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

The New Silk Road and Beyond: Reshaping the World Economic Geography

Alice-Catherine Carls


By Alice-Catherine Carls

February 7, 2014

This is the second of three installments discussing 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 and numerous spurs and extensions. This installment examines the emergence of regional organizations to manage the growth of Central Asia. The third installment will look at the Silk Roads’ integration into the emerging global trade and energy routes. 

Integration, Security, and Regional Development

A growing number of international organizations have formed alongside the Silk Road to support regional stability and state economic development, both vital to the maintenance of viable transportation networks. The first such organization emerged in 1992, the European-sponsored Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA). It enabled the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to give loans to Central Asian countries to improve or create new transportation, telecommunications, and energy infrastructure, and to spur economic development. During the 1990s, Russia worked to expand the Commonwealth of Independent States with its former Central Asian republics, and the European Union encouraged regional associations based in the Caucasian realm, while Central Asian countries created a jigsaw of short-lived regional organizations independently of their peripheral neighbors. 

By 2000, however, it became clear that without major partners (Russia, China, and the European Union) these organizations were not viable. The most significant initiative, still thriving today, was the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, created in 1996 at China’s urging. Its broad goal of stabilizing Central Asia established an economic and energy bloc with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and its vision for the future soon included curbing terrorist activities, drug trafficking, and crime.

Most of these organizations are modeled after the European Union and are seeking economic development through a functionalist integration model. Starting with infrastructure development, this model integrates transportation with economic development and peace, and, as of the mid-2000s, environmental sustainability. Kazakhstan is illustrative of this approach. As a central hub of the railroad transportation and emerging regional power, it proposed a Eurasian Union in 1994 which received Vladimir Putin’s support for its signing in 2011. Modeled after the European Union and based in Moscow, the Eurasian Union created the Eurasian Economic Space in 2012 with the participation of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgysztan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and possibly Georgia. It plans to be fully operative by 2015 and to add Finland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Mongolia, Cuba, and Venezuela. This would make it the largest block of Russian-allied countries in the world, a move that has drawn objection from the United States. 

This type of integration, where projects are created under the auspices of existing international organizations such as the United Nations and the IMF, offers the opportunity to transcend superpower rivalries. Again, Kazakhstan provides a prime example of this. Since 2011, it has been at the center of a large development project supported by the World Bank, Russia, the Islamic Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, among others. This project is at the heart of a larger network created by the Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program which is providing $20 billion to railroads and roads from the northern section to the Caspian Sea, Black Sea, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. 

Farther east is the Tumen River Corridor governed by the Greater Tumen Initiative (GTI), an intergovernmental cooperation mechanism that was founded in 1995 with the support of UNDP, and the participation of four border countries, namely China, South Korea, Mongolia, and the Russian Federation. In 2005, a new agreement broadened participation to the private sector and excluded North Korea, which had been an original participant. The project’s goals were redefined as regional stability, economic cooperation, and sustainable growth in energy, trade and investment, transportation, and tourism. 

This integrated development model, which has already benefitted from an $80 billion investment, has countless possibilities. Through the Tumen Corridor, China gains access to the Russia-Western Europe rail connections, and Russia gains access to abundant natural resources to develop its coal and metals mining, ship building, and transport industries. South Korea gains access to needed raw materials and natural resources, and prime transportation and shipping connections through the Sea of Japan. This project also has the potential to strengthen the economy of eastern Mongolia, the largest undisturbed steppe ecosystem in the world, and to reduce poverty.

Two considerations are important as we consider the rapid growth of the new Silk Roads. First, the regional economic alliances support the two major east-west railroad routes and their many extensions and spurs, and they treat the transportation axes as economic corridors. The Silk Roads are complex networks that include parallel railroads, highways and bridges, canals and fiber optic cables, oil and gas pipelines, underwater lines and undersea tunnels. They require extensive management of trade, transportation, and economic and urban growth. Thus, they are the focus of targeted policies and projects by regional and international organizations. Second, as the transportation networks and the economies of these transportation corridors are being built, priority goes to green and sustainable policies. Environmental issues have become salient since the first rail transport from China to Rotterdam in 2004. As the planet continues to go global, it becomes imperative to preserve the earth. 

-  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.”