I recently finished The Silk Roads (which I’ve discussed before here, here, and here) and I have some doubts about the book’s claim that the Eurasian landmass, especially central Asia, is crucial to future geopolitics.
One of the book’s main theses is that the region is about to regain its lost physical and geopolitical importance. Originally, the region’s position, linking China and the Mediterranean, allowed it to flourish. The discovery of America, new sea routes, and European military aggression led to decline. Fast forward to today, and the re-emergence of China, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and the discovery of rich natural resource deposits in Central Asia supposedly mean regional renewal.
I’m skeptical for a few reasons. First, freight. The book acknowledges that the rise of safer, more efficient maritime routes undermined the region’s economic importance (and tax revenue), but then fails to acknowledge the fact that this has not materially changed: maritime freight still dwarfs rail and road freight.
The following chart OECD data on rail and sea freight for twenty-foot equivalent units (basically a container).
Unsurprisingly, countries with sea access rely on maritime freight, but this is also true for Silk-Road esque countries like Turkey, or Germany, which hosts the terminus of the new rail freight line from China. The countries where both types are comparable are usually European, and even there the graph does not do it justice – Estonia’s sea freight volume is three times larger than rail, Latvia’s eight, Bulgaria’s ten.
The same data, but showing growth in rail over time. Nowhere except Germany has seen much growth.
Sea over time. Take note of the Y axis. Remember this only captures container transport, so doesn’t include the enormous volumes of raw materials.
Second, the geography of supply and demand. Central Asia’s importance makes sense in a world where the Mediterranean and China are the two poles between which most trade flows. Europe today is a stable source of consumption and production, but is unlikely to be a dynamic source of future growth. Fast growing East-Asian economies, India, and Indonesia all circumvent the region. As does the global superpower. Africa is unlikely to feature in this transcontinental network given its narrow land connection to Eurasia and under developed rail network.
One area where the book’s prediction might prove true is energy. A third of cargo miles hauled by shippers comes from moving fossil fuels. A transition to green energy might reduce the importance of maritime trade. To this we could add the growing forces of nationalism weighing on global trade more generally.
The issue is that these forces also undermine any new Silk Road. One area where the region is increasingly important is in the transport of oil and gas through pipelines. These would be comparatively less important in the event of a green transition.
I’d love to hear from those who disagree.
*This is not a new view by any means, Mackinder called the region “the heartland” in 1904.