by Dr Farkhod Tolipov
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the newly independent countries of the Central Asian region for the first time in their modern history looked beyond the iron curtain with which they were isolated from the world within the Soviet era. They quickly remembered that in ancient times they were an important part of what today can be called a global system of communication and trade – the Great Silk Road, which connected China to Europe through the Eurasian continent. Central Asian countries desperately needed to break their newly land-locked status. Forming a trade path from East to West was part of their unique selling point. However, such a position is not merely their geographical destiny. It is also a geopolitical condition due to the fact that unlocking the region depends largely on neighboring great powers – namely China and Russia. But interestingly, the opening and unlocking of Central Asia appears to be a more complicated and protracted process than expected, in which the ‘Modern Silk Road’ needs to balance multiple national interests.
The Chinese-initiated “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) mega-project in Central Asia is mostly understood in terms of the broadly propagated and discussed concept of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB). The very notion of the Silk Road is currently used by Central Asian states for a kind of self-promotion which particularly manifests itself through semiotics. By using the SREB idea, these states advertise their own territories, resources, economic potential, reliability, perspectives, and even history to outside investors. They more often than not refer to such semiotic designations as “bridge”, “crossroad”, “corridor”, “hub”, and even “strategic location”.
However, such seemingly normal aspirations to portray a more attractive market have implicit geopolitical implications. From this perspective, such an approach can have both its benefits and detrimental effects. The notion of the Silk Road is not simply about the revitalization of the vast network of land transport and trade routes, which historically connected Eastern shores of China to Western edges of Europe. It is also about modern geopolitical interactions between great and middle-ranking powers, as well as small countries of Central Asia. This represents a very specific type of interaction in a globalized era, namely multiple engagements between numerous actors at different levels of power and society. Such complex dynamics were not present in the past when geopolitics was only the business of a few great powers.
A geopolitical factor is that China is attaching its foreign policy goals to a process that has already been happening for some time, both with and without China’s involvement. The spirit of the Silk Road existed before OBOR, and it involved multiple stakeholders, but now infrastructure projects across Central and South Asia are being combined into one mega brand of the SREB.
For example, in 1996 the construction of the railroad Meshhed-Serakhs-Tedjenwas completed. This connected the network of Iranian railroads to those of Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries and opened the shortest way from Central Asian region towards the Middle East and Europe. It was done more than a decade before the OBOR, but today it can become one of the links in the chains of OBOR.
In April 1997 three states – China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – signed a memorandum on the construction of the new railroad running through Andijan (Uzbekistan)-Osh (Kyrgyzstan)-Irkeshtam (Kyrgyz-Chinese border)-Kashgar (China) which would connect up the region and ultimately link the Eastern shores of China with Amsterdam. With the construction of this strategically important railroad, the systems of China, Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus can be connected, with the Eastern Chinese export-import port of Lianyungang and Amsterdam becoming two ends of one vast transport system. The distance between them is 8000 km shorter than the sea route through the Suez Canal. No less than 30 countries will benefit from the construction of this road. However, this project still faces geopolitical problems related to the diverging positions of two neighbors – Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – regarding their own local territorial interests.
In 2011 at the initiative of President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov an agreement was signed on the construction of the new international transport-communication corridor Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman (Central Asia-Persian Gulf). This is another example of how overall future outlines of OBOR-style projects are shaped not only from East (China) to West but also independently as clusters of roads and infrastructure which will gradually be combined within OBOR.
Of special significance is the international multi-modal transport hub and logistical center created in the Uzbek city Navoi. This project was implemented jointly with Korean Air and offers a combination of air transport, highways and railroad services for the export, import and transit of goods and passengers. Currently, there are twelve Korean Air flights a week, covering routes such as Incheon (Korea)-Navoi (Uzbekistan)-Milan (Italy), Incheon-Navoi-Brussels, and Shanghai-Navoi-Milan. The company Uzbekistan Airways itself makes eleven flights a week on the itineraries Navoi-Delhi, Navoi-Mumbai, Navoi-Bangkok, and Navoi-Frankfurt, as well as chartered flights Navoi-Dhaka and Navoi-Frankfurt. The cargo terminal center in Navoi has a processing capacity of 300 tons of cargo a day.
On 22 June 2016 in Tashkent an official ceremony took place devoted to the completion of the most strategically important grand project symbolizing Uzbekistan-China cooperation – the construction of the Angren-Pap railroad segment (in the South-East of Uzbekistan) and the Kamchik tunnel. The General Contractor of the project was China Railway Tunnel Group. During the opening ceremony President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov and the Chairman of the PRC Xi Jinping made solemn speeches and emphasized that the project was accomplished within 32 months, resulting in a 19.2 km length tunnel. It has to be said that the Kamchik tunnel represents in itself the biggest construction of this type in the post-Soviet space, and in terms of complexity it is ranked eighth in the world among mountain tunnels. The tunnel began its operation in August 2016. Both sides – Tashkent and Beijing – confirmed that this railroad segment will be a part of the West Europe-West China transport network.
The ancient Silk Road was in essence a trans-continental trade route. But the modern one, which OBOR is supposed to create in the turbulent era of globalization and an apparent shift in the world order, will likely be more than a trade route. It will take on explicit and implicit geopolitical dimensions along the way – that is, numerous encounters on an unprecedented scale between various states which will interact in more challenging economic conditions. In particular, China is expected to play the lead role in shaping this vast space in its bid to March West, despite the fact that many other countries have been, and will continue to be, involved.
Dr Farkhod Tolipov is the Director of Non-governmental Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan”, based in Tashkent.