Written by Paulo Duarte.
At the logistical level, the impact of One Belt One Road (OBOR) is naturally positive for Central Asia as a link between East and West, a transit area. In practice, the railway networks are an important logistic alternative, likely to help a more effective flow of China’s products into European and Central Asian markets. It is not, therefore, by chance that the Chinese Government has recently made railway connectivity a central feature of its new economic development strategy, which focuses on the development of inland connections to address the congestion in China’s eastern regions (i.e. congested ports and rising labour and land costs).
The OBOR will connect … China to the rest of the world, making the country a global ‘mega city,’ where all paths will converge.
The heavy investment on railway construction is as, or more, important when we consider that they offer an alternative route to Chinese products, allowing them to reach European markets without crossing Russian territory. The main aim of the Chinese efforts to develop the New Eurasian Continental Bridge is to bypass Russia and counter the monopoly it has on trade. But, why avoid Russia? As with energy supplies, China prefers to avoid granting Russia too much leverage over trade policy towards its principal economic partner. In fact, Chinese policymakers are aware that if relations between Russia and the European Union worsen, or if the sheer trade volume between China and the EU forces them to resort to inland routes, Moscow’s power vis-à-vis Beijing would increase significantly. The railways are also an appealing logistical alternative within China’s OBOR plans because of shipping durations: Chinese goods shipped from Chongqing by train to Western Europe take only 16 days to reach their destination, whereas sea transport requires about five weeks, with significant delays in some cases. Transporting a container by rail is inherently more expensive than the maritime option – about 7,000 dollars – which is almost three and a half times the cost by sea, though only a third of the price paid by air. However, the rail option allows a more effective economic and logistical option for handling goods, which may be sensitive to humidity, perishable, or of high value or are not worth transporting by air because of their volume or weight. In addition, Beijing conceives the railways – especially the high-speed ones that it wants to build as part of OBOR – as complementary instruments to promote the development of western China while facilitating oil and mineral imports from Central Asia.
Even if, at first sight, it is understandable that Beijing seeks to securitise logistical access to its Central Asian periphery – in which high-speed railways beginning in Urumqi connect via Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Turkey to Europe – the Iron Silk Road does not stop there. In fact, it consists of a global project, likely to (re)draw and revolutionise the infrastructure of communications and transport of people, goods and capital across the globe, literally. In this sense, even if it is a near-term priority for China to begin by securitising its access to the European continent – enabling the convergence of the Sino-Central Asian High-Speed Rail with the European railway network, linking London to Beijing in just 48 hours – in the long term, Beijing aspires to more ambitious challenges such as connecting China to North America by rail via underwater tunnel.
Considering that Chinese engineers have repeatedly proved their ability to overcome obstacles often considered as technically and logistically impossible, we can speculate that the Chinese strategy in the coming decades (not years) may not only include one operation of securitisation of the logistical links East and West, but, lato sensu, a securitisation of the logistical links In the specific case of Eurasia, the basic motivation behind China’s proposal of the Iron Silk Road project appears to be a long-term vision of linking the country’s main trade routes with those passing through the Middle East and Central Asia in an attempt to create a unified network of complementary economies with China at the centre of gravity.
Central Asian countries face several obstacles as they seek to maximise their logistic potential in the creation of a high-speed link between East and West. For instance, the difference in the rail linking China and Western Europe affects the overall performance of the rail option as an intracontinental and intercontinental transport route. Former Soviet Union states use broad, 1.520 mm gauge track, while China, Iran, Turkey, and mainland Europe use standard gauges of 1.435 mm. This means that at the crossing points between the systems – at Dostyk, on the Chinese frontier with Kazakhstan, at Serakhs between Turkmenistan and Iran, or at Akhalkalali on the Georgian-Turkish border – containers must be offloaded from one train and loaded on to another using different wheel gauges. Therefore, to maximise the potential of the Iron Silk Road and improve gains for Central Asia, China, and Europe, it is essential that the gauges along the trans-Asian railway tracks are harmonised to a single gauge size. Finally, the trans-Asian railway network must overcome one of its greatest obstacles: bureaucracy. Indeed, with trains crossing different railway administrations, a simplification of the customs agreements all along the route is urgently needed. Besides, an effective struggle against corruption at border checkpoints is essential to reduce additional and unforeseen costs in the transport of goods by rail from and to Europe.
Paulo Duarte is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in Lisbon, Portugal. He obtained his PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain. Dr. Duarte is an expert on China’s One Belt One Road, China and world Politics, and Central Asia, where he conducted extensive doctoral research in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image credit CC by Lars Plougmann/Flickr.