China’s head-start in building roads, railways and pipelines across Central Asia creates an opportunity for the West — and the region itself. Rather than engaging in a high-stakes competition for Central Asia’s valuable resources — a new round of the 19th century Great Game — the West should support China’s initial steps by coaching local governments on how to expand textile and agricultural exports and avoid the resource curse that blights many developing, one-commodity nations.
China has paved the way to finally open up landlocked Central Asia, and the West should build on its success, creating a new, oil-fueled, East-West Silk Road.
Oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea across Kazakhstan, the recently opened gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and other planned roads and railways across Russia as well as down to the deep sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan are all part of China’s effort to turn Central Asia from a region of buffer states into a transit corridor between East and West. Beijing’s leaders have rightfully looked to Eurasia as a rich source of natural resources to fuel their booming economy.
To Khanna’s great credit, he doesn’t mention the several “Silk Road” ideas promulgated in the West… and he gets points for rejecting “Great Game” analogies. But this frame-up is missing some critical pieces (for the sake of brevity I’m ignoring his crayola history of resource development in Central Asia that started the essay). For one, the vast majority of the energy resources developed in Central Asia still flow to the west through Russia; China does not offer an immediate improvement on this, since the West would be trading one authoritarian intermediary for another at greater cost due to pipeline length. For another, Khanna is assuming lots of intent on the part of the Chinese and not offering any reason to take him at his word—he’s not saying this from interviews with Chinese officials, from doctrine or documents he’s researched, or from anything near as I can tell. He just… says it.
Khanna then goes on to talk about oil pipelines through Afghanistan and Pakistan, two topics I’m afraid he simply does not demonstrate a deep understanding of. With regard to the TAPI pipeline (Khanna says it is unbuilt, but renown truth-teller Ted Rall is going to see its early construction), Khanna thinks we should stabilize Afghanistan, not for any national security interests, not for the Afghans themselves, but so that we can help China pump oil out of Turkmenistan. What is this, 1998?
I didn’t even read the second page of his op-ed. Besides feeling like this was a channeling of his inner Thomas Barnett, it’s difficult to take seriously an argument that doesn’t take itself seriously. There are important, powerful geopolitical, and locally political, issues surrounding all of these projects and ideas. In a way, he’s living up to his much-vaunted book about China, Europe, and the U.S. competing for business relationships with the third world; but that also gets at his fundamental weakness, too, which is how he views these places not as places with their own merit, but as territory ripe for economic conquest. (I know Khanna denies the conquest aspect to his work, but it’s hard to avoid, especially here.)
But in another way, I just don’t see what he’s even saying. These are the sorts of “big ideas” that get people book deals, but to be enacted those ideas need the tempering of local understanding to have any chance of being enacted. Khanna has none of that local understanding, just a wikipedia-level picture of the Central Asia he just transited in an old ambulance, and a lot of catch phrases. That’s hardly a grand vision for the economic integration of Central Asia.