Is Asia Reconnecting?
October 31, 2017
“Eurasia is thus the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played,” the late Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote two decades ago. His words ring true again as a massive infrastructure competition unfolds across the Eurasian supercontinent. If the roads, railways, and other connections that are emerging today shift flows of goods, people, and ideas, the long-term implications could be profound.
CSIS launched the Reconnecting Asia Project to make sense of these developments. Our website, ReconnectingAsia.CSIS.org, has a growing database of over 2,100 projects and an interactive map that tracks what is happening on the ground. In our Big Questions series, leading experts respond to wide-ranging questions. This report includes highlights from the first six questions posed in the series.
The Big Questions series begins with the biggest question of all: Is Asia reconnecting? Until the rise of Europe’s colonial powers in the sixteenth century, many of the world’s most important trading routes ran overland. Today, emerging overland routes aim to shift trade away from the sea, where 90 percent of international trade currently travels. As our experts point out in Chapter 1, many obstacles—economic, political, and strategic—stand in the way of this potentially epochal shift.
With a frenzy of investment and construction in recent years, Asia has in some respects become the world’s infrastructure laboratory. Reflecting this trend, China overtook the United States as the global leader in built assets in 2015, while three of the top four per-capita leaders were also in the region (Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan). In Chapter 2, experts consider what the rest of the world could learn from Asia about how—and how not—to make infrastructure investments.
Just as the compass and the domesticated camel facilitated greater mobility in ancient times, emerging technologies could impact Asia’s economic landscape. In Chapter 3, experts examine how automation could impact existing modes of transportation, whether shipping terminals on the water or driverless cars on land. They also considered an entirely new form of transportation: the Hyperloop concept popularized by Elon Musk.
Greater connectivity can also create unintended consequences. The ancient Silk Road, for example, carried not just commerce, but also disease. In Chapter 4, experts consider how greater connectivity could impact the movement of illicit drugs, wildlife trafficking, and infections. New roads, railways, and ports are not the primary drivers of these challenges, but could exacerbate them if policy is not updated to reflect an increasingly integrated region.
New connections are emerging in the Arctic as well. During the past year, Arctic sea ice has dropped to record lows. In August, a Russian tanker became the first ship to complete the Northern Sea Route, traveling from Norway to South Korea and shaving days off the dominant route through the Suez Canal. In Chapter 5, experts consider how the Arctic’s transformation might impact economic opportunities and what factors will drive or delay the region’s future development.
Economics has been our primary lens, but we have begun to consider strategic implications as well. History is filled with infrastructure projects that have advanced national security and foreign policy objectives. The same road network that Darius the Great used to rule the Persian empire was used by Alexander the Great to conquer it. In Chapter 6, experts consider how ports and railways transformed Japan, India, and Russia, and what lessons those cases hold for today.
Eurasia’s infrastructure game is still heating up, and it could take decades before these questions are fully answered. Eurasia remains the chessboard for global primacy, but the nature of that game has not remained static. Military power still matters, but economics has taken center stage. Infrastructure has become a more important tool for accumulating power as well as exercising it. As the world’s economic center of gravity continues moving east, the stakes of this game are likely to rise even higher.