By K.N. Pandita
The historic Silk Road, once the most fabulous trade, commerce and cultural conduit between China and the world westward, is, in all probability, taking a new skin in next one decade and half. It is going to be replaced by China’s Pan-Asian Railway Plan, which, when made fully functional, is likely to transform traditional history, geography, politics, culture, life and trade of the vast Eurasian region.
Contemplating an ambitious plan of high speed Pan-Asian railway reflects in practical terms China’s innovation of addressing chronic global economic and political issues in paradigm different from those found in the desk-book rules of capitalist powers. China has discovered equitable and just bilateral and multi-lateral trade relations among nations as potential instrument of defusing acrimony among them. This is to usher in a new world order different from the one forged in the economic workshop of the US and her western allies.
The plan is to link 17 countries through 3 major routes, namely (a) Kunming in China with Singapore via South Asia (b) Urumchi in North-West China with Germany via Central Asia, and (c) Heilongjiang in North-East China with South-Eastern Europe via Russia. In a statement issued on March 11, 2009, Chinese Railway Ministry spokesman confirmed the “network to consist of northern, southern and western routes.”
When brought to completion in the year 2025, Beijing-London distance will be covered in two days. The western railway route will connect Xinjiang, the western province of China, with Germany. It will touch on the territories of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.
In all, China plans to link 28 states with 81,000 kilometers of railroads. It has to be noted that China’s high speed railways are already the world’s fastest and longest with a speed of 350 kms per hour. A secretary at China’s Railways Ministry said that “China aims to run trains as fast as airplanes”.
China has the capability of bringing this highly ambitious project to completion within the stipulated time. What makes it possible? China’s cheap construction cost, advanced technological expertise and indefatigable will are positive factors that generate hope for success in the venture. In this sector China has been performing better than Japan, Germany and France. Other countries, particularly India, reach China for constructing railways, with Russia, US, Saudi Arabia and Poland already considering China for their railways plan.
Three routes mentioned above leave out India from this gigantic connectivity loop of great commercial, political and strategic importance to the entire region. Importance of this new commercial, strategic and political venture for China and for the countries linked to it is obvious. The real motivating factor is China’s access to the hitherto untapped energy resources of Central Asia, the oil of Tengiz in Kazakhstan and the Caspian Shelf and huge gas reserves of Daulatabad in Turkmenistan. The Central Asian countries, hitherto usually considered landlocked, will be opened to international trade and commerce and are expected to become the terminus of east-west commercial enterprise.
Some commentators are of opinion that this is yet another step by the Asian giant to encircle and enfeeble India, not only strategically but also commercially. Any physical deficiency arising out of various obstacles in free flow of trade between Pakistan and China along the Karakorum Highway will be made up very adequately by the proposed high speed Pan-Asian Railway. Pakistan and Afghanistan can get easily linked to it by an arterial railway line with connectivity somewhere near Termiz on the right bank of Amu Darya. Herat (Afghanistan) and Sarakhs (Iran-Turkmenistan border) link is another possibility. Rawalpindi – Kabul-Ashkabad link can be another possibility. In either case India stands isolated. If India-Pak détente over Kashmir comes in sight in near future, China could offer a fully autonomous Kashmir extension of the existing rail terminus at Baramulla to Rawalpindi-Kabul and then to Ashkabad making the grand link to the Pan-Asian high speed railway line.
Central Asian trade conduit potential hasn’t been fully utilized so far. The region borders on Xinxiang, China’s western province, has trade relations with 150 countries and its link up to Pan-Asian Railway would mean great boost to its trade and commerce. Kashmir’s rail link with the Uighur region of Xinjiang, the staunch Sunni belt with patent separatist tendencies, will have significant meaning for the strategy of entire region.
The proposed rail link will be highly conducive to Asian-European markets; it will ensure efficient delivery of energy resources and develop the backward regions economically. With that regional security can be advanced and interference from world powers can be restricted substantially.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have already reached agreements with China and Tajikistan is seeking 13 million dollar loan from the OPEC Fund for International Development to build Kulab-Kalai Khum road connecting it with Uzbekistan, Afghanitan, Kyrgyzstan and China. China plans to build 12 highways linking the entire region with Xinxiang. Regional trade through Xinjiang jumped from 18.4 billion dollars in 2007 to 25 billion dollars in 2008. China has 21 % stakes in Kazakh oil which means it has surpassed Russia by 2.5 times.
In final analysis, the proposed Pan-Asian Railway line will be of great importance to East-West connection. It will facilitate integration of the neglected region with global economy. China is investing heavily in the regional trade, energy and transportation projects which will expand with the railway construction.
The project is envisaged to be completed in next 10-15 years and 2025 is the deadline. With this big step in widening transportation planning in the region, it is but natural that regional politics will be impacted to a large extent. For more than one decade India has been grappling with little less than 200 and odd kilometers long railway link between Udhampur and Verinag. On the other hand, China plans an 81,000 thousand rail line in next 10 – 15 years. One can imagine the big gap in advanced technology of the two countries in laying rail lines over hazardous terrains.
As has been said, burgeoning economic presence of China in the Central Asian region will entail political and military engagement to protect her expanded regional interests. At the same time, China has been fast expanding her naval presence in the Indian Ocean with much focus on the Bay of Bengal. Her direct involvement in the construction of Gawadar seaport on the Makran Coast of Pakistan and the new seaport of Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka (after the decimation of Tamil Tigers in which it had a role) are both significant links in the silver necklace often referred to by Beijing. It is time that New Delhi sheds inhibitions and fantasies and looks realistically at these developments shaping to her north and south. India is left with a limping strategy and bankruptcy of strategic planning and futuristic vision.