A key continent, Eurasia, could become a continent of cooperation in the 21st century. The Eurasian mainland is the longest and most densely populated landmass in the world, which contains key military and economic power centers. Continental powers can address security and development challenges jointly but to do this they need to create a continent-wide transport, energy and communications infrastructure as well as a stable continental security system. Prospectively, all of this could unite the continent and lead to political stability.
But obstacles to this ideal include geopolitical frontiers that exist between countries, expanding unmanageable space, and natural disasters. The incentives to settle regional differences and eliminate anarchy zones look bleak in the face of the fact that most Eurasian powers still engage in maritime trade, while underestimating the potential for transcontinental routes and infrastructure construction. In effect, Eurasia today is an archipelago, where the development centers are linked by sea-routes, while land masses constitute insurmountable obstacles. A stable overland transportation system has been developed in the most stable part of the continent, Europe, and the continent’s future security depends on whether this stability continues further into the 21st century.
Schematically, the current international order in Eurasia can be represented as follows. The European peninsula in the West is the most advanced and stable part of the continent, which tends to form a political unity around Germany. The main security threats here are instability spillovers from the south in the form of migration and terrorism and an unsettled geopolitical dispute with Russia. Even though this volcano is settling, there are fragile buffer states between the EU and Russia, a frontier with almost unlimited potential for crises.
Russia has occupied the formerly uninhabited Eurasian expanses in the north three hundred years ago. The first European country to push its borders to the Pacific, Russia continues to ensure land and sea connectivity in Eurasia and is a security donor for the Central Asian and Caucasian states. The key security threats in northern Eurasia are its internal fragility and the need to maintain geopolitical parity with the United States and the growing power centers along its borders.
There is a belt of buffer states to the south of Russia, which is not an arena of confrontation between major power centers. But in itself, this belt is a regional security and connectivity challenge. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, institutional instability in Turkey, the Central Asian countries and Mongolia, the permanent civil war in Afghanistan, and the North Korean government’s persistence in promoting its nuclear program are creating additional risks that must be taken into consideration by agencies planning to build transcontinental transport, telecommunications and energy infrastructure across their territory.
The long-standing confrontation in the Middle East between coalitions led by Iran and Saudi Arabia is a geopolitical frontier in its own right. The Israeli factor complicates this confrontation even further as Israel pursues a policy of its own, maintaining a distance from either coalition. The Kurdish factor and the expansion of unmanageable space as a result of popular unrest and the proliferation of terrorist networks make continental spaces in the Middle East almost impenetrable and unfit for economic development. In addition, the region’s main economic centers are on its coasts, while not a single country apart from Iran is seeking to stabilize regional contradictions or develop continental routes.
The South Asian geopolitical frontier between India and Pakistan borders on the Middle East frontier. The persisting border dispute between India and China pushes Beijing to focus on Pakistan in its infrastructure investment program, while purposefully circumventing India. New Delhi is just beginning to contemplate the prospects for the overland transit of its domestic goods, a system that would incentivize regional cooperation and put an end to the dispute with Pakistan. So far, however, both India and Pakistan prioritize maritime trade.
China remains a naval power in terms of trade, on which it depends heavily. This requires the PRC to develop an efficient navy that can keep its trade immune from US interference. China’s rapid development is giving rise to apprehensions in neighboring states in the east and the south, with almost all of which China has territorial disputes. Its priority in this context is to push the geopolitical frontier in the South and East China seas as far as possible from its borders and to ensure freedom of navigation.
The United States is the main offshore balancer for the Eurasian powers. Its large navy and expeditionary land forces account for the most military operations on the continent in the last 30 years, most of which eventually led to the deterioration of the security environment. America’s military guarantees to its NATO allies, its military alliances with Israel, Japan and South Korea, its special relationships with Arab states, India and other countries, as well as a scattering of military bases in the hinterland and along the rim of the continent, make Washington an important part of any security equation in Eurasia.
Eurasian strategic security is a derivative of many state’s strategies. The region’s security is primarily determined by the activity or inactivity of the Eurasian states. Active policies conducted by the leading countries can both exacerbate and minimize their differences. The expanding zones of chaos and anarchy in the Middle East are also products of activity or inactivity on the part of the great powers.
The current state of continental security can be compared with what was the case in Europe during the Thirty Years War. That debilitating confrontation convinced the great powers of Europe to emphasize sovereignty as the key principle in mutual relations. The debates about a true faith were terminated, with the monarchs accepting cujus regio, ejus religio (whose realm, his religion). The current dissension between Eurasian powers is often as deep in nature, and their confrontation is exhausting all sides. It is in everyone’s interests to steer towards a Eurasian version of the Peace of Westphalia that would usher in a continental international order, and stable peace and development.