Vienna, January 27 – Since 1991, many in the West have talked about the development of a modern Silk Road of highways, pipelines and rail lines linking the countries of Central Asia with Europe, but far fewer have paid much attention to the active program Beijing has to restore the eastern portion of that historic corridor and thus tie these countries to China.
In an article posted online today, Moscow analyst Aleksandr Shustov describes both what China has been up to in this regard not only involving gas pipelines but also railways and how all of this is likely to affect both economic development and geopolitical competition both within and beyond Central Asia (www.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=2729).
“The interest of China in developing in Central Asia major infrastructure projects which have a key importance in the strategy of Chinese economic expansion is ever more evident,” Shustov writes. Following the December opening of the gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China, Beijing is pushing for a railway into the region.
According to Beijing’s plans, that railway will cross Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and allow Chinese railroads to connect with the rail networks of Iran and Turkey and consequently with Western Europe. And China is now in intensive talks with Kyrgyzstan and the others.
But there is a problem. China wants these countries to change from the Russian/Soviet track width of 1520 mm to the international standard of 1435 mm, thus allowing China to move goods without having to change equipment at the border. But far more is involved than that: such a shift would constitute “a precedent” for other CIS countries thinking about such a move.
Kyrgyzstan is currently resisting, the Moscow analyst says, citing Bishkek’s obligations under CIS plus Baltic agreements, but if China ultimately prevails – and the savings Beijing would achieve if it does means it will press hard – that would by itself, he points out, produce “a reorientation on the new transport corridors.”
Talks between China and Kyrgyzstan are intensifying, with the negotiations taking off after Kyrgyz investment agency head Maksim Bakiyev visited Beijing earlier this month. At that time, officials noted that the two sides have agreed on the path of the line and China has indicated that it wants to connect with the Turkish and Iranian railway systems.
It is indicative, Shustov says, that this “project will be realized along the lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO),” an indication about “the further growth of the economic influence of China in this organization” and also, although Shustov does not mention this, the relative decline in the influence of both Russia and the CIS states.
In Central Asia, there are three other railway projects, in none of which is Beijing the dominant player. First, there is CAREC – the Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation – program, which was launched in 1997 and was intended to promote transportation links of all kinds among Western china, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Mongolia.
Not only has this project faced problems because of violence in portions of its proposed network, but the only path to Europe, “except for across the Caspian via Azerbaijan and Georgia,” is through Russia, a corridor that many in the West want to downplay lest Moscow use its economic leverage to restore its political power in Central Asia.
Second, there is TRACECA, the Transport Corridor of Europe, Caucasus and Asia, which was developed beginning in 1998 specifically as an alternative to sending oil and gas through Russia. Its participants include the five central Asian countries, the three south Caucasus ones, Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.
But despite much hype, this project has not yet justified the hopes that were placed in it, a reflection of “the geographic complexity of the route and also the organizational difficulties of transferring goods across the borders of the participant countries.” As a result, some West European writers have called for a combination of TRACECA and CAREC.
And third, there is the North-South Corridor favored by Russia that seeks to build a highway and railway network between Russia in the north and Iran and India in the south. This project faces some problems, Shustov points out, because it requires both the construction of a new railroad through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and the use of a sea lane as well.
China plans to avoid some of the problems inherent in the other projects because it is willing to work with Iran, a country with which both the United States and the European Union have extremely tense relations. And Beijing is also ready to work closely with Turkmenistan, as it showed in its work on earlier pipeline projects.
A Chinese “Silk Road” railway into Central Asia would be economically profitable for both China and the countries of that region, but except with regard to certain light or perishable products, China and Europe would find it cheaper to exchange good by sea rather than use these rail lines, however much writers in both places say otherwise.
And because that is so, Shustov concludes, it is important to reflect upon “the geopolitical element” of China’s effort, about Beijing’s hopes to use the new rail lines as it has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to promote “the reorientation of the countries of Central Asia involved in this project from Russia to China.”