The New Silk Route

October 3, 2010

A cursory look at a map of Eurasia will shortly reveal a very interesting fact. All the major centres of civilization ( and power) are on its periphery. Whether it is India in the South, China in the East, Russia in the North or Western Europe in the West .  And for millennia these civilizations have traded and communicated with each other through that vast thoroughfare of humanity : the Central Asian Steppes.

Ever since the dawn of humanity , Central Asia has been crisscrossed by caravans laden with exotic items bound for distant lands.  These trade routes, sometimes collectively called the Silk Route have served as arteries of trade and also , and perhaps more importantly, conduits for exchange of ideas .

Silk Route in the first century AD( Courtesy : Wikipedia)

As networks connecting nodes of civilizations and wealth, they hade immense geopolitical significance.  Nations had vied for their control and much blood has been spilled on the steppes to decide who can tax the rich caravan trader . Some of the world’s most ferocious conquerors, Ghenghis Khan, Tamerlane started their careers with a desire to become the master of this lucrative trade route.

For India, participation in and control of these trade networks was always vital.  Through the millennia, access to and control of the southern part of this route was essential for the vibrancy of our economy and the safety of our country .In fact , the patterns in decline of Indian power and trade closely corresponds to loss of our ability to project power on the southern branch of the silk route.

This trade route eventually lost its importance with the Portuguese and Spanish discovery of sea routes to Asia. Soon, the Silk Road was forgotten and relegated to the history books as an exotic relic of a bygone era.

Now in the twenty first century, these trade routes are once again been revived.  And not just for trade.

From Kashgar to Constantinople, from Lhasa to Tehran, the Chinese are quietly reactivating these old trade routes that once served  not only as channels for the export of Chinese goods but also Chinese power projection.

And this time , it is not  silk that is the principal commodity and it is not the caravans of  two humped Bactrian camel , it is a motley collection of Chinese manufactured goods travelling on shiny new  railway lines that the  are being laid down to connect most of Central Asia and beyond with China.

The proposed extension of Qinghai- Tibet railway line and the proposed Kashgar- Gwadar railway line, would help integrate the Chinese rail network with that of Pakistan.  The Pakistanis on their part are in talks with the Turks and the Persians to create an Ankara- Islamabad link.  This network could eventually be extended all the way to Europe.  There are already talks of a Berlin to Beijing network .

For the Chinese, such a project would be immensely beneficial. Their goods would be able to find markets in not only Europe but also in the rapidly growing and populous economies of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan etc.  This will also help them in securing direct access to the oil rich Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, thus reducing their vulnerability to disruption of their sea-borne oil imports.

The Middle kingdom could leverage this to integrate Central Asia more tightly into its sphere of influence. And combined with the dual nature of these projects, they will give China an unmatched ability to project power anywhere in Asia.

The ramifications of this project would be far-reaching and would change the whole structure of world trade and politics.  And if succesfully executed could indeed make China as the dominant world power of the 21st century.

There is no denying that this reactivation of the old Silk Route will be a seminal event in world trade and geopolitics. Sadly, India once again doesn’t have any means to participate or project power on this new avatar of Silk Route.

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One Response to “The New Silk Route”

  1. S Saatvik Says:

    A very thought provoking article. What China is doing today is nothing short of colonialism. It hasn’t left any major global region untapped. Acquiring assets in Africa, building rail links in Tanzania, Zambia, DR Congo; aggressive pursuit of South American minerals and Australian Coal; surrounding India from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal really underlines its not so noble intentions. If only our political masters woke up and took stock of the reality…


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