While China, keen to ward off US sanctions as long as possible, is lagging, its RIC partners Iran and Russia are doing the legwork to break the west’s global financial grip.
By Pepe ESCOBAR
The first Eurasia Economic Forum, held last week in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, should be regarded as a milestone in setting the parameters for the geoeconomic integration of the Eurasian heartland.
Sergei Glazyev, Russia’s Minister in Charge of Integration and Macroeconomics of the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU), is coordinating the drive to design an alternative monetary-financial system – a de facto post-Bretton Woods III – in cooperation with China.
According to Glazyev, the forum “discussed the model of a new global settlement currency pegged to baskets of national currencies and commodities. The introduction of this currency instrument in Eurasia will entail the collapse of the dollar system and the final undermining of the US military and political power. It is necessary to start negotiations on signing an appropriate international treaty within the framework of the SCO.”
Glazyev described the initiative to upend the western global financial system in more detail during an exclusive interview with The Cradle in April.
It’s particularly relevant to understand how Glazyev interconnects the EAEU’s drive with the increasing geopolitical and geoeconomic role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which unites at the same table key Eurasian powers: China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Iran.
That connects directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, supporting the extension of a temporary free trade agreement between the EAEU and Iran, which is the newest (and only West Asian) full member of the SCO. Putin said this should go ahead despite the “confrontation by the collective West.”
The EAEU, inaugurated in 2015 with five full members – Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia – represents a market of 184 million people and a collective GDP of over $5 trillion. The next step with Iran will be to implement a full free trade agreement, possibly before the end of the year, according to Iranian deputy trade minister Alireza Peymanpak. Egypt, Indonesia and the UAE are also candidates to strike deals with the EAEU.
Iran, which has for over four decades now been forced to find creative solutions to bypass serial, imperial sanction packages, may have a conceptual lesson or two to teach Russia. Barter arrangements are gaining ground: Tehran is offering spare parts and gas turbines to Moscow’s power plants in exchange for much needed zinc, aluminum, lead and steel for its metal and mining industries, according to Iranian trade and industries minister Reza Fatemi Amin.
And more barter on a wide range of commodities is ahead, as discussed during a recent visit to Tehran by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak.
The other ‘RIC’
Slowly but surely, the new RIC (Russia-Iran-China) – as opposed to the old RIC in BRICS (Russia-India-China) – is attempting to integrate their financial systems. Iran is a matter of national security strategy for China, as an energy provider and essential partner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in West Asia.
Russia-China, though, is a much more complex matter. Extremely fearful of provoking US sanctions, Chinese banks are refraining – at least for the moment – to increase their deals with Russian banks, which brings us to the case of UnionPay:
The Chinese bank card provider – increasingly popular, especially across Asia – declined from partnering with Sberbank even before Russia’s largest bank was excluded by the EU and the US from the global bank messaging platform SWIFT. UnionPay also canceled plans with other Russian banks to issue UnionPay cards linked with the Russian Mir payment system, profiting from the exit of Visa and Mastercard from the Russian market.
This is still a careful balancing act for China. Earlier this year at the Boao Forum in Asia, President Xi Jinping was adamant in opposing the “wanton use of unilateral sanctions.” And over 80 percent of Chinese companies already established in Russia appeared to continue their business as usual.
Yet in practical terms, there are serious problems. The Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) have restricted financing for Russian commodities. Even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), absolutely essential for sustainable development projects, linked or not with BRI, decided to freeze all lending to Russia and Belarus in early March to “safeguard” its “financial integrity.”
On the financial front, cautious Chinese banks, with enormous western exposure, are always balancing the fact that nearly 80 percent of global cross-border transactions are still in dollars and euros, and only two percent in yuan. So the Russian market is not exactly a priority.
In parallel, the Russia-Iran front is quite lively. They are turbo-charging mutual settlements in their national currencies to “the highest possible level,” as highlighted by Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak: “We discussed together with central banks the spread and operation of the financial messaging system, as well as the connection of Mir and [Iranian] Shetab payment cards.”
As it stands, the Mir card is still not accepted in Iran, but that’s about to change – just as in Turkey, which this summer will start accepting Mir card payments from legions of Russian tourists. What this means in practice is that Russia and Iran will be connecting their banks to the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS), the Russian equivalent to SWIFT. The Chinese will obviously be examining how seamlessly the transition works.
Now compare all of the above with the prospect that soon there won’t be any SWIFT at all, as Mastercard CEO Michael Miebach let slip in Davos.
Miebach was participating in a panel on Central Bank Digital Currencies, discussing cross-border payments, when he suggested that SWIFT might soon be a thing of the past. No question about it: Moscow is eyeing crypto and digital currencies already, and Beijing is dead set on setting up the digital yuan to work around SWIFT and its linked CHIPS (Clearing House Interbank Payment System).
The Sanctioned Ones, now moving fast
The Russia-Iran front has been fast evolving since January this year, when Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, on a visit to Moscow, handed a draft agreement to Putin on strategic cooperation for the next 20 years, building on “the very good experience of cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria in combating terrorism,” and expanding to “economy, politics, culture, science, technology, defense, and military spheres, as well as security and space issues.”
Raisi also explicitly thanked Putin “for facilitating Tehran’s entry into the SCO.”
Iranian Oil Minister Javad Ouji went straight to the point in his meeting with Novak in Tehran last week: “Our countries are under strict sanctions, and we have the potential to neutralize them through the development of bilateral relations…We have created joint committees on banking, energy, transport, agriculture issues, as well as the issue of creation of nuclear power plants.”
And that brings us once again to the seemingly eternal soap opera of the Vienna-based Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov now signaling the final draft “is at a high degree of readiness for adoption. There are some political problems, which are not related to the finalization of the text.”
Cutting through the proverbial fog of US swamp spin, Ryabkov stressed how “in terms of our interests, including in the context of peaceful nuclear cooperation with Iran, the text is quite satisfactory…there is nothing to ‘fine-tune’.” So when the Americans say that the deal is “out of reach,” Raybkov added, it means that they “broadcast the results of their internal discussions.”
The bottom line is that on the JCPOA, Tehran and Moscow are in sync: “We are what they call on edge, and it could happen very quickly if the political decision is made.”
Expanding on their synchronicity, Tehran even proposed to host negotiations between Moscow and Kiev over the Ukraine conflict – following the Turkish example. By now though, after Ankara’s failure, it is clear that Washington decision makers want no negotiation, but an endless war to the last Ukrainian.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian remains in sync with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. At Davos, he said the Ukraine drama was caused by “the US and NATO’s provocative actions…they “provoked the Kremlin into this.” That’s essentially what Beijing has been discreetly implying.
All of the above shows some of the trials and tribulations of Eurasia integration, and the long and winding road to an EAEU-SCO new monetary system. But first things first: there’s got to be some action on the Mir-UnionPay front. When that news breaks, the die will be cast.