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The Realpolitik Nature of the Chinese Initiative Proposal

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Updated: Apr 15th, 2021


The main objective of this study was to test the validity of the hypothesis that it is namely the Realist theory of international relations that explains the true significance of the Chinese OBOR initiative better than does the rivaling theory of Constructivism. The rationale for choosing these specific theories had to do with the fact that the rest of the IR-models derive from either from Constructivism or Realism in one way or another.

Because of the qualitative nature of the study’s subject matter, the decision was made to tackle it within the methodological framework of the Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which presupposes that it is possible to gain in-depth insights into the discursive quintessence of a particular social/political phenomenon by mean of analyzing the semiotic subtleties of its linguistic representations, as seen in the academic articles of relevance.

The study’s empirical phase was concerned with conducting the review of the thematically related scholarly publications on OBOR and subjecting the selected articles to the CDA-inquiry for the purpose of identifying the presence of the recurring Constructivist and Realist “clusters of meaning” in them, codifying/quantifying the obtained data, and sub-sequentially interpreting the significance of the detected patterns about the spatial distribution of the semiotic clusters in question. In the aftermath of having completed this particular phase of the undertaken research, it was determined that there is indeed a good reason for assessing the practical implications of OBOR through the conceptual lenses of Realism.

The study’s foremost conclusion is that China’s declared intention to proceed with reestablishing the modern version of the ancient Silk Road cannot be discussed outside of the ongoing geopolitical decline of the West – the process predetermined by the objective laws of history. This once again confirms the legitimacy of the specifically Realist IR-model.

This particular suggestion is supported by the following set of theoretical considerations:

First, even though people are naturally driven to assume that it would prove something close to impossible gaining a complete understanding of the workings of one’s unconscious psyche, reflected by his or her analytical writing, this objective can still be achieved with comparative ease. For this, we will need to recognize that the mental processes inside the author’s brain that define the structural/semiotic subtleties of a particular text (written by him or her) are affected by the surrounding social environment.

This fact becomes especially evident when the analysis of such phenomena as language behavior, stereotypes, and prejudices (inherent in social groups) is being undertaken. Partially, this explains why analysts often resort to using such notions as the “collective memory”, “archetypal psyche”, and “societal anxiety” while elaborating on the connotative significance of cognitive processes.

Second, it is in our very nature to categorize the complexities of life within the boundaries of different algorithmic models, while seeking to recognize what may account for the systematic similarity between them. Thus, the deployment of the socio-linguistic approach to defining the overall semiotic significance of the IR-related issues is indeed justified, as it will deepen our understanding of the interdisciplinary essence of these issues’ practical implications.

Third, as practice indicates, to be able to comprehend the sheer complexity of the interrelationship between the society and the currently dominant discourse within it, one must be willing to pay much attention to what accounts for the systemic aspects of how the concerned interrelationship is being formed. One of the main reasons for this is that the very functioning of one’s cognitive apparatus is ultimately predetermined by how he or she positions itself socially/politically.

Conceptually speaking, political Constructivism not only challenges political Realism but also the conceptual foundations out of which the latter derives – Rationalism and Materialism. The main innovation of the approach is reflective of the assumption that the interests of political players are based not so much on the rational calculation of benefits as on the relations, ideas and behavioral norms arising as a result of the ongoing interaction between the agents of IR, which supposedly changes the very essence of how the latter perceive the objectively existing socio-political realities in this world.

According to the theory’s advocates, the notion of “national interest” cannot be separated from what accounts for the fluctuating dynamics within the context of how every particular nation strives to maintain its spatial integrity, as well as from the interpretation of previous events in the domain of IR. Being an integral part of the process, rationality continues to play an important role defining its observable emanations, but it turns out to be embedded in a different coordinate system. Because of this, Constructivism allows one to explain anomalies in the behavior of IR-actors that remain incomprehensible to rationalists.

After all, for as long as the workings of a rationalist logic are concerned, there is no way to explain abnormalities in how every particular country reacts to the externally induced stimuli other than by presuming that a certain cognitive error must have taken place, within the context of how a researcher has gone about assessing the issue. There is nothing wrong with such an explanation, but its validity is being undermined to an extent by the fact it denies the hypothetical possibility for the behavior of IR-actors to be anything else but circumstantially predetermined (Cho, 2012, p. 305).

Another qualitative feature of Constructivism has to do with the fact that, contrary to what it is the case with Realists, its proponents do not idealize materialistic considerations as the only driving force behind the formation of the IR-realities on this planet. According to the adherents of this particular theory of IR, depending on the nature of the external circumstances of relevance, these considerations are capable of carrying different semantic loads – something that justifies the idea that there is nothing unnatural about the presumed ability of different nations to indulge in “geopolitical altruism”.

Ironically enough, the discursive strengths of the IR-model in question simultaneously account for its main weaknesses. The reason for this is that what has been mentioned earlier means that Constructivism is inconsistent with the main principle of ensuring the scientific legitimacy of an ontological inquiry – the researchers’ ability to have the former based on the solid axiomatic foundation, which in turn enables the affiliated theory to have a practical value, in the first place.

The rationale behind this suggestion can be grasped with ease – if we assume that there is no any direct cause-effect relationship between the dependent and independent variables within the context of how IR-actors react to the same set of external stimuli, then there can be very little sense in relying on Constructivism as the instrument of envisaging the developmental logic of a particular geopolitical phenomenon, to begin with.

Recognition of the concept of “national interest” as the driving force behind international politics. This concept allows us to view international politics as a sphere relatively independent of such areas as economics, religion, and ethics. Morgenthau used to stress out that without such a theoretical assumption, it is impossible to create a theory of politics, in the first place. According to him, it is precisely the concept of interest, interpreted in terms of power and domination, which enables a theoretical understanding of international relations and international politics.

Opposition to the idea that motivational psychologism has anything to do with the formation of international politics, as we know them. Realism relieves the theory of IR from two misconceptions – the study of the motives and intentions that supposedly underline political action, as well as the study of the ideological preferences of political leaders. As it is seen from the Realist perspective, the point of view, according to which the key to understanding foreign policy has to do with the motives of a statesman, is erroneous.

Foreign policy cannot be discussed in terms of a psychological phenomenon. Instead, Realists insist that the theory of international relations should focus on studying such qualities of a politician as intellect, will to power, and readiness to take action, as opposed to concerning itself with evaluating the effectiveness of a particular political action through the lenses of morality/ethics. The Realist model of IR also emphasizes that it is utterly inappropriate to assume that the ideological preferences of a political leader have a strong effect on how he or she proceeds with policy-making, especially if the latter is concerned with defining the country’s diplomatic stance.

Refusal to assume that there are “universal values” in the domain of IR. According to the doctrine of political Realism, universal principles of ethics are inapplicable for assessing the actions of states. From the point of view of Realism, prudence means taking into account the consequences of possible alternative political actions – the highest virtue in politics. Political actions do not constitute any value, independent of the actual outcomes to which they may lead.

Assertion of the innately “imperial” essence of international politics. As it is seen by Realists, just about any truly sovereign state strives to attain dominance within the geopolitical niche to which it belongs by military, economic, and cultural means. The first of these means is the most straightforward one – something that pertains to the idea that a war is merely the extension of politics. Economic and cultural (“soft power”) imperialisms are just as effective instruments of geopolitical expansionism, which became especially popular during the 20th century’s second half.

Assessment of OBOR in Russian Academic Articles

To ensure the multi-dimensional depth of our research, it will also make much sense assessing the Russian take on OBOR – something best achieved by analyzing the relevant themes and motifs, contained in the scholarly articles that belong to Russia’s academic domain (published in Russian). The rationale behind this suggestion has to do with the fact that, as practice indicates, the academic assessments of the matters of geopolitical importance vary rather significantly, with regard to what appears to be their intended “external” or “internal” use. Russian articles of the latter use represent special interest for us, as such that are more likely to be much more “intellectually honest”, as compared to what it is the case with the ones published in English.

Even though the insights obtained from analyzing the recent Russian articles on OBOR cannot be deemed utterly groundbreaking, most of them appear to correlate with the utilitarian outlook on the Chinese initiative in question. The most prominent of the acquired clues, in this respect, are as follows:

There are a number of objective reasons for the OBOR-related cooperation between Russia and China to continue facing challenges throughout the entirety of the project’s implementation phase. This simply could not be otherwise because OBOR aims to achieve essentially the same set of economic objectives with that of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Even though the governmental officials from both countries never cease referring to OBOR and the EAEU as being mutually complementary, such references appear to have a largely rhetorical value.

After all, despite the currently cordial relationship between China and Russia, both nations are dialectically predetermined to compete for resources/influence within the same geographic niche. Nevertheless, most Russian authors seem to feel rather optimistic about even the mid-term prospects for the cooperation in question. For example, according to Дмитриев (2017), this cooperation is fully consistent with the so-called “dual logic” (internal and external) of Sino-Russian entente.

The internal aspect of this logic has to do with the fact that, due to being neighbors while simultaneously listed among the world’s most powerful nations, China and Russia are naturally interested in pursuing a peaceful coexistence with each other – at least for as long as the circumstances allow (p. 45). Such their willingness is strengthened even further by the “external” pressures, faced by both countries in the domain of international politics – all because the collective West considers China and Russia posing an acute threat to the continuation of its geopolitical dominance on this planet.

Russia pays much attention to specifically the non-economic (defense-related) implications of its intention to participate in OBOR. For example, as it is seen by Абрамян, Григорян and Саакян (2017), Russia expects to be able to modernize the Trans-Siberian railroad throughout most of its stretch, as one of the most important outcomes of Sino-Russian collaboration under the auspices of OBOR (p. 15). The Russian government’s foremost aim, in this regard, is to be able to improve the logistical soundness of railway-transportation between the country’s Western and Eastern parts, which in turn is meant to strengthen Russia’s national defense.

Because of the country’s shared border with China, as well as the economic/military underdevelopment of its Far-Eastern regions (due to geographic remoteness), Russia naturally refrains from acting much too enthusiastic, within the context of how it goes pledging its support to the Chinese initiative. As it appears from the cited article, the Russian government is likely to continue exercising much caution while collaborating with its Chinese counterparts throughout the project’s implementation phases – not the least, due to the recently emerged “Iranian factor” on the Eurasian chessboard of international geopolitics, which Russia has not yet figured how to address.

On the one hand, Russia supports Iran’s intention to oppose the expansion of America’s political and economic influence in the area. And, the Iranian government willingness to take full advantage of China’s invitation to contribute to the establishment of OBOR will undoubtedly increase Iran’s chances to come a winner out of its current confrontation with the US. On the other hand, however, Russia grows ever wearier of Iran’s plans to attain a hegemonic dominance in the area adjacent to what Russian political analysts refer as the country’s “soft underbelly” (Абрамян et al., 2017, p. 16).

While realizing that there are indeed many potential benefits for Russia to be gained from collaborating with China under the initiative’s auspices, the Russian government is also aware that there is a much geopolitical ambivalence to OBOR, concerned with the lingering uncertainty as to what are going to be the actual routes for the project’s land corridors. In fact, many Russian governmental officials in charge of managing the technical aspects of Russia’s involvement in OBOR, are still not too sure whether the Chinese initiative should be considered “pro-Eurasian” or “pro-Western”. After all, the final decision still has not been made, with respect to whether the modern Silk Route’s main transit corridor will be laid through Russia or not.

In case China decides to proceed with establishing it through Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey (thus, bypassing Russia), the Russian government will likely to begin perceiving OBOR as being “pro-Western” and therefore inconsistent with Russia’s own long-term political/economic agenda in the concerned part of the world (Литвинов, 2016, p. 177).

What adds even more to Russia’s anxieties, regarding OBOR, is the fact that, unlike what it is the case with most of the initiative’s potential participants (with the exception of Russia itself), China is the de facto independent country, which means that there can be no guarantee for the Chinese foreign policy not to undergo a drastic transformation in the future if the continually fluctuating geopolitical circumstances call for it, regardless of whatever may be the state of diplomatic relations between China and Russia prior to such a hypothetical development. If the mentioned scenario actualizes itself, this will instantaneously transform OBOR into a major “headache” for Russia.

According to the earlier cited author, however, Russia is now in the position not to be giving much thought to such a scenario – all due to the particularities of the current political situation in the world, and the country’s ownership of the maritime Northeast Passage (NEP), which is expected to become ever more important as global warming continues to gain a momentum (Литвинов, 2016, p. 178). Evidently enough, Russia intends to benefit from partaking in OBOR to the best of its ability, despite the fact that there are indeed many risks to the Chinese initiative – at least as assessed from the Russian perspective.

While assessing the perspectives of the Sino-Russian cooperation under the initiative’s auspices, Russian analysts tend to make a point in elaborating on the process’s short and long-term implications. For as long as the former is being concerned, there is a good rationale to assume that Russia’s interests correlate with those of China. In particular, is it argued that while taking an active part in the establishment of OBOR, Russia will be able to revitalize both the agricultural and energy sectors of its economy.

The logic behind such a commonly occurring argument is quite apparent – the country’s participation in the Chinese project will result in increasing the carrying capacity of Russia’s Eastern-bound transport arteries. Because of being pressed to deal with the Western economic sanctions, the Russian government will most definitely take practical advantage of such a newly emerged opportunity (Борисов, 2017, p. 111).

After all, the current state of the Russian land-based transport infrastructure is best defined as lacking logistical efficiency – something that has a strongly negative impact of the extent of the Russian Federation’s overall economic competitiveness, as the agent of international relations. At the same time, however, there are certain doubts about whether it will continue to make much sense for the Russian government to keep trying to attract Chinese investments in the development of the country’s railway system, as one of its macroeconomic priorities. The reason for this is that even today, transporting commercial goods via the established maritime trade routes is estimated to be 10-15 times more cost-effective, as compared to the practice of using railways for the same purpose.

Russian analysts express their doubts about whether the reestablishment of OBOR will prove economically feasible, in the long-term sense of this word. Because the Chinese government should have been aware of this as well, and because OBOR is largely a land-locked project, China’s unwavering enthusiasm in promoting it is seen as yet an additional indication that the new Silk Road is not merely about the facilitation of trade across Eurasia – the consideration that stands opposite to the Chinese official stance on the initiative in question (Ларин & Никулин, 2016, p. 117).

Overall, Russia’s position on OBOR is defined by the considerations of a pragmatic rationale, on the part of the Russian government. Russia’s governmental officials fully acknowledge the initiative’s potential pros and cons to the country’s socioeconomic and geopolitical well-being. Among the OBOR’s main benefits to Russia, the authors of the reviewed articles commonly list:

Opportunity for the country’s economy to receive a powerful developmental boost, as a result of the would-be achieved unification of the Eurasian market of goods and services under OBOR.

The fact that Russia’s participation in OBOR will attract substantial investments to the country’s geographically remote regions – something that stands out of a particular importance for the Russian government, given the negative effect of the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia by the West on the government’s ability to finance infrastructural projects.

Increased economic cooperation with the rest of the initiative’s participants, which is expected to help Russia to secure new energy contracts in the region – hence, allowing the country to take full advantage of its richness in natural resources.

Reduced risks to Russia’s “soft underbelly” (alongside the country’s Southern border), due to the fact that the practical implementation of the OBOR initiative is anticipated to help combating political instability in Eurasia.

The reviewed articles also contain many valuable insights into how the country’s involvement with OBOR may prove counterproductive to its long-term geopolitical agenda. The most noteworthy of them are as follows:

Decline of the transit role of Russia, in general, and the Trans-Siberian railway, in particular.

Increased accessibility of natural resources (particularly oil and natural gas) alongside the OBOR’s Southern corridor, which will hamper Russia’s ability to negotiate good prices for exporting these resources to China and other countries.

The overall weakening of Russia’s “soft power” in the areas, traditionally considered belonging to this country’s sphere of national interests (Строганов, 2016, p. 361).

Hence, Russia’s current approach to defining its positioning, with respect to OBOR – trying to counterbalance the initiative’s earlier outlined pros and cons while striving to improve its negotiatiative ground.

While conducting the review of the Russian scholarly articles that discuss OBOR and the implications of Russia’s involvement with the Chinese most recent economic initiative, we were able to identify a few distinctive traits to how the authors proceeded to tackle the subject matter in question. First, most of the reviewed Russian-based publications are succinct and straight down to the point, with the page-count rarely exceeding 5-6.

At the same time, however, they are utterly informative. By being exposed to them, readers will be able to attain a better understanding of OBOR within both the global and regional contexts. Second, these articles feature very little of an ideological bias, which sets them apart from the bulk of the thematically relevant materials in English, chosen for the critical discourse analysis (especially those that outline the specifics of China’s official take on OBOR). Third, the studied publications in Russian appear to acknowledge the transformative essence of OBOR, as a project-in-making, which adds more credibility to the argumentative stance, adopted by the authors.

It is understood, of course, that this again goes to support the validity of the study’s initial hypothesis. Apparently, OBOR is not really about “bringing more harmony to the world”, as Chinese governmental officials would like everybody to believe.

The initiative’s true purpose is to legitimize China’s expansionist agenda. By promoting OBOR, China seeks both to expand its geopolitical influence in Central Asia and lessen the vulnerability of its already existing maritime trade-routes to the imminent military attack by the US. Apparently, despite the Chinese leaders’ tendency to indulge in the Constructivist rhetoric while explaining the significance of OBOR, it is best discussed as such that directly relates to the “art of strategic deception”, in full accordance with the Chinese military tradition – if the enemy suspects you of being warlike, act as the most committed supporter of peace. China needs to be given credit for having mastered this “art” perfectly well.

The reason for this is that, as it was revealed by this research, most analysts tend to brush aside the Constructivist explanations of the initiative’s significance as being quite irrelevant, even though they do it rather implicitly than explicitly. This again confirms the validity of our suggestion that the currently dominant political discourse exerts a powerful influence on how the issues of geopolitical importance are being tackled in Western academia.

Identified Limitations/Recommendations for Future Research

As it was anticipated initially, one of the main limitations of this research has to do with the sheer recentness of the Chinese initiative. Because OBOR has not yet entered into the project phase of its eventual implementation, we were not in the position to take practical advantage of the potentially applicable positivist research-methodology, which would have helped to increase the scientific soundness of the would-be acquired data.

After all, even though there is plenty of information available, regarding the initiative’s officially proclaimed aims, there still remains much informational void, with respect to the statistically measurable characteristics of how OBOR is being put into action as we speak. This has left us with no choice, but resort to the utilization of the CDA research-approach to studying the matter. And, as it was implied earlier, this approach has traditionally been criticized for its presumed lack of axiomatic integrity.

Therefore, there is indeed a certain rationale in referring to the attained insights as being speculative to an extent. This particular would-be criticism, however, is itself far from been deemed fully objective. The reason for this is that it derives from the assumption that it is specifically the surrounding IR-reality that defines the actual significance of the regionally and globally scaled socioeconomic projects. However, there is also much justification for assuming that such a reality is, in fact, formed by the currently dominant socio-political discourse in the world – the suggestion that served as the theoretical premise for undertaking this study.

Another apparent limitation of the conducted research is that its findings cannot be considered cross-sectionally representative, in the full sense of this word. In its turn, this limitation has been predetermined by the time-consuming nature of the codification procedure, on the one hand, and the fact that there has not passed enough time yet for the analytical assessments of OBOR to feature much variance, on the other.

In our study, it was determined that it indeed thoroughly appropriate to refer to OBOR as the initiative of the clearly Realist significance. Nevertheless, the acquired analytical clues, in support of the study’s conclusions, are best defined as being preliminary to an extent because they still need to be backed statistically – this should be the main focus of the OBOR-related studies in the future.

The most logical research-approach, in this respect, would be striving to prove the existence/absence of any correlational relationship between the sub-sequential phases of the initiative’s practical implementation and the rise/decline of the living standards in the would-be affected areas, adjacent to OBOR’s both maritime and land-based corridors. If the spatial expansion of the OBOR infrastructure across the continent does not automatically make ordinary people in the participating countries more prosperous, this will be regarded as the most credible proof that OBOR is ultimately concerned with helping China to pursue its expansionist agenda, as something that has a value of its own.

Researchers should also consider assessing OBOR in conjunction with the already existing and yet-to-be-introduced expansionist socioeconomic initiatives/projects, on the part of the US, EU, and Russia. The reason for this is that there is a certain rationale to expect that the deployment of the suggested research-approach should not only confirm the Realpolitik nature of the Chinese initiative but also provide many additional clues as to how the initiative’s promoters are likely to react to challenges in the way of implementing it practically.

List of Abbreviations

  • AIIB – Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
  • ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
  • BC – Before Christ.
  • BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
  • CAU – Central Asian Union.
  • CDA – Critical Discourse Analysis.
  • CIS – Commonwealth of Independent States.
  • CNPC – China National Petroleum Corporation.
  • CPC – Communist Party of China.
  • CSTO – Collective Security Treaty Organization.
  • EAEU – Eurasian Economic Union (alternative name).
  • ECO – Economic Cooperation Organization.
  • ECU – Eurasian Customs Union.
  • EDB – Eurasian Development Bank.
  • EES – Eurasian Economic Space.
  • EEU – Eurasian Economic Union.
  • EU – European Union.
  • IR – International Politics.
  • IT – Information Technology.
  • MSR – Maritime Silk Road.
  • NCO – Non-Governmental Organization.
  • Northeast Passage – NEP.
  • OBOR – One Belt One Road.
  • R2P – Responsibility to Protect.
  • SCO-Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
  • SREB – Silk Road Economic Belt.
  • TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
  • UN – United Nations.
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"The Realpolitik Nature of the Chinese Initiative." IvyPanda, 15 Apr. 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/the-realpolitik-nature-of-the-chinese-initiative/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Realpolitik Nature of the Chinese Initiative." April 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-realpolitik-nature-of-the-chinese-initiative/.


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IvyPanda. 2021. "The Realpolitik Nature of the Chinese Initiative." April 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-realpolitik-nature-of-the-chinese-initiative/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'The Realpolitik Nature of the Chinese Initiative'. 15 April.

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