Moreover, as the states of the East Asia and South Asia such as Japan, South Korea, China and India and others lift their significance as global economic actors, the trade between the East and the West, the North and the South ends of the Eurasian continent intensifies. In this respect, the states of Central Asia are facing some new prospects opening before them in terms of new routes for transportation and transit. The development of these routes is dependent on the intermingled political and economic factors that are discussed below in this paper.
East-West Route Alternative to Southern Sea Route as Collective Interest of Central Eurasia The trade between Europe and Asia is conducted via four transportation routes including one traditional marine route and three alternatives. These alternatives are the following: one replicates basically the ancient Great Silk Road through Central Asia, the second one is the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia, and the third is the Russian Northern Sea Route running along the Russian shores. Two of these routes are by sea and two of them are by land.
Unfortunately, only one route has been used since the 17th century, this is the longest route by sea through the Indian Ocean. The Suez Canal has shorted it considerably but it is still longer than any of the alternative routes enumerated above. This has been the global trend since the Great Geographical Discoveries. The route has its advantages. For example is enables the shipping companies to avoid the additional costs associated with crossing of the state borders.
The main prospects for resuming the transit through Central Eurasia are due to the fact that some considerable volume of cargo flow will be diverted from the Southern Sea Route to the land transportation, first of all, via the Silk Road. The companies may chose this option because of two main reasons: a) this land route is much shorter; b) the sea route has been much impacted by non-traditional security threats and geopolitical tension between a number of states.
These threats to security are worth special attention. After the end of the Cold War, both traditional and non-traditional threats intensified
and the role of the non-state actors increased considerably. In this context, the most relevant threats are pirates and terrorists as well as so- called “failed states”. Paradoxically as it may seem, all the military might of the navies of the developed powers are unable to prevent piracy.
The situation is even more complicated when the legal status of those individuals is not clear because of their origin, which are the failed and disintegrated states as it is in the case of Somalia. The similar complications arise when there is the need to deal with the terrorist including those cases when they are confronted at sea. Thus, the control maintained by the state actors – or, to be more precise, the lack of it – is the major factor that used to facilitate the sea routes but impedes them nowadays.
Intensification of the geopolitical tension be tween the major powers is even a more serious challenge. It is especially apparent due to the rise of the Asian states such as China and India and the oil producing Iran, Saudi Arabia. There is confrontation between the navies of the USA and its allies, namely Japan, South Korea, Australia and China in the Pacific Ocean and the navies of
China and Pakistan against India in the Indian Ocean. In the Persian Gulf, the confrontation of Iran with the Arab monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar intensified as well as that of
Iran and Israel, Iran and the United States. Syrian civil war, according to many experts, is, in a sense, indirect collision between the special forces of Iran and the Arab monarchies. In general, the situation in the Middle East is often described as the "Great Shiite-Sunni War" that includes the conflict in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and others. In the Middle East, the probability of navy strikes on the merchant ships of the neutral states is high. For instance, Iran threatened to cut off the Persian Gulf if its relations with the United States deteriorated. Finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict is in close proximity to the Suez Canal; in the 20th century it led to several cases of closure of the Suez Canal.
Thus, the South Sea Route from Europe to Asia is not only the longest but the most problematic due to the number of increasing political risks. It is important to note, in this context, that the Central Asian states may decide to build a sustainable coalition on the basis of their interests in further development of the land transportation routes that would compete with the Sea Route. In this respect, the expert communities shall, in my view, concentrate their efforts to convince the governments of the Central Asian states to reconsider their positions over the transportation routes that are to be built: there should not be a competition among a number of corridor projects but a consolidated position on a single project that would be able to compete with the sea one. In other words, the Central Asian states should grasp the chance to shift from the zerosum game logic to the positive-sum game played collectively. This is, maybe, not very probable scenario due to the geopolitical implications and other factors, but it is not impossible.
Alternative Land Transportation Routes and Political Interests. Great Silk Road
The Great Silk Road was the main trade route between Asian and Europe for more than fifteen centuries. However, it has been barely used for the last five hundred years as the Great Geographical Discoveries diverted the trade. The dissolution of the USSR revived the interest to the route as it is much shorter the South Sea Route.
There are a series of the geopolitical projects sponsored by the major international actors that are aimed at the revival of the Great Silk Road.
The EU sponsored TRACECA and TACIS. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the US and the EU have seen the development of the Silk Road as a way to support the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The additional consideration was to bypass Iran and Russia. The idea was realized in the form of the international TRACECA project supported by the EU within the TACIS. This project was endorsed by the major Asian players such as the Asian Bank, Japan and South Korea.
The Silk Road Economic Belt of China. Since the early 1990s, China has actively contributed into the efforts aimed at the revival of the Silk Road made within TACIS and TRACECA. Then, as the Chinese influence grew, its priority in
Central Asia changed, the major format was various programs of the bilateral cooperation with individual Central Asian countries that would be realized within the SCO and beyond. China’s initiative of the Silk Road Economic Belt further enhances the weight of non-western participants in the Great Silk Road revival endeavor.
The prospects for the successful implementation of the Silk Road idea, which, if realized, would go through Central Asia, faces a number of challenges related to the geopolitical competition of the major powers, high political risks and underdevelopment of infrastructure.
Given the factors above, Russia has two main options: it may either develop unilaterally the alternative land route (Trans-Siberian Railway) and sea route (Northern Sea Route in the case of global warming) or try to integrate the TransSiberian Railway and the Silk Road into one system. The first option is consistent with the
logic of the geopolitical confrontation with all, even with the neighboring countries including China and post-Soviet states. The second option is reflecting the principle of the collective interest that I am insisting on. This interest shall unite the Central Asian states so that they were able to compete successfully with the South Sea Route. In fact, the integrated transport network of the Trans-Siberian Railway and Silk Road may give additional advantages over the Southern Sea Route and these advantages may be even amplified provided the East-West and the North-South routes are also included.
These routes are the branches of the Silk Road practically forgotten for the last five hundred years.
The first North-South route along the Caspian Sea attracts the interests of Russia, Iran, China and Central Asian countries. The Kazakhstan- Turkmenistan-Iran Railway opens huge trade opportunities for Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It also may boost trade relations between China and the Middle East via additional land transportation network. In this respect, it is
a good alternative to the high-mountain Karakoram Highway. If the project to launch the route through the South Caucasus to Iran is successful, there will be even greater opportunities. JSC Russian Railways is actively promoting such a project. However, there are a number of obstacles of political nature, i.e. the Armenian-Azerbaijan, Russian-Georgian and Iranian-Azerbaijan relations. Moreover, the project, understandingly, concerns the West as it strengthens the influence of Russia, Iran and China.
The second North-South route basically replicates the NATO’s Northern Distribution Network. Latvia, being supported by the EU, promotes the idea of commercialization of the existing network used to provide military supply to NATO troops in Afghanistan. This route starts in the Latvian port of Riga, goes through Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and then to Pakistan and India.
The project, if successful to overcome the obstacles associated with problematic relations of Russia and the West, could serve as a good supplement to the route that goes along the Caspian Sea as well as to the Karakorum Highway between China and Pakistan. The similar routes are stipulated in the projects of the CASA-1000 energy transportation corridor and TAPI gas pipeline.
In conclusion, I would like to stress that the success is dependant on the will and ability of the parties concerned to overcome the political and economic disagreements. In this case, the states of Central Asia will have to recognize the collective interest in the development of an alternative to the South Sea Route, and, therefore, will be able to establish an effective integrated system that would unite all the routes discussed above in this paper. Unfortunately, due to the existing geopolitical contradictions, political risks, and poor infrastructure, the construction of such a network is a matter of not years but, perhaps, of decades.