The old and new ‘silk road’

The big systemic shifts registered over the last years – determined both by the notable changes that intervened in the TOP 10 big economic powers of the planet and in the huge competition for resources or the exigencies of present events with wide consequences in the future, such as countering the global terrorism – returned on the tables of experienced political and military strategists some famous historic geopolitical creations. One of these – and among the most fascinating histories with promising projections in the future – is that known as the ‘Silk Road’. This corridor of trade and cultural connections that linked Asia to Europe gained its fame when Italian explorer and merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324) went along it, but he was certainly known and used long before that moment (some sources show as starting point the 2nd century BC). The name of ‘Silk Road’ was given by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th Century.
Along this land corridor, caravans – from China to the West, to Europe, along Central Asia and the opposite route – carried merchandises and constructed real cultural bridges, the exchanges of idea, innovations, religious beliefs being fertile and mutually beneficial. If this corridor exists since antiquity times, although it was often cut by invasions and always hampered by major natural difficulties along the way, attempts at reinventing it have been registered in the modern times. They aimed at increasing the efficiency of an older trade corridor by using the new means of transport, such as the plan of railroad connections between Singapore and Constantinople in the 19th Century.
These years, new projects meant to bring new life into the old ‘Silk Road’ appeared against the background of rapid connection exigencies between regions with high indices of economic development specific to globalisation, but also in the context of a specific geopolitical evolution. As for the last mention, it is worth saying that the political-strategic dynamics in Afghanistan, the expected withdrawal of multinational forces from this country starting 2014 made even more acute the idea of reinventing the older ‘Silk Road’. Ever since 2011, the U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned this project as part of a context in which, post-2014, there was the problem of placing Afghanistan within a regional network of economic connections that should avoid the fall of this country to the posture of state economically assisted by the international community. During a ministerial reunion held in New York shortly after the idea of this project was launched, experts evinced the main benefits resulting from its implementation: inserting Afghanistan in the economic life of the region, attracting new investments and valuing the resources of this country; opportunities for economic development equally provided to Pakistan; strengthening the ties between the states of the region and increasing its prosperity, along with inserting it into a bi-continental network with terminals in China and Turkey. Journalists were delighted to hear the statement made by the Indian premier of that time: “I dream of a day, while retaining our respective identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live.”
The evolution of this project was very dynamic. One can count today multiple variants of the new ‘Silk Road’, as it is understood in various capitals or by some experts. Thus, along with the aforementioned 2011 variant of American origin, others of wider or smaller scale appeared, with the purpose of boosting the intra-regional cooperation in various fields. For an Indian expert, for instance, the ancient ‘Silk Road’ means “a network of routes, traversing the region from India to Afghanistan to Central Asia and China.” For this expert, this North-South corridor equally means consolidating India’s connections with Central Asia, as well as amplifying the relations of those regions with the European Union, delivering energy resources from the Caspian area. For another expert from Bangladesh, the new Silk Road will have to connect “Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and China” and “to improve the economic and political connectivity of countries across South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.” And he goes on: “The new Silk Route is an off-shoot of greater interconnectedness of countries in which national boundaries are losing their significance. Global business has changed the pattern of economic relationships. Economic benefits often put political differences on the backburner.”
An initiative in this respect, close related to the American one of 2011, was recently probed (June this year) at a workshop conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Riga (Latvia). It takes into consideration reviving the old Silk Road along its ‘northern route’ by supplying the multinational forces of Afghanistan via Russia, the Baltic Countries up to Western Europe (Hamburg).
The Northern Distribution Network (NDN) was – and remains – the alternate route to that crossing Pakistan and the Khyber Pass between Euroatlantic states and Afghanistan. The Riga Conference this year revealed the existence of different conceptions referring to this new route of the Silk Road. Some participants considered as optimal the variant of continuing the route to the West via Russia and Belarus and to the South via Turkmenistan and Iran. Others visualised the route between Riga and China via Russia and/or Kazakhstan, but avoiding Afghanistan. An expert from Azerbaijan, attending the proceedings, not just traced it around Afghanistan, but he even traced a different route than NDN.
Regardless the different opinions of experts, practical things are rapidly evolving. Kazakhstan recently opened a new transit railroad linking China to Europe. The new Kazakh achievement (a 300 km long railroad that makes connection at the Chinese border) allows a transport time of 15 days for the containers and electronic items between Chongqing (Southern China) and Duisburg Germany along a distance of 10,800 km. Another recently opened railroad route starts in Zhengzhou, Central China, towards Hamburg (Germany) crossing Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland, as authorities plan 50 trains a year starting 2014, in both directions. Other projects aimed at reviving the old Silk Road consider Turkey as terminal toward Europe, the corresponding routes showing a southern priority, compared to the aforementioned ones.
The old caravans left from Xian, the ancient capital of China, crossed the mountains into Kyrgyzstan and today’s Kazakhstan, then went through the weakly populated steppes of Central Asia to the Caspian Sea and beyond. Abandoning this ancient trade route was the consequence of the expansion of sea trade determined by the Atlantic revolution of the
1400-1500s. The new exigencies of globalisation made it necessary to reconsider the old Silk Road, which is an ongoing process. Having the largest port at the Black Sea, also the biggest east of Marseille, along with a Danubian river ‘highway’ that economically links Constanta to Rotterdam, Romania can be a natural part of this vast intercontinental process specific to the march of globalisation.

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