Russia's key challenge is to find the right
balance between different external players in Central Asia. Russian speakers were rather sceptical
about Chinese soft power in the region, even though Beijing had become more active in this area by,
for instance, letting more young people from Central Asian countries study at Chinese universities.
They believed that Central Asian countries feared Chinese domination and would continue to see
Russia as an important partner. China, for its part, seemed to be eager to avoid misunderstandings
with Russia. Russian participants, therefore, did not consider the BRI to be contrary to Russian
interests in Central Asia.
Russian speakers strongly emphasised opportunities for
EU-EAEU cooperation emerging from the Belt and Road Initiative. This cooperation could
entail expanding trade links and creating new frameworks for economic interaction. They regretted
that the current political crisis between Russia and the EU made such cooperation and its potential
positive implications for EU-Russia relations difficult to achieve.
were less specific about the Belt and Road Initiative. They noted that the EU had not
yet formulated a consolidated position in respect of the BRI. Several EU speakers stressed the
vagueness of the concept, which they considered, at the same time, to be the main reason for its
success – because it allowed everyone to fill it with their own interpretations. From an EU
perspective, the Belt and Road Initiative is mainly about trade and investment, infrastructure and
transport corridors, targeting the EU. EU participants claimed that China does not dispose of
sufficient financial resources to implement the BRI. Beijing's search for international investment
partners was considered a good opportunity for the EU and its financial institutions to get involved
and also impact on the process. One EU speaker stressed that if this were to happen, Central Asia
could indeed become a bridge between the EU, China, and Russia. In other words, EU participants
considered the BRI an opportunity to reengage with the Eurasian, and specifically Central Asian,
region without, however, referring explicitly to the EAEU. They also reflected upon the implications
of the BRI for EU political and security interests. The 16+1 Platform was cited again as one
somewhat worrisome example of increasing Chinese influence inside the EU. One speaker anticipated
potential negative implications of the BRI for the transatlantic relationship if the EU became more
involved and the US did not.
Both Russian and EU participants were in agreement that the BRI
is not only an economic but also a geo-political project.