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Central Asia: The New Silk Road's Gordian Knot?

Alice-Catherine Carls


     The Silk Road is rising again today. Having long remained economically secluded from a global economy that privileged maritime transportation, it has been regaining its former place as a lynchpin between Asia and Europe. Its reemergence has been fuelled by several factors. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the birth of the European Union in the early 1990s and, most recently, the rise of the Chinese and Indian economies and their bullish reentry in the world markets, when combined with parallel growing energy demands of Asian countries, the need for inland transportation, and the development of new energy technologies and resources have made made the Silk Road once again an indispensable corridor for transportation and cultural exchange. However, while the Silk Road's ancient role as cultural and commercial bridge [links offer maps throughout this essay] has been revived, the "New Silk Road," as it is now called, differs in that its Central Asian home is today as important as a production zone as it once was as a trade corridor: Central Asian oil and gas are quickly turning the region into a full-fledged international player in its own right. As a result, all roads no longer merely run through Central Asia, they run to it, marking first power reversal between East and West in five centuries. Further, in what could well be the most significant geopolitical realignment of the 21st century, the new energy scene is re-centering the Middle East eastwards. These momentous changes, however, leave the New Silk Road vulnerable to the ambitions of powerful states such as the European Union, Russia, China, India, and the United States. Besides having competing designs, these powers exhibit varying degrees of concern for and involvement in issues such as regional development, transportation, trade, and resource exploitation. This in turn intensifies the pressures on an ancient prime land corridor now in search of identity and structure.

Trade and Transportation: Old and New Routes

     The ancient Silk Road linked traders carrying various and exotic goods, spices, cotton, horses, religions, and technologies along a maze of paths crisscrossing deserts, mountain ranges, and wide steppes. Today, energy resources represent an increasing part of the total volume of the New Silk Road's trade, as it does of world's trade: petroleum, not spices and textiles rule the road. After a century dominated by the search for oil, the world's great oil odyssey has arrived in Central Asia, which has proved to contain a rich reservoir of varied fuels and other raw materials. From Kazakhstan's "three golds" (black – petroleum; blue – natural gas; white – cotton), to Turkmenistan's natural gas, to vast regional deposits of coal and uranium, the center of the Silk Road from Iran to Kazakhstan is tomorrow's energy frontier. The world's "natural gas" frontier is now the Aral Sea, whose resources will be divided in the next ten to fifteen years between Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Major energy centers are developing from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the vast eastern Siberian oil and gas fields.

     The rising Far East's interest in gaining commercial access to the Middle East brings vast trade possibilities. Land shipping is gaining in importance for items such as uranium, cotton, and coal. Oil and liquefied natural gas is increasingly shipped by pipeline or even by rail to Europe, India, the Far East, and possibly in the future the United States' West Coast: submarine pipelines have made long-distance land transportation and even intercontinental transportation tomorrow's reality, with the earth being girded by energy transportation circuits. At the moment, these several transportation networks are being created, which closely follow the ancient paths of the Silk Road.

     Leaders at the European terminus of the old Silk Road have done much to revive it. Responding to the need for a multi-purpose land transportation network, the European Union proposed a bold new plan in the last days of the Cold War. This plan linked a comprehensive Central Asian development plan to aid for regional infrastructure and transportation development, in a project called Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), which spear-headed the re-opening of the ancient northern Silk Road from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. In 1996 the European Union established by the Trans-European Energy Networks (TEN-E) secured trans-regional links between transport, telecommunications, and energy infrastructures with integrated energy, development, and transportation programs. This "Silk Road of the 21st century" features three components: a Eurasian Continental railroad bridge, a major highway, and a pipeline network, to be complemented eventually by a fiber optic highway. The 2004 Asian Highway Agreement, backed by 32 countries, features routes from Tokyo to Bulgaria through a unified highway system. Since December 2004, TRACECA has linked China's east coast to Rotterdam by rail through Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Western Europe. These projects enjoy the financial backing of major international banks and institutions. In September 2008, the New Eurasian Land Transport Initiative (NELTI) conducted the first road transport of industrial and consumer goods along the Silk Road from the Asia-Pacific regions to Europe.1 These initiatives are a discreet, yet extremely effective example of policies that encourage Central Asian nations to look up to the European Union model of integration and development.

     The United States' interest in the region was and remains almost exclusively concerned with energy. The weight of its Cold War policies tends to perpetuate its focus on maritime oil transportation, on supply from Persian Gulf states, and on some transit through Turkish terminals. The Clinton Administration, however, started a policy of diversification because of dwindling Caspian resources, increasing political turmoil, hazardous maritime transportation, and freer access to Central Asian and Siberian oil fields. Two new routes were conceived: a north-south oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and an eastern pipeline for delivery of Russian oil and gas to California through the Barents Sea. In May 2001, Vice-President Cheney's National Energy Policy study confirmed the double advocacy of continued reliance on Middle Eastern oil and diversification.2 Russia's interest in the region, while not limited to hydrocarbons, put a heavy emphasis on these. In the 1990s, Russia mirrored the pragmatism of U. S. policy: it upgraded Soviet-era pipelines in the Caucasus-Caspian Sea area to secure Central Asian oil markets, and started to develop its Siberian reserves. After 2000, President Vladimir Putin went further, acting swiftly to create a monopolistic energy sector and to prioritize the exploitation of gas. While planning a north-south gas pipeline route with Iran, Russia pursued a North-South Siberian connection to China, Korea, and Japan, displaying a renewed active Eurasian policy in hopes of a return to close economic partnership with the former Soviet republics. As Russia found out, however, this was becoming increasingly complex owing to Central Asia's shift from its role as transportation/export zone to that of energy producer.

     The geographical relationship between energy producers and consumers is weighing on the development of other transportation projects, increasing the challenges of building an integrated transportation infrastructure alongside the New Silk Road. Parallel pipeline networks, overlapping routes, and competing destinations, combine to create a maze stretching from the Caspian Sea to China. The new oil and gas pipelines, railroads, highways, trains, trucks, and even a fiber optic network are still reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road. Often they are built on the path of the camel caravans of yore, and like the old Silk Road, they keep expanding. Yet the new gas pipelines will reach farther into North Africa than most Silk Road merchants would have ever dreamed. New acronyms have been coined to designate these regions, such as "CHIME" (China, India, and the Middle East), and "MENA" (the Middle East and North Africa). In addition, the eastern portion of the maritime Silk Road is being revived, from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur, from Shanghai to Singapore. One thing is clear: the epicenter of the new Silk Road is no longer the Middle East as it was defined during the Cold War: it is Central Asia. This vast realm once again is becoming the epicenter of important cultural exchanges, as can be seen in famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma's initiative. Just as ancient cultures were linked by real exchanges, today they are linked by his Silk Road project website3 that could be considered the first fiber optic Silk Road.

Rivalries Old and New: The Battle for the Pipelines

     The increased hunger for Central Asian fuels is challenging OPEC's oil monopoly and has stretched oil's new frontier. From Azerbaijan to Xinjiang, Central Asia is caught in a bidding war for competing east-west and north-south distribution routes that bear the legacies of the Cold War. The Soviet-era routes converge on Russian soil and extend eastwards and westwards, while the European Union, United States, and China sponsor east-west routes from the Black Sea to the Pacific that avoid transiting through Russia. In the central part of the Silk Road, Russia and Iran sponsor a north-south route linking their two countries, while the route planned by the United States through India and Pakistan follows a more eastern path. Thus energy exploitation, development, production, transportation, and financing, are caught in a fierce competition that Canadian Central Asian expert Robert M. Cutler identifies as "pipeline gigantism" that as yet lacks a "grand design."4 Looking at the western portion of the New Silk Road, Cutler adds that "this whole . . . combination jigsaw puzzle, chessboard, poker game and crap shoot,"5 is spurring "multi-level bargaining, jockeying position, and feinting – a roller-coaster."6 The same is true of the central and eastern portions of the New Silk Road: neither China, Kazakhstan, Iran or Uzbekistan, India, Russia, or Pakistan, may or may not have a grand design, but none have proven able to implement one, in part because the new "Great Energy Game" is no longer played among governments alone, but between them and powerful international companies that are rewriting oil diplomacy. Tomorrow's multinational energy giants may dwarf nation-states, further redefining the debate between laissez-faire and state control. Besides, the emergence of Central Asia as a major energy producer has strengthened its hand in dealing with its neighbors. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in particular are eager to play a more visible international role, and the energy markets' shift from buyers' to sellers' markets, opens new options and reduces dependency. Output increases and supply-side solutions, cajoling and pressuring by outsiders no longer work as effectively as in the past. The battle for transportation routes is the most visible component of the new issue of international energy security. It helps reveal trends in policies and designs because it involves both private companies and governments, an issue that deserves fuller treatment than will be given in this article.

     Oil pipeline rivalries intensified in the mid-1990s, in the Caspian Sea/Black Sea region between the European Union and the United States, on one hand, and Russia, on the other. As part of its "Silk Road of the 21st century" project, the European Union in 1993 planned a Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) route through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. After it became operational in 2005, it was expanded through the Kazakh-Caspian Transportation System (KCTS) in January 2007. Meanwhile, Russia expanded its Dagestan-Chechnya pipeline to Novorossiisk in the Ukraine and founded the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) in 1995 with Kazakhstan and Oman to bring oil from Tengiz westwards, with promises to double its initial capacity. CPC became operational in 2001, and Russia secured in the spring of 2008 the construction of a "Bapline" from Burgos in Bulgaria to Alexandropoulos, Greece to help fulfill this promise.7 A restless Kazakhstan meanwhile had turned to the Kazakh-Caspian Transportation System and signed an agreement in November 2008 with Azerbaijan to build a pipeline for its Atyrau fields from Eskene to Kuryk, after a new terminal was opened at Kulevi, in Georgia, near an older oil terminal at Poti that has been used since the early 1990s for Azerbaijani oil.

     The oil rivalries quickly morphed into rivalries for gas pipelines whose designs were essentially parallel to those of the oil pipelines. In the mid-1980s, the European Union decided to increase natural gas in its energy consumption mix. In the 1990s, it started planning a Caspian gas pipeline route with the support of the United States to gain an alternative to dealing with Moscow or with Tehran.8 Thus the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) was planned in 1996 to transport Turkmen gas to Georgia and Turkey. Opposition from Russia and Iran in 1999 shelved the project until the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute of January 2006 revived European nations' resolve to bypass the Russian pipelines. In 2007, the United States began building TCGP from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, hoping to use the trans-Caspian ridge for an underwater portion of the line, which Iran vetoed in September 2008. The recurring Russian-Ukrainian-Bulgarian gas delivery and pricing dispute, in late 2008, again strengthened the European Union's resolve to increase accountability and oversight.9

     A similar pattern emerged for gas transportation. In 2007, Kazakhstan began to decrease its dependence on the gas lines of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), refused a Russian deal to buy natural gas, and opened negotiations with Georgia to use the export terminal of Batumi,10 thus making the Georgian coast a very important geo-strategic location, since the Batumi gas terminal could eventually reach Poland, following the path of the millenary Amber route.11 This in turn enhances the chances of success of the US-European Union project of a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) extension called Nabucco. Conceived in 2002, this 2,050 miles long line is slated to begin construction in 2010 and to open in 2013. Routed from Erzurum in Turkey, gas would be brought westwards to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Austria, into the heart of Europe, with an eventual extension into Germany. The project was given new urgency in 2008 at the prompting of the United States, as the first EU-wide energy policy and a sign of transatlantic solidarity.

     Russia had a head start since the 1970s with natural gas pipeline routes to Western Europe, to which it added a 1997 "Northstream" route with an underwater pipeline through the Baltic Sea. This was recently complemented by the planning of a Blue Stream route from the Caucasus to Turkey, with a "Southstream" extension to Italy planned in January 2008 through Serbia and Bulgaria and under the Adriatic Sea. Also called Blue Stream I, this route would be complemented by Blue Stream II, an underwater line from Turkey through the Black Sea to Western Hungary. In an even bolder move, Vladimir Putin announced in early 2008 a plan to build a gas pipeline into Lybia, a step which has been called by observers a pincer move designed to enable Russia to have a stranglehold over Southern Europe.12

     According to experts, the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline line would run best if routed from Iran to Turkey, then through Nabucco or Russian pipelines from Turkey to Central Europe. In lay terms, the competing pipelines are technically interchangeable. Interestingly, Nabucco's project coordinator has agreed to coordinate South Stream. It is therefore not technology, but politics that create a Gordian knot and divide Russia from Europe, a factor that third parties have been quick to exploit. Iran, for example, while pursuing close relations with Russia, has expressed interest in joining Nabucco if the United States is not included as a partner. Ukraine recently proposed a "White Stream" pipeline from Georgia to the Balkans (Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia) through Ukraine to transport gas from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Egypt, and Iraq. Russia tries to play one European nation against the other.13 Or the other way around.

     In the middle section of the Silk Road, the United States in 1995 backed a gas pipeline project sponsored by Turkmenistan called Trans-Afghan pipeline (TAPI) routed through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Interrupted by the Taliban victory and subsequent turmoil in Afghanistan, this project resumed with the backing of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, and a gas purchase agreement was signed in April 2008 between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for Turkmen gas. TAPI competes with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (IPI) also called "Peace Pipeline" and conceived in 1989 by India and Iran. Derailed in July 2006 by Iran's unreasonable price demands, IPI was also revived in April 2008. There too the Gordian knot tightened. Russian displeasure with the opening of a Tajik-Afghan bridge in September 2007 by the United States expressed itself in renewed Russian support for Iran, but the Moscow-Iran axis suffered a setback when Turkmenistan did not sign a gas agreement that would have linked it to Russia and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan began negotiating with China and the United States to keep its eastern and western routes options open, and its "swing" position received a boost when it announced in October 2008 that it owned one of the world's four or five largest natural gas fields at Yoloten-Osman, a fact that, in the words of Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar, "reset the maths of energy security."14

     In the east, competition for the oil and gas routes is equally fierce, although it receives less publicity than the western portion of the New Silk Road and the pipeline grids are simpler. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are being courted by Russia for a northern oil route which would privilege the Japanese market, and by China for a southern route which would privilege the Chinese market. A Turkmen natural gas pipeline was planned in 1993, but Turkmenistan's political isolation delayed its progress until it resumed in 2006 with the groundbreaking ceremony taking place in August 2007. This 7,000 kilometer Atasu-Xinjiang pipeline through Kazakhstan, Amu Darya, and Uzbekistan, comes with a $ 26 billion price tag, and China vows to extend it to Shanghai with a second pipeline parallel to one already existing. This would tie Turkmenistan to China and prevent it from accepting US military presence on its soil.15 On the eastern Siberian seaboard, Russia has uncontested control. Transneft's 2004 oil pipeline proposal extends from the Skothman, Kovytka, and Sakhalin fields to Japan and China and in March 2008 Russia was already supplying both China and Japan from this pipeline. Another line is planned to the Western coast of the United States in the north through the Barents Sea. This "Sakhalin Project" has US approval.

     The line dividing rivalry from cooperation is tenuous. In eastern Siberia, US-Russian cooperation is a given. Started in 1992 under the Clinton Administration, cooperation about oil was expanded by the Bush Administration's interest in Russian natural gas that signaled willingness to increase U. S. dependence on Russia. When cooperation slowed down in 2005 following Russia's increasing governmental controls and her restricting foreign companies' access to the subsoil, a Russian-US government-sponsored "Energy Working Group" was created and the industries developed a commercial energy dialogue.16 In the western portion of the New Silk Road, however, the Bush Administration spared no effort and no rhetoric to lessen its dependence and the dependence of its western allies on Russia, nonetheless privileging an industry-led series of initiatives and production and exploitation and transportation agreements,17 and even showed signs of relenting on its position about Iran in 2008.

Strengthening the Core – Central Asian Nation-Building

     In the past, Central Asians have often been major players in the global game of civilization. Today Central Asian nations' nascent power is challenged by energy security issues that put them at an uneasy crossroads between old and new paradigms. Broad issues of nation-building, economic development (including political and fiscal stability, and a modicum of democracy), and military and economic security issues, are affected. The challenges posed by each of these issues has caused Central Asia's rise to occur disjointedly during the last fifteen years. During Soviet rule, Russia introduced economic and social modernization, and today it courts Central Asian countries through a behavior "akin to a protective post-colonialism exhibited by Britain and France" in their former imperial possessions.18 While also introducing modernization after 1945 to countries like Iran and Israel, the United States favors its own mix of democracy and capitalism which seems to many to neglect institutional and structural development.19 More importantly, Central Asia is caught between modernization and Islamic traditions. Al Qaeda, according to former French anti-terrorist chief Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, is "a response to the globalization of Western democratic ideas, not just economic globalization."20 If, in the West's opinion, "modernization" is the main instrument to counteract political extremism and religious fundamentalism,21 the Muslim world sees the West as the instigator of political disturbances while it struggles to find a new unity. Amidst these pressures, a healthy desire for growth and development within cooperative economic and strategic frameworks is emerging. In the west, center, and east of the New Silk Road, a maze of overlapping organizations have sprung up, some limited to local countries, and some in partnership with the European Union, Russia, China, and the United Nations, as well as many international organizations and banks.

     No single state dominated the exchanges along the old Silk Road and the geo-political complexities of the New Silk Road would seem to perpetuate this condition. Russia today seems bent on, and is best placed to attempt to dominate trade along the route, but thus far has found it difficult to do so. The quick rise and fall of regional economic partnerships tells the story. In 1991, the Organization of Central Asian Cooperation was formed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. In 1994 Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgysztan formed the Central Asian Union, then renamed it Central Asian Economic Community and dissolved it in 2001. In 1998 Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan formed the Central Asian Economic Union, which became the Central Asia Cooperation Organization in 2002 with the participation of Kazakhstan, Kyrgysztan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. In 2005, this organization merged with the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), an organization formed in 2000 and whose goal is to unite the region into an independent confederation modeled after the European Union and seeking the support of international organizations. Whether EurAsEc will ultimately secure economic integration is not clear at this time, however. In October 2008, Uzbekistan withdrew from it when a customs union was proposed. This leaves only Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan committed to a customs union, while Kyrgysztan and Tajikistan are looking on, deferring Russia's hopes to build up its 1995 CIS Customs Union. At the northeastern end of Central Asia, the Greater Tumen Initiative unites China, Russia, both Koreas, and Japan in a United Nations approved development project. This 1991 project features overlapping regional institutions promoting economic and development cooperation in North East Asia from Vladivostok to the Yellow Sea. Several other initiatives seek transnational solutions to alleviate poverty, insure development, transport energy, and insure security. Many are the extension of European Union aid given in the 1990s.

     Mixed economic-strategic alliances tend to involve Russia and China, yet a trend towards regional autonomy is emerging. In the west, the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development established a consultative forum in 1997 between Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, with the brief participation of Uzbekistan (hence its acronym GUAM). Devoted to stable development, international and regional security and cooperation, and European integration, GUAM is seen as a pro-US counterpart to Russian influence in the region. Military alliances exist under Russian tutelage. In 2002, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan signed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a defensive alliance that grew out of the Collective Security Treaty signed by the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1992. Uzbekistan joined in 2006. The most significant development is perhaps the formation in 1996 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the initiative of Russia and China, to stabilize the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. This mutual security and economic cooperation group comprised of Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan is used by China as an economic and energy bloc of the future, while Russia uses it as an Asian answer to NATO. SCO has been involved to curb terrorist activities in the region, and, recently, U.S. hegemony in the region.22 Kazakhstan in 2007 proposed a Central Asian Union with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. If realized, this defensive alliance will be the first such organization without the participation of outside powers, notably Russia. This proliferation of "mini-blocs" encourages cooperation as well. Thus, in 2007, CSTO and SCO started to cooperate on issues related to security, drug trafficking, and crime. This ballet of alliances may seem confusing or lacking a strong center, yet observers of the lengthy birthing process of the European Union see it as a healthy sign of institutional and national muscle-flexing. As the process of bloc-building becomes more complex, however, counter pressures from outside mount. Will a center of gravity emerge, and if so, which one? A new Dar-al-Islam? An EU-style Central Asian union? A Russian-sponsored gas-OPEC? A Chinese-dominated eastern trade corridor? Or a US-controlled western energy corridor?

Three Gordian Knots

     The political and military games played by today's great powers threaten energy security and escalate into transnational acts of verbal or physical violence. From Cold War rhetoric to diplomatic posturing, from war to ethnic unrest to acts of terrorism, disturbances signal deep tensions and reveal hidden designs. Three areas in particular illustrate this point: the prime energy transit locations of Georgia, Afghanistan, and Xinjiang, which Russia on the one hand, and the EU, the US, and China on the other, are trying to win to their side. Days after Russia invaded Georgia in the summer of 2008, Poland signed an agreement to locate an US anti-ballistic missile system on its soil, and Russia responded by threatening to deploy short-range tactical missiles in Kaliningrad.23 Meanwhile, the Bush Administration, which had approved the Georgian military attack against South Ossetia,24 continued to seek European approval for Georgia and Ukraine's membership in NATO in the fall of 2008.25 This local conflict had been preceded by a broader posturing in 2007 when the Bush Administration proposed to station an anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, to which Russia responded by proposing a common defense missile plan to Azerbaijan, where it already rents a radar facility. Now both powers are jockeying for control of the Georgian coast, whose strategic importance is enormous for Russia, the United States, and the European Union. Predictably, these great power maneuvers are zero-sum games which contribute to increase the New Silk Road countries' caution towards both Russia and the West.

     The fact that Afghanistan is presently at the center of the war on terror pursued by the United States and its allies is also the result of the politics of energy.26 To supply US, NATO, and Allied troops in Afghanistan, the United States has three routes: through Russia, through Pakistan (that appears the best and most direct route), or through a security corridor through the South Caucasus, from Poti in Georgia through Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. The latter would serve as a blueprint for a future energy corridor under US influence, and create a greater Central Asia extending from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.27 Faced with an increased US presence in the region, Moscow is sending mixed signals. It started in 2007 with the first joint Russian-Chinese military maneuver, called Peace Mission 2007. This show of anti-Western solidarity by Russia and China was equated by M. K. Bhadrakumar to a "new Cold War."28 Playing the "barbarous crusade" card and chastising American pop culture and liberal democracy, Russia started to side with the traditional Islamic countries of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and courting radical Islamic groups that include Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iraqi insurgents. Russia further pursued "constructive ambiguity" in the fall of 2008 by considering a military rapprochement with Iran, seeking military bases in Iran and Syria, and forgiving Iraqi debts in hopes of getting an Iraq-Syria oil and gas pipeline. Yet it agreed in January 2009 to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan and at the moment of this writing there are signs of a US-Russian rapprochement. While the United States is putting the finishing touches to a military security agreement with Georgia, and receiving assistance from Kazakhstan in the war effort in Afghanistan, other regional states are sending mixed signals. Uzbekistan, which has been swinging back and forth for the past fifteen years, exited EurAsEc in October 2008, and Kyrgyzstan threatened to kick the U.S. off a strategic air base in early 2009, relinquishing only when the US agreed to pay a higher rent.

     The third Gordian knot is in Xinjiang. It has heretofore received less attention, as has the eastern portion of the Silk Road in general, and yet it has explosive potential as well. The influence of Islamic fundamentalism on Central Asian countries with Muslim minorities continues to be a destabilizing factor leading to a pan-Islamic awakening and to separatist demands such as can be seen in China's western province of Xinjiang, another pipeline hub made more desirable by the projected opening of a Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline in 2011.29 These tremors may already be reaching Tibet and Nepal, where anti-Chinese protests and turbulent elections in the spring of 2008, respectively, may indicate a possible geopolitical realignment in the Himalayas.

     One could read the situation in terms of a worst-case scenario and best-case scenario. In the best-case scenario, economic cooperation, regional unity, and peaceful conflict resolution lead to enhanced energy security, and the New Silk Road finds its center of gravity. In the worst-case scenario, Moscow may continue courting Iran and India and short-circuiting NATO and Nabucco, while the United States may continue dividing Europe from Russia. In a mirror image, Russia plans to strengthen its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to expand its presence in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan while NATO is increasing its presence in Afghanistan.30 In the worst-case scenario, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets pulled into a new Cold War Game, and the United States continues to expand what many Europeans call its Pax Americana. In a worst-case scenario, Russia's oscillation between supporting non-Muslim and Muslim rebel forces, and Islamic countries' oscillation between supporting Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, continue to destabilize the Caucasus and spread to the entire Middle East.31 In a mirror image of the crisis in Georgia, Russia has announced support for the Azeri breakaway region of Gharabagh to win Azerbaijan to its cause. Should Russia invade Central Asian territories populated by Russian minorities, or extremist Muslim groups attack Russian border republics populated by Muslim minorities, these local conflicts might prove impossible to contain. In a worst-case scenario, the US war on terror further destroys regional stability, unwillingly mirroring the violence perpetrated by "the foreign devils on the Silk Road," i.e., drug traffickers, Islamic warriors, and terrorists.32 The potential for such disturbances indicates that the entire Silk Road is trying to bring closure to its past role as the world's last imperial frontier.

From Gordian Knot to Pandora's Box?

     The Silk Routes of Central Asia that once and now again may serve to inter-regionally connect ideas, foods, germs, and cultures as well as trade have thus become entangled in international competition. American geopolitical expert Alfred Thayer Mahan, who is mainly remembered for his advocacy of U.S. naval power at the turn of the 20th century, defined the region in his 1900 work entitled The Problem of Asia and its Effect upon International Policies as a "debatable and debated ground," a "belt lying roughly between the 30th and 40th parallels" from Suez to Shanghai."33 Hemmed in from the north by Russia, from the south by Britain, and from the east by China, and from the west by the Ottoman Empire, it appeared to Mahan to be the world's last frontier. Today this remains true. Central Asia is pressured by its neighbors, in search of modernity, and oscillating between national power and regional cooperation in a world now characterized, in the words of international affairs expert Stephen Meyer, by multilayered, matrixed, complex structures.34

     According to Charles William Maynes, past President of the Eurasia Foundation and editor of the Asia Times, current developments in the Muslim world require a broader vision of regionalism and the willingness to reconcile democracy and Islam in a non-colonial way. Even though every nation agrees in principle, neo-imperialistic designs have become divorced from lofty rhetoric accents. The foreign policy doctrines of the Clinton and Bush Administrations were avowedly Wilsonian; President Putin called for a multilateral order in which Russia would play the role of a bridge between the West and the Middle East. Will President Obama delink the war on terror from its geo-economic agenda and de-escalate the Afghan conflict into "a criminal investigation . . . to capture people directly responsible for the terrorist attacks" of September 11, 2001?35 In our global, post-industrial, post-nationalist, post-modern world, the new Silk Road urgently needs a new vision. The 21st century can and should be a century of global energy security and sustainable social and economic development in a world that respects diversity. These values and goals are essential to the revival of a New Silk Road corridor that will be the main segment of a sea and land transportation belt from the Pacific to Australia through the Panama and Suez canals, with a potential gas-OPEC that would cover a territory as large as the medieval Dar-al-Islam and crisscross the Silk Road from Dakar to Xinjiang. It is therefore imperative to advance constructive dialogues across civilizations, recognizing that today's problems and tomorrow's challenges require transnational cooperation. Presidents Obama and Medvedev are recognizing the need for a greater multilateral dialogue in the region and raising hopes that this dialogue might extend beyond their term of office.

     World historians will closely follow these developments. While their complexities are daunting, most practitioners in the field will find them rich in opportunities for expanding the ability of students to understand the nature, meaning and process of change within inter-regional trading zones. These will be enumerated in the essay devoted to classroom applications of this forum on "China and World History." However, the most valuable pedagogical lesson that it offers may be derived from a comparison between the New Silk Road's Gordian Knot and its ancient Greek predecessor. Legend has it that a student-age Alexander resolved the puzzle by cutting it open with his sword. Any student of the New Silk Road will quickly realize that any forceful solution to the current situation in Central Asia may conjure up for humankind the results associated with another Greek myth: Pandora's Box.

Alice-Catherine Carls is the Tom Elam Distinguished Professor of History at University of Tennessee – Martin. She can be contacted at



1 Gerald Woodgate, "Silk Road is Open for Business," Transport News Network, March 9, 2008. Online edition. The text of this article is currently archived at

2 "National Energy Policy. Report of National Energy Policy Development Group." Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing, May 2001.

3 See

4 Robert M. Cutler, "Gas Pipeline Gigantism," Asia Times, July 17, 2008. Online edition.

5 Robert M. Cutler, "Reality Wins Over Energy Grand Design," Asia Times, January 8, 2009. Online edition. The text of this article is currently archived at

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Robert M. Cutler, "Another Trans-Caspian Dream," Asia Times, October 24, 2007. Online edition. The text of this article is currently archived at

9 "European Union seeks to expand energy grids," BBC Online, December 13, 2008. See

10 Robert M. Cutler, "Caspian pipelines ease Russia's grip." Asia Times, July 8, 2008. Online edition. The text of this article is currently archived at At the same time that it was negotiating with the European Union, Kazakhstan began discussing an increase of its exports eastwards with China.

11 Robert M. Cutler, "Euro-Caspian energy plans inch forward," Asia Times, November 27, 2008. Online edition. The text of this article is currently archived at

12 The idea of a Venezuela-led world gas cartel with anti-imperialist ties was sketched in 2000 by Venezuela with the participation of Iran, Russia, Qatar, although as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently denied such a project.

13 Judy Dempsey, "EU Natural Gas Pipeline Project Gets First Order," International Herald Tribune, June 11, 2008. Online edition. The text of this article is archived at

14 M. K. Bhadrakumar, "Energy Superpower Emerges in the Caspian," Asia Times, October 17, 2008. Online edition. The text of this article is currently archived at

15.Robert M. Cutler, "Gas Pipeline Gigantism," Asia Times, July 17, 2008, Online edition. This article has an excellent map of the Caspian pipeline grid.

16 For a detailed presentation of American energy and energy security policy in Eurasia, see "Energy Supplies in E:urasia and Implications for U.S. Energy Security," Hearing before the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, September 27, 2005, 109-866.

17 Ibid.

18 This term was coined by a student of the Silk Road, Christiane H. Evaskis, in a paper on current events written for my Soviet and Post Soviet Russia class in the spring of 2008. Christiane also served as research assistant for this article.

19 Recently a Soviet ambassador warned that the US was repeating their mistakes in Afghanistan and therefore have little chance of winning: underestimating the resistance, over-relying on heavy weapons, lack of big modernization projects, and an increase in the number of troops in the country. John F. Burns, "US repeats Soviet missteps in Afghanistan, envoy says," International Herald Tribune, October 20, 2008. Online edition. Available at

20 Quote by former anti-terrorist judge Jean-Louis Brugiere, cited in Roger Cohen, "Vast change since the Cold War," New York Times, February 17, 2007. Online edition available at

21 David Gosset, "The Xinjiang Factor in the New Silk Road." Asia Times, 22 May 2007. Online edition. he text of this article is currently archived at

22 Isabelle Facon, "L'Organisation de cooperation de Shanghai – Ambitions et interets russes," Le Courrier des Pays de l'Est, No. 1055, May-June 2006, 26-37.

23 Judy Dempsey, "Echoes of the Cold War in Russia's new Stance," International Herald Tribune, November 12, 2008. Online edition available at This raises the issue of nuclear proliferation, because both the United States and Russia at this point have discarded multilateral arms control negotiations as a way to curb proliferation, and encouraging it is not in the interest of Russia which has three nuclear neighbors, China, India, and Pakistan.

24 Yu Bin, "China still on-side with Pakistan." Asia Times, September 6, 2008. Online edition,

25 Judy Dempsey, "US Starts diplomatic offensive on NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine," International Herald Tribune, November 25, 2008. Online edition.

26 This was made clear not only by US policies, but by Fall 2008 NATO press releases which listed it as a top operational priority. NATO Press Communique, 16 November 2008, Nato Listserv information online. The text of this article is currently archived at

27 Perhaps coincidentally, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in early 2008 appointed a special energy coordinator for the Central Asia - Caspian Region.

28 M. K. Bhadrakumar, "The New 'NATO of the East' Takes Shape," Asia Times, August 25, 2007. Online edition. Full text currently archived at

29 Edward Wong, "China tightens grip on Muslims in the northwest." International Herald Tribune, October 19, 2008. Online edition.

30 Sultan-Khan Zhussip, "Russia Expands its military presence in Central Asia," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. November 12, 2008. Online edition currently archived at

31 Mai Yamami, "The Arab world cold war patron seems to be back," The Guardian, September 29, 2008. Online edition currently archived at Even though Hamas recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in late 2008, other Islamic countries have a record of supporting Muslim minorities, as Iran did during the war in Chechnya in the 1990s.

32 M. K. Bhadrakumar, "The New 'NATO of the East' Takes Shape." Asia Times Online, August 25, 2007. The text of this article is currently archived at

33 Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Problem of Asia and its Effect upon International Policies. Reprint of the 1900 edition ("Elibron Classics," Adamant Media Corporation, Boston, 2002), 22 and 34 respectively.

34 Stephen E. Meyer, "Kaleidoscopic Change in World Affairs: Emerging Patterns of Sovereignty and Governance." In Prospects and Ambiguities of Globalization, ed. by James W. Skillen (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), 9-41.

35 Marc A. LeVine, "The Middle East Presents Obama with a host of problems, and a few palatable solutions." History News Network, blog entries, November 11, 2008. See


US/EU/China Sponsored


1. Baku - Tbilisi - Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline
2. Kazakh-Caspian Transportation System (KCTS) - Eskene/Atyrau - Kuryk - Baku - Kazakhstan


1. Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) - Turkmenistan - Kazakhstan - Azerbaijan - Turkey - Georgia (Batumi/Poti/Kulevi) - extensions to Gdansk and China
2. Nabucco – Erzurum/Turkey - Romania - Bulgaria - Hungary


1. Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAPI) - Caspian Sea - Turkmenistan/Amu Darya region - Afghanistan - Pakistan - India


1.Atasu/Alashankou/Turkmenistan - Kazakhstan - Amu Darya
2. Kazakhstan - China


1. Uzbekistan - Zinjiang - Shanghai
2. South Yoloten-Osman fields / Turkmenistan (not developed yet)



1. Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) - Tengiz - Dagestan - Chechnya - Novorossiisk
2. Bapline - Burgos - Alexandropoulos


1. Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) - Tengiz - Dagestan - Chechnya - Novorossiisk – parallel to oil pipeline
2. Southstream divided into

Bluestream I - Bulgaria - Serbia - Italy
Bluestream II - Turkey - Hungary


1. Kazakhstan - Turkmenistan - Japan
2. Skotman - Kovytka - Sakhalin - Japan - China - Barents Sea - US West Coast



1. IPI or Peace Pipeline - Iran - Pakistan - India



1. Whitestream – Kazakhstan - Azerbaijan - Turkmenistan - Iran/Abadan - Iraq - Egypt - Georgia - Ukraine - Balkans



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