By Tridivesh Singh Maini
Over the past two decades, a number of efforts have been made to revive the “Silk Road”, the ancient trade route, which connected Europe with Central Asia and China over a distance of 7,000 kilometers.
While in the early 1990s the European Commission put forward the idea of connecting Europe with Central Asia via a road-building initiative known as the International Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), the United States stepped in later in the decade, first with the aim of increasing its clout in Central Asia – as is evident from the Silk Road Strategy Act of 1999 – and then with the objective of stabilizing Afghanistan, as is clearly evident from the New Silk Road Act 2006.
During Hillary Clinton’s tenure efforts were also made in to rope in India, and one of the crucial projects was the TAPI natural gas pipeline, connecting Turkmenistan Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. In 2011, Hillary Clinton on visits that spanned Central Asia and India spoke in favor of the Silk Road and made India one of the pivots of the project. A ministerial-level meeting was also held in September 2011 in New York to give the “New Silk Road” project added traction.
China has its own “New Silk Road Vision”, which is rather ambitious and seeks to connect China with Europe via Kazakhstan through a transcontinental railway connection. This plan is more than a decade old. A recent news story in Xinhua provided both maps and details of the latest versions of the envisioned and and maritime routes.
The land version commences at Xian in China and ends at Venice, crossing Central Asia, Iran the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Germany and the Netherlands. The maritime silk road begins at Quanzhou in Fujian, and ends at Venice, where it converges with the land route of the New Silk Road. More recently, it has in fact mooted the idea of a railway line from China to the US, with an estimated length of 13,000 kilometers.
China has already made rapid strides in its vision of the Silk Road extending all the way to Europe. The commitment of its current leadership is evident from visits to Central Asia last year in September, as well as Europe in March this year. Trade between China and Central Asia is already worth over US$45 billion. During his visit to Central Asia, President Xi Jinping announced a Chinese stake in Kashagan, a large oil discovery in Kazakhstan, other agreements worth $30 billion, and large oil, gas and uranium deals in Uzbekistan to the tune of $15 billion.
During his visit to the port of Duisburg in Germany, Xi advocated the need for the Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia, so as to benefit markets of both regions. China is already connected to Germany by the Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe international railway.
There is no doubt, that China’s Silk Road plans are likely to encounter obstacles – most significantly the recent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province. These attacks pose a significant threat to one important component of the Silk Road; connectivity between China and Pakistan through the ambitious China-Pakistan economic corridor.
China vision dominates
The US, which was one of the key proponents, has been left behind for a number of reasons. A clear illustration of this point is that even on the TAPI project, China has recently expressed willingness to participate, offering to extend the pipeline from Gwadar (Pakistan) to China.
There are a number of reasons for Beijing having completely outwitted and elbowed out Washington.
China’s geographical proximity and connectivity with Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central Asia has given it a clear advantage over the United States. China’s increasing economic prowess and ability to swiftly implement large scale projects also give it the edge. Thirdly, unlike China – which has good terms with all the key players in the New Silk Road – the US has strained relations with important players like Turkey and Iran, which tensions between Uncle Sam and Moscow over the Ukraine crisis only add to. Of late, a number of political and economic issues have also soured ties with India.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by China, in which India is still seeking membership, and many stakeholders are already members has also helped China, and while during Barack Obama’s first term as president there was a clear focus on the New Silk Road, other foreign policy issues, such as Syria and Russia, have pushed that aside.
While the US seems to have become inward looking, especially during now, the new Chinese leadership has made earnest efforts to reach out to other parts of the world. With the economy showing signs of a downward trend, Beijing realizes the need to look outwards, and what better way, then to make use of its geographical location. Apart from this, the New Silk Road is also a way of developing far-flung border regions which have hitherto been left out
The US aim of a New Silk Road has been based purely on geopolitical concerns, while the Chinese project has been well thought out, with an emphasis on economic integration.
Modi’s chance There are clear lessons from the Chinese success in the New Silk Road, for India too can learn its lessons and must cash-in on the fact that it has reasonable ties with all stakeholders – including Iran, where it has invested heavily in the Chabahar Port. But it must also make serious efforts towards increasing connectivity with South East Asia, for this not just better linkages with Myanmar, but also Bangladesh are imperative.
The newly elected government under the aegis of Narendra Modi as prime minister will have to focus not just on brisk implementation of infrastructure projects seeking to enhance India’s connectivity with Myanmar and Southeast Asia, but also on developing a more pragmatic approach towards Bangladesh. It will also need to work towards a manageable relationship with Pakistan, since this will help in completion of ambitious projects like TAPI and with a thaw at some stage, access to Afghanistan and Central Asia would be possible.
Apart from this, the new government also needs to think big for its border regions, in different directions, and not allow security to blinker its overall vision. One of the important cornerstones of China’s Silk Road vision has been its emphasis on utilizing border regions, while also making use of their strategic location. On numerous occasions, Modi has reiterated the fact that India should not shy away with competing with China. He could draw some lessons from China’s ambitious plans for the Silk Road.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst.