A good place to look for answers is the border post of Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan frontier. Such places have not been much in the news since the Great Game was being played out in the 19th Century, and every other camel drover in the markets of Central Asia was actually a Russian or British agent in disguise.
On Monday a key link between China and Europe fell into place with the formal opening of the Khorgos Gateway, a ‘dry port’ in the heart of Central Asia which aims to revolutionize rail transport across Eurasia. Khorgos was first mentioned in The World Today in 2013 in our ‘China’s great railway adventure’ cover story. You can see a map and explanation by railway addict Michael Binyon of how Chinese money is solving the problems of transcontinental freight traffic.
Thanks to the Khorgos Gateway it is now possible to send goods by rail from Chongqing, China, to Duisburg, Germany, in 11 days. This is the early flagship project of China’s ‘one belt, one road’ vision, a sort of Silk Road for the 21st century. What this vision actually means, and what could go wrong, is explained by Tim Summers here.
What is beyond doubt that China’s embrace of Europe is likely to transform the geopolitics of the Eurasian landmass. The economic benefits of partnership are attractive for Europe, as Nicola Casarini points out, but the political costs could be huge. As Britain seeks to become China’s ‘best friend’, Hans Kundnani and Angela Stanzel point up a lesson from Germany on the dangers of too close reliance on Beijing.
And what of the dusty Russian agents who risked their lives to extend Russia’s reach into Central Asia in the 19th century? They may be turning in their graves at China’s growing influence in what used to be the Russian Empire.
But Moscow recognizes that it does not have the capital to fuel the growth that Kazakhstan and its neighbours need, so it must cede economic leadership to China while seeking to preserve military domination. It is reasonable to ask if that separation of roles will work in the real world. Isn’t it a fact that economic strength converts into political power? As Britain courts Chinese capital for the most sensitive projects such as nuclear power stations, Washington will be watching for signs of China’s growing influence in its long-standing ally.