Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The New Silk Roads and Beyond: Reshaping World Energy Routes (3)

Alice-Catherine Carls


By Alice-Catherine Carls

March 7, 2014

This is the final installment of a three-part series on the reopening of the inland Silk Road. The first installment discussed the recent completion of two major east-west railroad routes (the Trans-Siberian route, or Eurasian Land Bridge, and TRACECA) and the emergence of north-south corridors. The second installment examined the emergence of regional organizations to manage the growth of Central Asia. This installment will look at the Silk Roads’ integration into the emerging global trade and energy routes.

Integrated Global Energy and Trade Routes: Security or Insecurity

Since the 1990s, the emergence of parallel inland rail and road routes, along with gas and oil pipelines along the Silk Roads has created energy and trade corridors that are changing millions of people’s lives and entire countries’ lifestyles. In particular, the discovery of vast natural gas resources in Central Asia since 2000 has boosted land pipeline routes where energy supply and transportation are an integral part of these corridors. The two energy networks – the southern oil and gas pipelines routes supported by TRACECA and the Russian-dominated northern routes – are in competition just like their rail and road counterparts.1 Together, these routes have grown so much that today they are treated as “green corridors” with close attention paid to their environmental impact. Recent developments spurred by the newly discovered energy resources in the Scandinavian countries, Russia, and the Arctic Circle show how integrated the energy and trade routes of tomorrow will be. 

The great north is the next energy frontier. Global warming is giving greater access to its land and underwater resources such as iron ore deposits, oil, and timber in Finland and Sweden, and oil and gas off the coast of northwestern Russia. The United States, Norway, Russia, Canada, and Greenland share this bounty, and experts estimate the potential investments at $100 billion over the next ten years. Oil and gas prospection and exploitation began in the 1960s, and today multinational companies are joining forces to explore the Arctic shelf and encourage arctic borders agreements.

At the May 2010 Helsinki workshop, ten Scandinavian and Central European countries joined Russia, China, and the Organization of European Cooperation and Development (OECD), to lay the groundwork for cooperation in infrastructure building and transportation in the “High North/Barents Sea.” The EU is planning north-south and east-west transportation improvements that will link the Baltic to the Adriatic and Rotterdam to St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, Russia is building a Narvik-Sweden-Helsinki-St. Petersburg-Moscow connection that will strengthen land connections between China and Europe via the Trans-Siberian railroad.

Eerily, this is back to the future. One hundred years ago, Belgian banker George Nagelmackers dreamed of a north-south express rail line linking Portugal to Russia. Interrupted by two world wars and the Cold War, this project was given new life through the Literature Express. In June 2000, a train sponsored by European governments left Portugal and meandered through Europe to Russia, ending its trip in Berlin. Carrying 104 writers speaking fifty-seven languages, it was an attempt to explore the multilingual, multicultural Europe of tomorrow and a symbol of the European dream of democracy and cultural exchange.

Global navigation is also being reconfigured for the first time in five centuries, as southern sea lanes are being challenged by a new maritime Silk Road, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which will link Murmansk in the Barents Sea to the Bering Straits, finally joining Europe to Asia through the shortest possible route. Complementing these ambitious projects is the Bering Strait Link announced by Russia in 2007 to link Russia and the North American continent through an underwater, sixty-mile long multipurpose corridor of oil, gas, fiber-optic, and power lines.

We should view these developments within a larger context. The energy and trade requirements of the global twenty-first century world play a major role in international politics and create new security challenges for technology, urban growth, food, water, and energy. These have a direct impact on political developments, particularly in countries facing tough decisions, such as North Korea and Ukraine, which are located at the eastern and western ends of the Silk Road. For example, in the background of Ukraine’s tough choice between Russia and the European Union is a dilemma between the northern and southern Silk Roads. Will infrastructure development along the Silk Road create conflict, or will it usher in a peaceful, sustainable, cooperative world? Some experts seem to think the latter, stressing that the railroad could strengthen socioeconomic and cultural integration in the Middle East and Central Asia, two regions that have been gripped by conflict for the past twenty years.

The broad issues and developments outlined in this three-part series should also prompt us to examine our Christian citizenship in an increasingly interdependent global context. Are we willing to interact with and accept other cultures and nations? Are we willing to learn about global issues that impact people’s lives? Are we willing to consider opinions, needs, and preferences other than our own? Can we change our consumption patterns? Will we support sustainable development in a more peaceful, just world? These seeds for reflection can and hopefully will be shared by peoples of all faiths around the world.

- Alice-Catherine Carls is the Tom Elam Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Tennessee Martin.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”