Is China Winning the Scramble for Eurasia?

Workers complete welding the last pipe links at the construction site on the steppe near the country's commercial hub of Almaty July 10, 2009. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheye

Roads, railways and other new connections are reshaping the Eurasian supercontinent and creating new forms of competition as well as cooperation.

September-October 2017

IT BEGAN in London’s early morning darkness, on June 24, when the British public’s vote to exit the European Union was confirmed. Exhausted but jubilant, Vote Leave advocates could feel their fingers on history. At their headquarters, one leader leapt onto a table and recited a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “This story shall the good man teach his son.”

At the other end of the Eurasian supercontinent, another Shakespeare aficionado was rehearsing his own remarks. Jin Liqun, founding president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and a lifelong student of Western literature, had a few hours before kicking off the organization’s first annual meeting at the China World Hotel in Beijing. They had embarked on a “historical journey,” Jin told the audience, “towards building a new type [of] multilateral financial institution.” Officials from the United States, who declined to join the AIIB, were not in attendance.

The Bard himself could hardly have set up greater dramatic tension. Yet the contrasting scenes confirm the widespread view that today’s Western-led order is stumbling as its lead actors—notably, the United States and United Kingdom—look inward. China’s increasing importance in global affairs has also become conventional wisdom.

Less attention—certainly in Washington—has been paid to how Asian powers are reaching beyond their borders to spread their influence. Infrastructure investment is a central plot line of this story. Roads, railways and other new connections are reshaping the Eurasian supercontinent and creating new forms of competition as well as cooperation.

For example, the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, will give China access to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and the Indian Ocean. Just over one hundred kilometers away, India and Japan are developing a competing port in southeastern Iran. Russia is playing both sides, expressing support for CPEC while backing a corridor with India that runs through Iran. Examined closely, these and other projects are windows into national ambitions.

Infrastructure projects not only reflect emerging economic and political realities but can also reshape them. Consider the Trans-Siberian Railway. Its construction helped spark the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. During World War II, it moved Russia’s heavy industries away from enemy lines. More than a century after opening, it still binds the Far East with Moscow and carries over half of the foreign cargo that passes through Russia. Similarly, many of today’s fledgling projects could shape events beyond the twenty-first century.

Since the rise of Europe’s colonial powers in the sixteenth century, Asia’s economic activity has been concentrated on its coastlines. But that could change as China, Japan, Russia and other regional powers connect Asia internally and with Europe by reaching across the Eurasian landmass. Ancient overland routes, harking back to the Silk Road, could be reawakening even as new maritime passages emerge.

At the turn of the last century, the British geographer Halford Mackinder, sometimes called the father of modern geopolitics, wrote, “Is not the pivot region of the world’s politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads and is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?” The same question might be asked today.

The answer could have wide-ranging implications for U.S. foreign policy. Since World War II, successive U.S. administrations have sought to prevent the rise of a hegemonic power in Eurasia. If a great power tries to assume that mantle, it will not do so invisibly, but by physically binding itself with its neighbors, through new railways, ports and other hard infrastructure. Behind many of today’s projects lurk grand ambitions.

THE SHEER scale of Asia’s infrastructure competition is staggering. The region’s infrastructure spending led the world last year, with 552 deals worth a record $131 billion. But Asia’s economies are only investing roughly half as much as they need, according to the Asian Development Bank. To maintain current levels of economic growth, eradicate poverty and respond to climate change, developing Asia alone must spend $26 trillion on infrastructure by 2030. As states ramp up their infrastructure spending to meet these goals, they are advancing rival visions for the region.

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s signature foreign-policy effort, the “Belt and Road” initiative (also known as “One Belt, One Road,” or OBOR) is at the center of this activity. Announced in 2013, OBOR includes an overland Silk Road Economic Belt and an ocean-based 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. It is a hugely ambitious endeavor. Geographically, OBOR could span sixty-five countries responsible for roughly 70 percent of the world’s population. Functionally, it aims to strengthen hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure and even cultural ties. Economically, it could ultimately entail Chinese investments approaching $4 trillion. By comparison, the Marshall Plan would cost roughly $130 billion in today’s terms.