technologies allowing "planes-trains on magnetic cushions" to develop speeds of 800 kms an hour in some sections.
But plans to build between 60,000 to 100,000 kilometers of new high-tech rail links will be "staggeringly" expensive, costing an estimated one per cent of the Eurasian countries' gross domestic product per year over10 years. (He estimated that would cost $220 per capita of the Eurasian population in the course of 10-15 years.)
He said the planned new China-Rotterdam railway would complement a second Eurasian landbridge, opened in the spring of 1996, and linking Meshkhed in Iran with Tejen in Turkmenistan.
He said Russia should not be left on the sidelines, as the new transport links should also involve tie-ins with the TransSiberian Railroad, and the railways of Southeast Asia and Northern India.
He said plans to develop the Eurasian region cannot overlook the fact that it includes some of the world's richest deposits of oil, gold and other precious metals; and that it will be necessary to increase energy supplies to the region's industry and housing by some five times to cope with the predicted demand.
Myasnikov noted that Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng said on a visit to Uzbekistan in April, 1994, that China wants to revive its traditional relations with the Central Asian countries, ties that had been interrupted by Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.
He said: "Chinese diplomacy bases itself on the principle that economic relations are the foundation of international relations."
As proof of this, Myasnikov noted that, in each of the capital cities of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, Beijing opened a trade mission before the embassy itself.
He said that China's new role in Central Asia carries potential difficulties for Moscow because Beijing is in a position to exploit "contradictions between the former Soviet republics and Russia."
At the same time there is an "overwhelming coincidence" between the geopolitical interests of Russia and China because of the "anxiety" of both countries about instability on their borders in a region traditionally affected by religious and ethnic tensions.
He said the conflict in Tajikistan "could serve as a detonator for Muslim agitation and separatist movements in Xinjiang" in western China, scene of recent unrest by Muslim Uighurs.
In conclusion, Myasnikov said Russia should seek to build better relations with China, by seeking to erase "negative" Cold War stereotypes, and stepping up economic, scientific and technical ties. He said: "It is necessary for us today, in a period of temporary national weakness, to assimilate the lessons of China."