The great Eurasian plain is thriving once again. In this essay, Niall Gray charts the economic growth and infrastructure boom across the region. A crossroads of politics, culture, security, and economics, Eurasia’s importance on the world stage looks set to increase. Can we expect a new ‘Silk Road’?


Flick through any book on world history and you’re sure to see frequent mention of the great Eurasian plain. Stretching from the gates of Europe, all the way to the Pacific coast, this vast grassland has often been described as the crossroads of the world’s great civilisations. Indeed, the steppe has been the stage for a plethora of pivotal events – from the brutality of Genghis Khan’s horseback hordes to the perfumed romance of the Silk Road – affecting the destinies of millions, from Rome to Beijing. This has seen the plain take on a somewhat mythical status. The geographer Halford MacKinder once stated that whoever controlled the territory could ultimately lay claim to the entire world. A grandiose statement indeed.

What relevance does the Eurasian plain have for international affairs today? You’d be forgiven for asking that question since its significance may not be entirely obvious. Home to a sparse population, living in countries and regions whose names are often met with confused looks, the steppe may appear to be little more than a global backwater. This obscurity hasn’t been helped by the region’s recent history. The paranoid visions of Eurasia’s Cold War era despots quickly reduced the sprawling plain to a mere military frontier, leaving the area divided, underdeveloped, and largely ignored.


Map of Central Asia. Image: Cacahuate [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Yet with the world now entering a period defined by new areas of economic growth and greater inter-connectivity, fortunes for the Eurasian plain may soon change for the better. Encouraged by technological advancement and the rise of Eastern markets, eyes around the world are now turning to the region. The grassland is being viewed, once more, as a bridge between the huge economies of Europe and Asia.

This new-found interest has largely translated into highly ambitious infrastructure projects across the steppe, which now threaten to slash world trade times and prices. These consist of an intricate system of new roads, railways and even cities, with each proposed project adding to the plain’s potential to reclaim its past glory. Indeed, such bold plans could be characterised as the modern-day equivalent of the region’s ancient caravans, which once transported goods, ideas, and people from one side of Eurasia to the other.

As with all things business, though, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Increasingly aware of the potential riches that these new trade routes could bring, states across the region are now engaged in a race to lead the development of the vast grassland. This has seen Eurasian governments map their own designs onto a variety of new improvement plans, which often speak the high-minded language of cooperation. Beneath the surface, however, lies a complex and ever-changing game of political intrigue, which now has the power to change everything; from grand geopolitics, to how food ends up on your plate.

CHINESE INFLUENCE AND AMBITIONS

Perhaps the best-known nation to have staked its claim on the steppe is China. A rising superpower, responsible for nearly a quarter of global manufacturing, it has identified the plain’s development as integral to continuing its national growth. This interest has recently been consolidated by Beijing under the banner of the ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’, a vast collection of infrastructure schemes encircling the country from Mongolia to South-East Asia. Of course, with such massive scale comes a price tag to match: billions of dollars in government funding are now being spent to connect the country with lucrative Western markets.

A great example of where this money ends up is the Khorgos Gateway in China’s extreme west. Likely to become the world’s largest ‘dry port’, the project’s intricate system of cranes and tracks promises to finally offer a solution to differences in Chinese and former Soviet train gauges, which have stalled Eurasian trade for decades. This single plan may ultimately cut travel times to Europe by over half, leading head of state Xi Jinping to praise the project as essential in an interdependent world.


Chinese cargo trucks awaiting Pakistan Customs clearance. Both countries already conduct trade via the Karakoram Highway. It is being upgraded as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. Image: Anthony Maw [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Whilst consumers rejoice, many of China’s neighbours are now wondering whether this ‘interdependence’ may ultimately result in a dragon breathing down their neck. This is particularly true in Beijing’s traditional rival, India, which regards the joint  ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ and its accompanying ‘Maritime Silk Road’ project, as a potential means of economic and political entrapment. Recent Chinese rhetoric has offered little to calm these fears – its new year gala (the world’s most watched television programme), explicitly cast the ancient Silk Road as an era of national ascendancy.

As a result, debate now rages over whether or not the region is engaged in a new ‘Great Game’, referencing the nineteenth century battle between Britain and Russia for much of Eurasia. This is best seen at the steppe’s heart in Central Asia, where oil and gas exploration is often surrounded by cutthroat deals.

However, it would wrong to describe the local states as mere pawns in a game between the bigger powers. Kazakhstan, for example, has become indispensable in attempts to integrate the plain into global trade. Its nine billion dollar Bright Road scheme has set the ambitious goal of transforming its infrastructure akin to Dubai, thereby replacing an ageing communist-era network. Kazakh politicians have discussed the project as a complement to schemes such as the China-led ‘Eurasia Land Bridge’. This includes a new cross-border highway which could see thirty-three million tonnes of freight transported through the steppe nation each year.

RUSSIAN INFLUENCE

It should be noted that the ability of Central Asian states to cooperate with Beijing on equal terms has, rather ironically, been aided by the continued presence of their former master – Russia. The only other great power with easy access to the plain, Moscow now offers a unique counterweight to Beijing’s expansionist ambitions.

Infrastructural change on the Eurasian steppe has therefore been subject to a balanced yet complex system of relations, with states cooperating as much as they compete. This is evident with regard to Russia’s own stake in the aforementioned ‘land bridge’ project, which could greatly increase efficiency savings. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has stated that the project must be urgently completed.


Infrastructural change on the Eurasian steppe has therefore been subject to a balanced yet complex system of relations, with states cooperating as much as they compete.

Such collaboration is, of course, ultimately calculated as part of the nation’s steadfast commitment to its own interests. Now facing isolation from the West due to its predatory ventures in Ukraine, the Kremlin has turned towards the Eurasian plain as a vehicle for its resurgence on the global stage. This has mainly taken the form of the Eurasian Economic Union, a supranational body with the potential to turn Russia into a financial powerhouse for much of the former Soviet Union. As its name suggests, the organisation places a special emphasis on the grassland’s emerging trade links, in which it aims to become an essential player and partner.

Vladimir Putin’s recent presidential address promised trillions of rubles to this end, with the upgrading of Soviet-era infrastructure, naturally encouraging the revival of European Russia as the nerve centre for a united market on the steppe. The sheer size of the bloc, and its associated free trade zone, is hard to ignore. Stretching from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, and possibly Iran in the near future, the union’s grip on Eurasia’s core may lead many in Europe to reconsider ongoing Russian sanctions.


A meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Sochi, Russia, October 2017. Leaders from Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan present. Image: Kremlin.ru [CC]

This attempt to place the country at the centre of the modern Silk Road has also seen its vast Asian plain open to inter-continental trade. Home to a sparse population relative to its size, Moscow has come to view the area’s integration as a means of tackling its own fears of Chinese encroachment. The region has subsequently seen a huge amount of investment, with various partners invited onto the northern steppe to develop new trade routes, free from Beijing’s influence.

Traditionally China-wary Japan and South Korea have emerged as firm allies in this project. For instance, Tokyo recently announced its own urban development plan for the Pacific port of Vladivostok. This could ultimately see the settlement emerge as a gate to Europe, utilising Russia as a direct bridge to Western markets by means of an overhauled Trans-Siberian Railway.

A RESURGENT STEPPE

With so many lofty dreams tied to a dizzying number of projects, the Eurasian plain’s potential to emerge as a true game-changer for global trade may fall short. Indeed, Eurasian infrastructural change has not been without its problems. Recent spats over Beijing’s development in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which could potentially connect inner China to the West, stand testament to the unchanging slowness of political reality.

This one dispute has come to embody the corrupt nature of many projects across the steppe. For instance, concerns have been raised over the supposed use of prisoners as forced labour by Chinese firms in Pakistan – such firms often possess shadowy personal and financial connections with Beijing’s elite. And such issues have, by no means, been limited to Chinese endeavours. Given that it is home to a large number of authoritarian states, the plain has become closely entangled with political cultures that often place the pursuit of profit above all else.

In Kazakhstan, a lack of political accountability has seen infrastructural development pose a threat to a number of delicate environmental issues. This includes the future of the much-depleted Aral Sea which faces added pollution challenges due to a growing governmental focus on nearby railway and road construction projects.


A ‘ship cemetery’ in the Bay of Zhalanash, the Aral Sea. Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world, it has been shrinking since the 1960s. Image: Zhanat Kulenov [CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO]

This has also led to difficult cultural dilemmas, as new transport links across the Kazakh plain often cut across the traditional lands of steppe herders – it is an an issue will brings this rapidly developing country face-to-face with its nomadic past. Over the border in western China, rapid unchecked development has become interlinked with ongoing tensions between Beijing and the native Uighur population. This may ultimately contribute to the latter’s already widespread problems with religious radicalisation, an issue that could have grave regional consequences if ignored.

Despite such internal setbacks, the steppe’s resurgence does appear to be slowly but surely remoulding the worldwide stage upon which countries interact. Take the distinct lack of an American presence in the plain’s development as an example. Unable, perhaps even unwilling, to involve itself in the region, Washington’s absence has further opened the door for the global centre of power to shift further towards the East. Whilst an immediate end to American hegemony is unlikely, the myriad of faster and cheaper economic opportunities now afforded to steppe powers, such as China and Russia, may contribute to (even encourage) the development of a more balanced, multi-polar world.


Unable, perhaps even unwilling, to involve itself in the region, Washington’s absence has further opened the door for the global centre of power to shift further towards the East.

This dispersal of power caused by the plain’s development may also trickle down to the millions of individuals living across Eurasia. Now able to traverse mountains and deserts with ease due to ongoing projects, a new world of opportunities is beginning to open up for ordinary people, whether it’s through travel, tourism, employment opportunities, or the ability to strike new business deals. If it lives up to its potential, this democratisation of travel – and everything it facilitates – could become the steppe project’s greatest legacy.

It is unsurprising that the very concept of ‘Eurasia’, as a distinct unit, is being forged anew by these developments. Uniting the socio-economic fortunes of people from cities as disparate as Lisbon and Hong Kong, this region may radically redefine the personal and political for the next century. And with recent murmurings of new projects such as an ‘Arctic Silk Road’ at its northern extremities, the Eurasian steppe’s return from the pages of history is well and truly underway.


Niall Gray is a recent graduate of University of Glasgow, where he studied a year of postgraduate Russian, following his degree in History and Central and Eastern European Studies. His research interests centre around a number of historical and contemporary themes, with a general focus on Eurasia, such as international relations, the politics of identity, and policy-making. He is set to return to Glasgow in September to pursue an Erasmus-funded international masters degree.


Feature image: Eagle hunting on South Issy-Kol, in the steppes of Kyrgyzstan. Image: Peretz Partensky [CC BY-SA 2.0]


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