At the end of March, a German container train left Chongqing, China heading west. After traveling for 16 days over the rail lines in half a dozen countries it arrived in Duisberg, Germany, a trip of about 6,000 miles.
To give a sense of this accomplishment, consider this: the normal way to ship something from Chongqing, an industrial city in the middle of China with nearly 30 million people, to Germany is to ship it first to a Chinese port city, which alone takes about three days. At the port city, it will be loaded onto a container ship, which must then travel all the way around Asia, the Indian Ocean, and all the way up Africa and into the Baltic Sea, where it would unload its shipment a Germany port city like Hamburg. The whole trip takes about a month.
This experiment in rail transport literally cuts shipment time from China to Germany in half. There is another route that goes up through Mongolia and basically follows the Trans-Siberian Railway, but that’s several thousand miles longer than this new route—its main advantage is that it requires substantially fewer customs fees.
The urge to pave Central Asia and reconstitute the Silk Road is a mainstay of studying the region: it crops up almost as often as references to some new iteration of the Great Game, as if the only way to conceive of Central Asia was as a staging ground for other people’s politics or other people’s economies.
Since at least 1998, the European Union has been angling to create an unbroken transit network stretching from China to Germany. It’s not just to Europe; in 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece about China building a “New Silk Road” from East Asia to India and the Middle East.
(The New Silk Road language has also been used to describe the flowering drugs trade in the region—though in that case it was a new silk road of death.)
The term “Silk Road” in reference to anything other than the actual Silk Road from several millennia ago is, at this point, little more than a cliché—a marker of unimaginative thinking and neo-imperialism. Without being too delicate, the states of Central Asia don’t need Western help removing tariff barriers, onerous customs checks at border crossings, and transit fees. They choose to have those for a number of reasons; that outsiders meddle to improve their own economy isn’t nefarious (and I don’t mean to imply that it is), but it’s also, in a very real way, patronizing.
Great Powers will always lean on non-Great Powers to improve their standing, and the U.S., the EU, and China are no different in this regard. Nevertheless, coverage of all three actors’ projects to “open” trans-Oxiana trade routes remains mired in that same sense of cliché and gee-whiz newness that can really only come from ignorance of the last two decades of effort.
Take the Washington Post. Yesterday, they ran a story about how “the New Silk Road” is “igniting dreams in Kazakhstan.” You’d be forgiven for thinking the bones of this story was written in 1993, when Chevron incorporated a joint venture, Tengizchevroil, with KazMunayGas to exploit the Tenghiz oil field in the Northeast Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan was a land filled with promise there, of linking east and west in a glorious pan-global energy and economic future. How little we’ve come:
The new Silk Road is an ambitious $7 billion project to connect China with Western Europe along a 1,700-mile highway through Kazakhstan. Just as the ancient caravans transformed the world, bearing ideas and cultures along with their perfumes and spices, Kazakhstan is counting on the modern equivalent to stimulate economic growth that would have repercussions the world over, including in the United States.
The clichés, they crush me! I’m still looking for a pun about carpets, or something. Anyway, we’ve evolved from gas and oil pipelines to trains and soon to trucks. Our methods of transportation seen determined to become less efficient. When you take a look at their infographic, something jumps out at once: it’s already mostly built. That is, you can already travel by paved road from Almaty to Shymkent to Kyzylorda. I suppose they have to pave some stretches from Aralsk north, as the whole region’s been devastated by the Aral Sea disaster.
The real trick isn’t paving roads anyway: the Director General of the ADB project that’s partially bankrolling this project admits freely that its purpose is to create “an economic corridor and stability” that benefits more than just Kazakhstan.
I wish them the best of luck. No matter what this highway represents, it remains far cheaper to ship things from China to Europe by sea, and overland the railways are still far less expensive and most more quickly in greater bulk.
That doesn’t mean there’s no need for a highway through southern Kazakhstan, as I’m certain the Kazakhs will like having a better road. If Nursultan Nazarbayev really cared about Southern Kazakhstan, though, he probably would have paved these roads instead of building his ginormous tents with fake sandy beaches next to ridiculous vanity pyramids in his fake capital in Astana. Kazakhstan does not need the ADB to finance roads. If the Kazakh government cared about roads, they have more than enough oil money to build some themselves.
No, what it happening, yet again, is the international community is, for lack of a better word, subsidizing a developing country’s bad decisions, represented by the most outrageous vanity projects of its preening dictator, and calling the whole thing peaceful economic development. There’s no doubt better roads through here will benefit Kazakhs, Chinese, Russians, and maybe Europeans. But there’s no reason to make the international community pay for this.
As for the rest of the region, well, good luck to them. This magical highway doesn’t do much for the other four Central Asian states, as the institutional and political issues that currently strangle intra-regional commerce aren’t actually addressed by the building of this highway. Too bad for them, I guess.