The new Silk Road: a highway for radical Islam?
by Francesco Guarascio
As the EU's trade with China grows, a new land route through central Asia is being developed – but there is a danger that it might be exploited by radical Islam, PublicServiceEurope.com reports from Kazakhstan
It was no surprise that last week's European Union-China summit in Brussels concentrated on trade. Despite the economic crisis European exports to China have been growing steadily since 2000 and reached €136bn in 2011. This trend is set to continue as Europe's sales to China have already risen to €73bn in the first six months of 2012, from €66bn last year. The volume of imports from China is also huge. After having peaked at €293bn in 2011, it has stabilised at €140bn in the first half of this year.
This vast flow of goods is transported almost exclusively along sea routes that connect China's main ports to India and the Mediterranean. These ocean highways are not going to be replaced, but alternatives may emerge in the future. For example, new sea routes across the Arctic could soon be viable, as ever more ice melts as a result of climate change. Meanwhile, among the other potential new options available is the reopening of land corridors through central Asia, along the routes that have been used for centuries by merchants, monks and adventurers in what is known as the Silk Road.
The infrastructure that would enable trucks to drive from China to Europe already exists in many areas, while the condition of the roads on the route through China and Russia is already decent. The missing link is in Kazakhstan. This vast central Asian state, as big as western Europe, has emerged as the economic power of the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its road network remains underdeveloped. The World Bank estimates that almost a quarter of Kazakh roads are in a "poor" state. To counter these shortcomings, the World Bank and several other international organisations are funding an ambitious programme called the Western China-Western Europe Corridor. The aim is to upgrade or reconstruct over 1,000km of domestic roads out of the 2,800km that constitute the Kazakh section of the new Silk Road.
"It is an ambitious task, because of the size of the country and the difficult climate with temperatures ranging from 40 degrees in summer to -40 degrees in winter," explains Branislav Krsmanovic, the engineer in charge of supervising works in the section of the corridor going from Turkestan to Shymkent, in the south of the country. The section under his control has a total length of 110km. Work started at the beginning of this year and is scheduled to end by the beginning of 2014. When the new road is finished, "the average speed for vehicles will triple from the current 50 km/h up to 150 km/h," Krsmanovic says.
The road runs across the arid steppe in a landscape that offers little diversion apart from the occasional view of double-humped camels or horses roaming in the wilderness. In just a few hours of driving it is possible to pass several trucks that are able to defy the poor current state of the road. The road is interrupted by regular detours across sandy paths that permit the works on the new road to proceed. "We estimate that the number of vehicles driving over the road will more than double from the current 7,000 a day to an average of 15,000 in the parts of the road away from cities, and over 20,000 near urban centers," reckons the engineer.
Four international contractors work on the section supervised by Krsmanovic. They are two groups from China and South Korea, and two consortia composed of firms from Azerbaijan and Turkey, and from Kazakhstan and Serbia. No EU consortium is involved in this section. In the overall building site – starting at Almaty in the south-east of Kazakhstan and running for over 2,500km to the north-west border with Russia – the only EU companies that won contracts within the Kazakh tenders were Italian. The entire project should be ready by 2015, with a likely delay to 2017 for the 300km section between Almaty and China. The road is expected to provide an alternate route for east-west trade, but is mainly aimed at improving the economic conditions of the impoverished southern regions of Kazakhstan.
Together with goods will come new ideas and increased exposure to other cultures, which was always the historical function of the ancient Silk Road. Over the centuries silk came to Europe and glassware reached China. The caravans of trade brought new ideas and enabled religions to spread across continents, bringing Buddhism from India to China, Islam from Arabia to central Asia and Christianity from the shores of the Mediterranean to a few scattered communities along the road. "Since the time of the Buddha in the fifth century BC, monks were accustomed to travelling along the trade routes in the company of merchants from city to city," explains Xinriu Liu, an academic, in his book The Silk Road in World History.
These cultural exchanges will remain a key feature of the new Silk Road, but dangers are likely to come together with new ideas. Kazakhstan is already under the growing menace of radical Muslims. The tolerant, 'vodka-drinking' version of Islam practiced in the country is considered disrespectful by followers of fundamentalist schools of thought. A wave of terrorist attacks in 2011 culminated with the killing last November of seven people by a suicide bomber in Taraz, near Shymkent in the southern part of the country.
"Last year, the secret police told me to keep an eye on suspicious people," says Adilbek Shafik, a guide at the Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mausoleum in Turkestan, the most important religious building for Sufi Muslims in all of central Asia. "The risk of radicalism is growing," confirms Yeugeniy Pastukhov, of the Almaty-based think tank Centre for Political Analysis, which specialises in security issues. A table on his desk shows the steady annual growth of Islamic terrorism-related convictions by the Kazakh authorities since 2009. Will the new Silk Road transport more than just lorries and turn into a highway for radical Islam?
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