Beijing’s ambitions do not stop at its borders. There are plans to extend the network through Southeast Asia, and to knit together the disparate railway systems of Central Asia and the Middle East to speed its exports to European markets in half the time it takes to go by sea.
As Michael Binyon writes, China’s great railway adventure is fraught with difficulty. But as the technical problems are solved one by one, the political obstacles in the way of creating a trans-continental rail route through Iran and perhaps Afghanistan loom ever larger. If it is to work, this is not just an engineering project but a long-term scheme to bring these unstable lands under a trade-based Pax Sinica.
Ten years after the Anglo-American invasion, Iraq is still too fractured to feature on anyone’s plans for a trans-Asian rail network. Professor Charles Tripp, Britain’s foremost historian of Iraq, concludes that the dysfunction we see today is not the result of a few bad decisions taken after the fall of Saddam, as is often claimed. It is the inevitable consequence of George W. Bush’s invasion plans, and the West must learn to avoid the same mistakes.
For his part, Nadim Shehadi sees the other side of the coin. The US seems to be so traumatized by the Iraq catastrophe that it is holding back from a forceful intervention in Syria. What is certain is that the struggle for power in Syria will add a new dimension of complexity to Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian conflicts.