Two days after the International Syria Support Group met in Munich, Middle East witnessed an extraordinary event – the arrival on Monday in Tehran of a freight train carrying 32 containers after a long journey of over 10000 kilometers originating from China’s eastern province of Zhejiang. The journey took 14 days – at an average of 700 kilometers per day, through the steppes and deserts of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
It is hard to tell which is going to be more crucial for world politics in an enduring way – Syrian conflict or the first Silk Road train to the Middle East from China. In immediate terms, it could well be that the conflict in Syria and the war with the Islamic State dominates world attention, but from a historical perspective, the Silk Road train will stand out as a milestone beating the Islamic State by a mile.
To be sure, China has avoided involvement in the Syrian conflict and has preferred to invest on what really counts in the fullness of time. Can it be that the United States has missed the plot?
Take a look at the Silk Road train. China has tested the efficacy of freighting a consignment to Iran in a time frame of a fortnight, which is 30 days less than what a sea voyage is presently taking from Shanghai to the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran. And this is the first attempt at an overland rail route. Trust Beijing to upgrade the infrastructure to make the route faster and cheaper.
The Silk Road train comes under President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative. Beyond that, it is a big advertisement in Iran for China’s “go global” strategy for its rapidly advancing rail technology. China is currently building a $2 billion high-speed rail project connecting Tehran and the eastern city of Mashhad, cutting down the travel time to just 6 hours and will also increase the freight capacity to 10 million tons annually. (China will maintain the new rail line for 5 years after completion of the project in 42 months.)
The Silk Road train is destined to play a significant role in the China-Iran trade, which the two countries hope to increase to $600 billion through the coming decade, with cooperation on nuclear energy and the “One Road, One Belt” projects.
To be sure, the Silk Road train is eventually destined to run in a westerly direction far beyond Tehran to destinations in Europe to increase trade and open new markets for Chinese companies as the domestic economy slows.
I am reminded of an excellent blog written recently by a friend, Graham Fuller (who used to be a top CIA official), lamenting about the myopic vision of the US strategists and the political class in America as regards the world of tomorrow. He wrote in the piece entitled NATO – America’s Misguided Instrument of Leadership:
- American strategy seems fundamentally stuck in defensive mode against rising powers. Such powers indeed do challenge American aspirations for continued hegemony. But a defensive posture robs us of our vision and spirit; it represents a basically negative orientation, like King Canute on the beach trying to stop the encroaching tide. Worse, American military power—and the budget keeps rising—seems to have become the default US response to most foreign challenges. The Pentagon has put the State Department out of business.
- NATO today particularly symbolizes that myopic and defensive orientation.
- So while Washington focuses on building defensive military structures, bases and arrangements overseas against Russia and China, we are being rapidly outflanked by a whole array of new economic plans, visions, projects for a new continental infrastructure and institutional developments that span Eurasia. These developments are indeed spearheaded by China and Russia. But they are not fundamentally defensive or military in nature, but rather represent the creation of a new international order from which we have either opted out, or even oppose. Meanwhile obsession with NATO and military alliances as the major vehicle of US military policy after the Cold War is a chief reason we are losing out in that new order.
How prescient! Of course, in geopolitical terms, the route from the eastern China trade hub of Yiwu city to the Iranian capital completely bypasses the Malacca Straits and makes it a point to run through two transit countries that are famous for their independent foreign policies. It gives a wide berth to the great game, the US’ rebalance in Asia, et al.