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Panelists Speculate About Effects of COVID-19 on Eurasian Integration

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Four academics discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the economic and geopolitical integration of Eurasia in a Tuesday morning webinar.

The panel, “Will COVID-19 Curtail European-Eurasian Integration?”, featured Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate Yun Han, professorial lecturer Marsha McGraw Olive, research fellow Jacopo Maria Pepe, and Davis Center senior fellow Nargis Kassenova. Kent E. Calder, director of the John Hopkins Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, moderated the panel. The Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard and Hopkins’s Reischauer Center co-sponsored the event.

“The intellectual inspiration for this was an interest that all of us have had, for some time, in the way that the Eurasian continent is being transformed,” Calder said in an interview after the panel.

Originally intended to be held in Iceland, the centers shifted Tuesday’s discussion online. The group discussed the pandemic’s impact on Eurasian countries still reacting to the rise of China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and growth of the European Union.

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“I think this was a very timely event,” said audience member Anu Anwar, a fellow at the Harvard Asia Center. “Scholars and policymakers are curious to know how COVID will affect [Eurasian integration] going forward.”

Pepe, who Calder described as “one of the rising stars in Eurasian analysis,” emphasized how the competing forces of the EU and Germany, Russia, and China have shaped the supercontinent.

“My sense is that the general trends won’t change, but we’ll have a new dynamic in the EU-Russia-China relation,” Pepe said.

“Greater diversification and multipolarization of routes and corridors which will increasingly include India and Southeast Asia” will characterize that dynamic, he added.

Han focused on Greece’s and Hungary’s relationships with China. The Belt and Road Initiative — China’s massive infrastructure project connecting East Asia to Europe — has strengthened those nations’ ties with Beiijing, according to Han. U.S.-China relations also play a role.

“As barriers to the American market continue to rise, circulation between China and the rest of Eurasia becomes ever more important,” Han said.

Later parts of the conversation examined Central Asia as a hub for Eurasian connectivity.

The region has suffered economically during the pandemic, as local production slowed and demand fell for exports like oil. Still, McGraw Olive said she believes the COVID-19 pandemic will “reshape and not replace” globalization.

The panelists discussed ways in which the pandemic might create a better future for the region.

“It is a window of opportunity, in a way, because it is a crisis, and crisis creates opportunity,” said Kassenova.

They said post-COVID Central Asia may find new opportunities to work with the EU and progress its digital, electric, and green economies.

Kassenova also noted that the region is benefiting from a boost in railway container traffic because of the pandemic.

“Whether it’s a temporary trend, we don’t know,” she said, in an interview after the panel.

“I'm inclined to think that the forces of deepening relationships across the continent are still there,” Calder said in his closing remarks. “Its evolution and integration is still proceeding.”

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