Prague, 26 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Asian nations this week are invited to sign an agreement to create a 140,000-kilometer network of highways linking all parts of the Asian continent.
The Asian Highway Agreement foresees a network that would start in Japan and wind its way through 32 countries before ending in Finland and Turkey. The signatories are meeting today in the Chinese city of Shanghai for a three-day gathering of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
The expected signatories include all of the former Soviet Central Asian states, except Turkmenistan -- although it too is involved in the venture.
Fast-growing China, as well as Russia, are eager to use Central Asia as a transit region in their attempt to reach international markets.
John Moon is working on the project at ESCAP. He described the project in a telephone interview with RFE/RL from Shanghai. "The agreement itself lays out the routes that the countries agree," he said. "This involves getting the countries to look at the border crossings to ensure that the highways cross at the same point. There's a number of criteria that we have in order to select which roads will be part of the system. They normally include capital-to-capital links, links between major production and major agricultural areas. There will be linkages to seaports and it will also include linkages to tourism sites."
Reports say about one-fifth (17 percent) of the proposed network will have to be built from scratch, while the rest will use existing roads. Moon said it is up to each individual country to comply with minimum standards and upgrade routes as necessary. He said landlocked states will benefit most from the highway because transport costs will fall and they will have better access to ports.
Borihan Nurmukhamedov, an expert at the Kazakh Transport Ministry, is enthusiastic about the agreement. "Kazakhstan has no way to reach either oceans or open seas,” he said. “That's why being a transit route for other countries is very important for Kazakhstan. Any program supporting this should be accepted. An economy's major engine is trade. That's why the possibility to transport goods from Europe to Asia, for example, is crucial. In other words, having these routes might open many opportunities for Kazakhstan."
Kyrgyz deputy Marat Sultanov agreed and stressed also the political benefits for Kyrgyzstan in becoming a transit state. "Also, on the political front we will become stronger because we will become a transit country," he said. "We'll gain more respect politically [because] the number of countries depending on us will increase. Uzbekistan will be linked to China through us. We will be able to resolve our problems with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. And we will have good opportunities to have access to eastern markets."
Hooman Peimani, a Geneva-based researcher focusing on the former Soviet Union, told RFE/RL that any agreement that helps to break Central Asia's economic isolation is positive. He said fast-growing China, as well as Russia, are eager to use Central Asia as a transit region in their attempt to reach international markets.
However, he said there are still many obstacles that must be overcome. "[Central Asian] countries don't have enough financial resources to invest in infrastructure projects,” Peimani said. “Unless the [other] countries which are part of the project help Central Asia -- or, at least, financial institutions provide assistance -- Central Asia countries will not be in a position to improve [the links]."
The Asian highway project was first discussed in 1959 but was abandoned throughout most of the Cold War era. It was revived after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Kazakh services contributed to this report.)