Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia: Analysis From Washington--Railroads And Realpolitik

Washington, 22 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Rapidly expanding cargo traffic on the "Silk Road" rail line from China to Europe provides the countries of Central Asia with some new opportunities.

And at the same time, this upsurge in traffic confronts Moscow with some equally serious economic and political challenges.

On Sunday, the Chinese Xinhua news agency reported that the Silk Road route is now carrying almost five times as much freight every month as it did only a year ago. The agency said that in August 1996 alone, the line had carried some 1,000 standard containers.

This dramatic growth suggests that the line has now overcome some of the many customs disputes that had kept traffic at very low levels in the years after the line was inaugurated in 1990.

But as the Xinhua agency itself acknowledged, customs duties continue to have a large and negative impact on what the line charges and how much freight it carries.

It reported that because of such tariffs, hauling fees for this 10,800-kilometer route are still higher than those on its two most important competitors, the 11,800 Trans-Siberian railroad and the 19,000-kilometer sea route.

And that pattern affects Central Asia and reflects Russian state policy.

The advantages of this expanded trade to the countries of Central Asia are obvious and large.

This line provides yet another way for the Central Asian countries to reach world markets bypassing Russia. Even more, it gives them a direct link to the Pacific Rim economic powers with which several already have close ties.

It will allow the Central Asians to increase their contacts with co-ethnic groups living in China's Xinjiang region. That may ultimately disturb the Chinese but it will provide a welcome source of national pride in Central Asia.

It may allow the Central Asian countries greater freedom of action on the world stage to the extent that they can translate these economic and cultural gains into political ones.

Moscow's interest in restricting such gains at its expense helps to explain why the Russian government has used tariffs and transit fees to prevent the new Silk Road from flowering.

But the development of this Chinese route to Europe confronts the Russian authorities with possibly greater challenges and opportunities in another area entirely.

And precisely because these point in such different directions, they help to explain why Moscow may have eased up its restrictive trade practices and allowed the Silk Road route to expand.

On the one hand, a dramatic expansion in Silk Road traffic would have a sizable negative impact on Russian earnings from the Trans-Siberian rail route and also on the economic situation of the Russian Far East as a whole.

But on the other, Moscow's apparent willingness to allow the expansion of the Chinese route may reflect an appreciation that growth of the Silk Road could be a useful tool in dealing with its own obstreperous regions on the Pacific coast and with China as well.

With regard to the first, Moscow could use its customs policy to determine where freight will flow, rewarding or punishing the Russian Far East depending on its willingness to follow Moscow's line.

And with regard to China, Moscow can certainly use its ability to regulate trade along this route to encourage Chinese cooperation on other issues.

In the nineteenth century, participants in the "Great Game," the English-Russian geopolitical contest for Central Asia, frequently said that the winner would be the country that could extend its railroads there first.

More recently, analysts of this region have often suggested that the fate of Central Asia will depend on who builds the pipelines and what route they take out.

But the latest developments on the Silk Road railway demonstrate that while pipelines may be increasingly critical to political outcomes in this region, railroads continue to be important and may even be about to become more so.