The New Silk Road

Today I read about a landmark agreement that went into effect a couple weeks ago.  The Asian Highway Agreement went into effect on July 5, 2005.  The agreement, signed by 32 countries, including North Korea, will spur the development of a 141,000 kilometer highway network spanning Asia from Turkey to Japan, crossing through all 32 countries that signed the agreement.  The agreement was negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP).  A more comprehensive highway plan will be released in 2006.  The project was originally proposed by the UN in 1959, but it was shelved due to the Cold War.  The project is ambitious and fraught with immense potential and potentially disastrous pitfalls.  If completed, it would be the world’s largest highway network.  It would also constitute the first major effort to spur trans-continental commerce in Asia since the development of the legendary Silk Road linking China to Europe.
A trans-Asian highway network would benefit isolated, landlocked nations such as Uzbekistan and regions such as Xinjiang Province in China that lack adequate transportation infrastructure.  It would also help break down political barriers, notably between North Korea and South Korea.  It’s assumed that traffic transitting North Korea would be restricted and heavily monitored, yet it would still be an important step in linking North Korea to the global community.  The highway network would promote trade between non-traditional trading partners such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan.  It would also give South Korea a land-based link to the rest of Asia.  Currently, the tense border between the two Koreas prevents South Korea from importing or exporting goods overland through North Korea.  South Korea is essentially an island, although it is in reality the southern portion of a peninsula.  A functional highway through North Korea would help restore that reality.  Just as a bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark to Goteberg, Sweden linked Scandinavia to the rest of Europe, so also would a trans-Asian highway open South Korea to ground-based commerce.  Currently, South Korea’s land-based commerce either terminates at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in Kaesong or at Geumgang Mountain in eastern North Korea.  Neither is more than 50 miles north of the Korean DMZ.
A trans-Asian highway would also open up a Pandora’s box of potential pitfalls.  For one, it would likely promote the freer movement of traffickers and terrorists in Asia.  For years, Panama has refused to build a link between the North and South American portions of the trans-American highway primarily due to fears increased illicit activity, namely drugs and paramilitary activity emanating from Colombia.  To many Panamanians, stopping illegal activity trumps the benefits of a trans-American highway.  Asia’s lack of adequate vehicle infrastructure has impeded the flow of illicit activity.  A trans-Asian highway would also be an easy target for terrorists.  Asian oil pipelines are a favorite terrorist target, and this highway would be as well.  The risk to human life while driving through large areas with inhospitable climates and hostile driving conditions would be significant.  Imagine driving your Fiat from Italy to China and worrying about a flat tire, overheating, or a personal attack while driving in the middle of nowhere.   I don’t think if I had an opportunity to drive the entire highway I would do so, particularly through central Asia (then again, maybe I’m crazy enough to try it).  I think flying or taking the train would be much safer alternatives.  In addition, a trans-Asian highway would require extensive environmental engineering, likely contributing to environmental degradation.  It’s interesting to note that the UN is spearheading a project that so obviously adversely affects the environment on a grand scale.
Nevertheless, it appears that momentum is building for the highway network to be built.  While it’s too early to tell whether early momentum will result in the completion of this ambitious project, it’s important for United Nations and the 32 nations that signed this agreement to minimize these potential pitfalls.  If the highway is ever completed and functional, it would likely take more than a decade to complete.  It will be intriguing to see what the UNESCAP will put forward as a plan in 2006.  No matter what, I hope they will have the foresight to build gas stations and rest areas every 50 kilometers; otherwise, there will be many an unhappy visitor with an incapacitated vehicle stranded in the middle of Mongolia.

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