The New, New, New Silk Road, Now With Moar Newness

by Joshua Foust on 5/1/2011 · 11 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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upyernoz May 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm

the road between almaty and shymkent is really bad and the road from shymkent at least as far as turkestan is little better. some stretches take forever just because the driver has to rove all over the road to avoid massive potholes (not to mention the traffic coming the other direction that is also roving freely on both sides of the road to avoid those same holes).

and you’re wrong to say that the highway project doesn’t do much for the country. at least in taraz, the “new silk road” project meant a lot of jobs, not to mention the benefits of more efficient movement of goods that would come with a real road to the other major cities. at least that’s how it was viewed when i was there. while you’re right that the kaz government can use its oil wealth to build a better highway through the southern part of the country, it’s much smarter of them to get foreigners to pay for it for them, by dangling the promise of a magic cheaper way to get goods to europe.

i agree with you about how tiresome the “silk road” label can be, i disagree with the second half of the post. but it isn’t the international community “subsidizing a developing country’s bad decisions”. it’s a developing country finding a way to get foreigners to pay for their much-needed infrastructure improvements by telling the foreigners how it will benefit them in the long run.

Don Bacon May 1, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Verry interesting. And just to round it out, the Silk Road has been given as a reason why the U.S. is in Afghanistan.

The Obama Administration’s Priorities in South and Central Asia
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Houston, TX
January 19, 2011
The Silk Road once linked the South and Central Asian regions through an extensive trade network. Cultural and political linkages came later. Timur, whose legacy still holds strong in Uzbekistan, established a strong cultural link between these regions in the late 14th century when his armies conquered Multan and Delhi. He planted the seeds of the powerful Mughal dynasty that would later go on to produce cultural marvels like the Taj Mahal in India.
Today, however, the region is one of the least integrated in the world, as I experience every time I travel to the region, when I often have to transit through Istanbul, Moscow or Dubai to get from one Central Asian capital to another.
With rapidly growing economies like India, emerging markets in Bangladesh and Kazakhstan, and resource-rich countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, greater linkages in this region would bring tremendous benefits to its citizens, as well as the world.
Administration Priorities
Given this dynamic regional context, we have three primary objectives in the South and Central Asia region:
· Support international efforts in Afghanistan;
· Build a strategic partnership with India; and
· Develop more durable and stable relations with the Central Asian countries.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Silk Road Trade and Investment
New Pathways for U.s.-Central Asia Economic Ties
October 7, 2009

March 17, 1999
H.R. 1152:
Silk Road Strategy Act of 1999
106th Congress
To amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to target assistance to support the economic and political independence of the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

2d Session May 4, 2006
S. 2749
To update the Silk Road Strategy Act of 1999 to modify targeting of assistance in order to support the economic and political independence of the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus in recognition of political and economic changes in these regions since enactment of the original legislation.

Neither of these bills passed.

Kirstin May 1, 2011 at 10:45 pm

There’s a stretch of freshly paved road in northern Kyrgyzstan on the way to the Kazakh border and it is wonderful to drive on… until you get to the part that China and Kazakhstan no longer care about and get back to dodging potholes. I don’t know about Kazakhstan, but here it’s all Chinese workers who build and pave the new roads so it doesn’t seem to do much for the economy other than saving drivers money on fixing car damage caused by the bad roads. But, as long as Kazakhstan keeps getting funds to build roads, it seems inevitable that (northern) Kyrgyzstan will get a few new ones as well (especially surrounding the fancy resorts in Issyk-Kul).

StaffGuy May 2, 2011 at 3:01 am

@upyernnoz: Regardless of Silk Road semantics, this is indeed an example of a developing country subsidizing bad decisions through international funds. There is a very good argument that Kaz, in this particular instance, is only afforded the opportunity to ignore road construction in favor of “vanity projects” because they know that the international community will cough up money for the road projects. Is Kaz taking advantage of this? Yes. Is that bad? Not necessarily on their part, I would suggest that the international community is making bad decisions in supporting this behavior.

My read on JF’s commentary above is that this complicity is the real issue here. The international community could be doing much more for itself while at the same time encouraging better and more effective development throughout central Asia if they would avoid actions like these. And instead of Chinese workers taking their paychecks back to China with them maybe Kaz would develop more native capacity for construction and project development.

upyernoz May 2, 2011 at 9:29 am

but i still think it’s wrong to characterize the road building plan as nothing but a vanity project. southern kaz really does need a better highway connecting it’s southern cities. such a highway really would economically benefit the cities in the south that have mostly been left out of kaz’s oil and gas boom. and as i said above, if the kaz government can get external money to finance the project, that’s a smart move.

and i don’t think it’s clearly that the foreign community is not getting enough out of it to finance it. while jf is probably right that rail shipping is going to be cheaper than shipments by road, it’s not 100% clear to me that international shipping companies wouldn’t benefit from a modern highway through southern kazakhstan. it is more direct than using the trans-siberian rail system and, assuming the new russian-kaz customs union gets up and running, it should avoid the problem of paying multiple tariffs that they would face if the shipping had to be routed through some of the smaller countries south of kaz.

on top of that, there is an aspect of the project that is viewed as an international development project and not just a commercial enterprise. as i mentioned, a good road would really benefit the people of southern kaz. it is one of the poorer regions of the country. to the extent that is a factor, it would also be a reason to fund the project.

StaffGuy May 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Not arguing with anything you say here. I agree that road projects in southern Kaz can have a lot of great benefits for the people there on the ground.

The way I see it the larger problem is that Kaz is funding these projects through the international community which does nothing for their internal systems insofar as developing and exercising systems that promote effective spending of national funds on projects that have national benefits. Living on international largesse is obviously possible, but it does not promote the type of governance that best supports the people of Kaz.

And Kaz is just an example here – not picking on them specifically. My perspective is that the international community is complicit in dragging money out of central Asia without leaving sufficient benefit behind. And the governments there too often take what they can at the expense of developing / improving an internal capability that would last a lot longer.

The projects are not bad, but when the government has no responsibility – when the government can point at an outside agency – then the people do not have the same level of political control over these projects. Point is that there is always some good in these types of projects. But if the accountability for the project leads outside of the government then the people are not getting better governance from the project. And I am not explaining this well, must be too late here.

Slim May 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Some “readers” seem to have missed the point of the article. The point was that the international community should not be financing the improvement of roads in a country that is wasting her own money on other useless projects. The latter picture is indeed the result of ignorance on the part of the very international institutions, like ADB.

Andrew May 2, 2011 at 4:45 pm

A problem with China->Europe rail freight is that air freight is much faster, though expensive, while sea is very cheap if you aren’t in a hurry.

Rail is in the middle, and there is a problem identifying demand for a mode which is not as quick as air and not as cheap as sea. Rail is also more vulnerable to theft and interference en route (Somali pirates aside).

ECO say they are working to tackle the customs and border crossing issues faced by rail in their part of the world, but getting trains across national borders always seems to be more difficult than one would imagine it ought to be, even within the EU.

Richard Orange May 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I met a road-building consultant in Kyzylorda who argued the China-Europe highway will NEVER be finished. it will start to fall apart before it’s completed. The problem being that Kazakhstan’s population density can’t easily sustain highways. A road only lasts about 5 years if it only has minimal maintenance, and apparently to be able to maintain one, you need a decent-sized settlement max every 100km. That means you can send teams out to work on the road and get them back by nightfall. In parts of the China-Europe road, it’s more every 500km. which makes maintenance tough. It’s sort of like painting the Tyne bridge…only

Rather like the Tyne bridge, only worse I suppose,

Bakinets May 4, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Hi Richard, I am not sure anyone understands your Tyne reference . . .

M May 11, 2011 at 10:37 am

In theory, the maintenance challenge should not be insurmountable. There are highways across barren expanses of Canada, Australia and the US that are well maintained and serving the cities at either end of them. Facilities need to be built for equipment and staff, strict schedules need to be kept to run the route and address problems.

More likely, there will be a misallocation of equipment, poorly maintained, and underutilized. Crews won’t go out in snow and sand, saying the road isn’t used much anyway. If the snow clearing results of the KZ road service along the very accessible Kordai pass between Bishkek and Almaty is any indication, the areas between Aralsk and Aktube will continue to be a mess for many months of the year. The maintenance problem won’t sink the project due to population density, but in the ‘density of the people charged with maintaining it’, in the words of a colleague of mine looking at this issue. Probably this is what you are hearing too, Richard.

Maintenance problems may permanently suppress demand for road for international freight, which requires predictability. There may not be much demand for this a road anyway – as others have commented, it may never be a competitive alternative to intercontinental rail or sea. But there will certainly be local benefits to a better road, which should not be understated. Time is money, and a 110km/h highway is far preferable to a 60km/h cratered track.

Disclaimer, I work on a project that is researching the economic feasibility of the corridor with financing from the KZ (80%) and US (20%) governments. And obviously this is my opinion, not an official one.

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