Belt & Road in Global Perspective
A copper coloured tower in Moscow is illuminated against other tall grey buildings.
Commentary / Analysis, Government & politics, Europe, Russia & Eurasia, Belt & Road

The coverage of BRI and Sino-Russian “integration of integrations” in Russian newspapers

“Win-win” (合作共赢) is still a veritable guiding mantra in China’s foreign affairs, yet a China that was “hiding capabilities and keeping a low profile” (韬光养晦) has been replaced with a China that can and wants to “strive for achievement” (奋发有为) in international politics. As a case in point, the discursive construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in its entirety presupposes establishing closer sociocultural and political ties on its route, as well as noteworthy changes in the geopolitical scenery. The BRI is a project of China-centered economic integration enabled by internationalization of the Renminbi and China-orientated trade and commerce networks, as well as China-led and China-focused development investment via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Investment Fund, and policy banks, such as the Export-Import Bank of China. It is obvious that China is crafting a new space for itself in the international system and becoming more confident in its international dealings, including in Eurasia, typically considered Russia’s backyard. In this light, the expansion of BRI and Russia’s participation in it becomes problematic.

In 2015, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a bilateral declaration that, according to Russian representatives, signified the “linking up” (сопряжение and translated as 对接) of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and BRI and is supposed to kick start the “integration of integrations” in Eurasia. So, how does Russia understand BRI and envision intersections between its Eurasian strategy and BRI on the conceptual level?

In our article for Eurasian Geography and Economics, Dmitrii Vasilev and I explore this question by examining the coverage of the BRI in Russia’s major newspapers between 2013 and 2019. We show that opinions about BRI in Russian media are polarized. Some Russian observers and experts are suspicious about China’s intentions and ambitions, while others are welcoming BRI’s expansion with great enthusiasm and admiration. For BRI-optimists, the mutually beneficial nature of exchanges in the new integration structure assembled by China under the banner of BRI is an a priori given on the one hand and instrumentalized as a collective aspiration on the other. They argue that the EAEU and BRI are a perfect match for each other and see them as complementary rather than competing projects. Observers who take a critical stance on BRI focus on the motives behind it, casting China as an assertive self-interested actor. Critics also claim that it China lacks a coherent and comprehensive strategy. They de-emphasize achievements announced by China’s leadership and diminish the value of the positive feedback that BRI receives in some countries.

Despite widespread references to BRI’s “global” reach, the center of Russian media’s attention is Eurasia. While the “road” that links China to Southeast Asia and Africa is barely mentioned, the reporting on the “belt” that connects China’s hinterland to Europe through Central Asia dominates the Russian media landscape. Eurasian countries within Russia’s traditional spheres of influence receive the bulk of attention. Specifically, newspapers provide a lot of details about China’s negotiations with the five Central Asian states (particularly Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), as well as India, Pakistan, Belarus, and Ukraine. The United States is the only country that breaks these patterns. The United States is mentioned more often than any other country in reports referencing BRI.

These media framings uncover two prominent conceptual traits in Russia’s perceptions of BRI. Firstly, focusing almost exclusively on the “belt,” Russian media portray BRI as a continental (a Eurasian) rather than a transcontinental project. Such a reading of BRI not only belittles its scope and diminishes its potential impact but also re-emphasizes the idea that China needs Russia to accomplish its ambitious goals. Secondly, Russia’s and China’s relations with the United States become a variable that critically influences both the development of BRI and the dynamic of Sino-Russian relations. In this sense, Russia’s decision to engage with China under the band of BRI becomes conditional and contingent on Russia’s relations with the West. In this framework, the “linking up” of EAEU and BRI becomes an internal compromise based on defensive reasoning.

The majority of Russian observers and experts, nevertheless, insist that the concept of “linking up” represents a conscious and deliberate choice of Russian political elites. They argue that the “linking up” is strategically designed to allow Russia to affiliate itself with BRI on its own terms, without sacrificing its symbolic leadership positions in the Eurasian regional order. The goal here is to present Russia as an actor with an independent decision-making power that does not merge with but only supports BRI and, as a result, maintains its sovereignty vis-à-vis China. Observers and experts make it clear that Russia wants to lead the “integration of integrations” and will not step back, allowing China to take the initiative. In this context, the skeptical readings of BRI intentionally and unintentionally endorse the “linking up.” Critics argue that BRI is a vague, obscure, and strategically ambiguous catch-all project, juxtaposing it to a practical and goal-orientated scheme proposed by the Russian side. Positive representations of BRI perform the same function. According to proponents of BRI, participating in it and deepening cooperation with China more broadly will bring Russia geopolitical and economic benefits and thus the “linking up” is a reasonable and smart choice.

Overall, our findings reveal that Russian newspapers identify the “linking up” as the only possible scenario of Russia’s affiliation with BRI. Accordingly, they present it as a mutually beneficial strategy that allows Russia and China to maintain the balance of power in their relations, creating a basis for a joint response to hostile policies of the United States. While opinions of Russian observers and experts on BRI are divided, their views on the “linking up” are coherent. They unanimously support and approve Putin’s proposal as a strategy that suits Russia’s international status. This discursive structure creates a hegemonic and monolithic narrative of Sino-Russian relations that overrides political and policy variations wherever it is articulated, leaving no room for the development of alternative approaches to Sino-Russian relations and little room for critical evaluations of the “linking up” proposal.