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

January 3, 2014

On October 29, 2013, on the ninetieth anniversary of the Turkish Republic’s founding, a long-awaited and crucial segment of the Silk Road was officially opened. Just under one mile long, the Marmaray Tunnel is the deepest of its kind in the world at 62 meters under the Bosporus. Loaded with historical symbolism, yet a harbinger of the future, it places Turkey again at the center of the Silk Road. 

The inland Silk Road, a 5500-mile trek from China to Istanbul, remained closed for six centuries (1349-1945). A late nineteenth century dream, its reopening was delayed by World War I and the rise of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War caused further roadblocks. Only after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 did its reopening become possible. It was the last great endeavor of the twentieth century, and today, twenty years later, it handles a significant part of world trade.

This series will look at the new Silk Road’s impact over three installments, the first of which will deal with the creation of the “iron horse” road (the railroad), the second will examine the emergence of regional organizations to manage peace and cooperation on its path, and the third will discuss its integration in the emerging global trade and energy routes.

For maps of the Silk Road, use the Silk Road Project’s excellent resources at:

The Iron Silk Road: Reshaping the Economic Geography of Europe and Asia

The first “Iron Silk Road” project, named the Trans-Asian Railroad or TAR, was conceived in the 1960s as a Singapore-to-Istanbul route to enable trade between Laos, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian Republics. At the close of the Cold war, maritime and air cargo were still the main mode of transportation between Asia and Europe. After 1991, however, the European Union’s formation, along with Asia’s emergence as a major exporter of industrial and finished products and as an important consumer of oil and natural gas, and the discovery of vast oil and natural gas resources in Central Asia made TAR a natural transportation node between Asia and Europe. As costs soared for air and sea shipping, and travel time and port congestion dogged sea shipping, door-to-door deliveries became more desirable.

If the beginnings were slow, the developments have been spectacular. In 2005, a trial China-Brussels truck caravan took three weeks, as opposed to five weeks by sea from Shanghai. In 2013, the Chongking-Duisburg itinerary, a 6400-mile trek, took between 15 and 19 days. Limited before 2006 to gas and oil, coal, grain, iron, and bulk goods, trade has since then begun to include products such as computers, shoes, and tires, due to technological improvements in land transportation. As trade between Asia and Europe grows, containers are no longer returning to the East empty, but rather filled with European exports. Trade volume grew from $2.5 billion in 2011 to over $400 billion in 2012. Land trade on the Silk Roads accounts for 23% of all world trade.

As of 2013, railroad networks resembling the ancient road grid cover 88,000 miles and join 32 Asian countries with Europe. These networks have developed along two competing routes. Stretching from the Chinese border to the heart of Central Europe, the southern route, called the Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia (TRACECA), has been strengthened by a European-wide transportation grid called TEN-T and includes the eastern Balkans, Turkey, and Iran. In 1996, China added a spur to the Iranian railways, and the southern route received a major boost with the opening of the aforementioned Marmaray Tunnel.

The northern route, called the “Eurasian Land Bridge,” connects China’s ports and Vladivostok to northern European ports through Moscow, utilizing Russia’s strengthened Trans-Siberian rail route. Much work was done in the 1990s to add lines in Mongolia and northeastern Kazakhstan, and to develop a rail connection from Kazakhstan to the Chinese port of Lanyungang. In 2006, TAR pledged its 17 participating Asian nations to using the Trans-Siberian rail system to reach northern Europe. Thus a Lanyungang-Rotterdam route was established.

The multiplication of spurs and terminal points in Asia and Europe has increased cooperation between both routes in the new millennium. All lines transit or intersect through Kazakhstan, which has emerged as a major railroad “nerve center.” In 2007, the European Union associated Russia, the CIS countries, and Asian countries to TEN-T, and is also planning links with Ukraine.

But such flexibility cannot hide competition. While the southern route has a rich network of links from Turkey to Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand, with spurs to Yunnan, Malaysia, and Singapore, Russia plans to build a north-south route linking Helsinki to the Caspian Sea, Tehran, and Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz. Competition is also rife in areas where new rail routes help develop previously isolated areas rich in raw materials and energy. Thus, to match the planned extension of the TEN-T network to Scandinavia, Russia is extending the Moscow–St. Petersburg line to Scandinavia. In the Far East, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has planned rail extensions from Vladivostok through North and South Korea with a tunnel extension to Japan. Perhaps because of North Korea’s reticence, Russia is planning an extension of the Trans-Siberian railroad to Sakhalin with an undersea tunnel to Japan.

The inland Silk Roads are a link to the past and to the future. Located on the site of a medieval Byzantine ship graveyard, the Marmaray Tunnel reminds us of the centrality of ancient caravans in facilitating broad cultural exchanges among civilizations. The Silk Roads of today blur notions of final destination, core, and periphery. Trade is the great equalizer between Scandinavia, Turkey, and Tumen, fulfilling not only our physical needs, but uniting peoples of different religions, ethnicities, and cultures.

- 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.”