The emerging network of economic corridors, enhanced transportation routes, logistics zones, ports, and manufacturing centers which stretch from China to Europe as part of the New Silk Road — variously called the Belt and Road or One Belt One Road — is founded on the premise of countries and companies working together in the pursuit of their individual economic ambitions. Those on the ground they call it coopetition — a portmanteau of cooperation and competition, a neologism created to describe a dynamic where competitors bolster their individual positions by taking actions which ultimately help each other.
“The Silk Road is something that is going to create a win-win situation because it inherently has in itself interdependence,” said Taleh Ziyadov of the New Port of Baku. “All of these hubs, inherently they are competing with each other but … this hub concept is going to integrate closer most of these countries, and we are going to want the others to succeed as well. Because if I have good roads, good rail, good ports, and if Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan or Georgia doesn’t have the same quality of roads, railways, or ports then I’m in trouble.”
A lone special economic zone randomly flung out on the Eurasian steppes is irrelevant if not for the complex network of roads, railways, ports, and other special economic zones which link it into it. The New Silk Road is a network of mutually supporting endeavors where the success or failure of any one project is dependent on the success or failure of many others.
“In the east-west direction [of the Silk Road Economic Belt] there appears to be three competing routes. One is the northern route, one is the central route, and one is the southern route,” Ziyadov began. “But when you look at the capacity, the cake that we all can tap into and take pieces from is so large that there will be enough for all countries along these routes. In our view, it is not really about stealing trade that goes, for example, from China through Russia to Europe; what we are doing is creating further opportunities to attract additional volumes of trade that could be brought into these routes.”
Karl Gheysen, the first CEO of the Khorgos Gateway dry port on Kazakhstan’s remote border with China, echoed this sentiment:
“From a narrow point of view, one could try to argue that there is, or would be competition. But from the overall holistic point of view, this is the creation of something new in logistics. This is a new concept, an entire new market. Volumes will be more than sufficient to support all the stakeholders, and instead of competition this will create even stronger ties, since all projects will become interconnected. And that is what the New Silk Road is all about: interconnectivity.”
This realization has put economic and political pressure on the countries of the New Silk Road to work together in pursuit of their own individual interests. Countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan want to develop beyond mere oil and gas exporters, Europe is grasping at the chance to revive its stagnant economies with improved infrastructure and better access to Asian markets, and China is looking to extend its reach into Western markets for exports, secure supply lines for imports, as well as reap the rewards of added security and influence which results from politically and economically interweaving itself deeper into the fabric of Eurasia.
Examples of this “coopetition” are coming in:
Azerbaijan funded Georgia’s portion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) rail line, and now they will soon have a direct rail connection to Turkey, and the Southern Rail Corridor — which extends through Azerbaijan from China to Europe — can fully go into operation.
The Chinese government heavily subsidizes the rapidly expanding network of China-Europe rail lines, and because of this private companies are jumping in, new dry ports and SEZs are being built, and the Silk Road Economic Belt is coming to life.
Russia is backtracking on its initial resistance to China’s Belt and Road initiative, and now Chinese investment for potentially paradigm-shifting infrastructure projects in Russia is on the verge of pouring in.
In 2009, Greece gave operating control of a portion of their Piraeus port to COSCO, a Chinese shipping company, which eventually led to a sale of controlling interests in the port last year. Since Chinese involvement in the port began, its performance has improved fourfold, as Greece became the main gateway to Europe for big companies like Samsung, HP, and Sony, let alone hundreds of Chinese firms.
After years of painstaking testing and development, in 2012 HP put into service the first China-Europe direct cargo train. This rail line, which crosses the 9,000+ kilometer expanse between Chongqing and Duisburg, initially gave HP a big advantage over their competition. But eventually the company realized that if they wanted to improve on this transportation route — meaning more frequent departures — that they would need to open it up to other companies and, literally, allow their competition to get on board. This is exactly what they did, and now these Europe-bound cargo trains are departing from Chongqing on a daily basis.
Not long ago, the idea that one country would invest billions of dollars into building infrastructure in another country was virtually unheard of. Today, it’s become a standard operating procedure of a deeply interconnected world. Countries are now actually competing with each other for projects like , constructing highways in Thailand, and laying — the very places that not long ago would have been deemed too insecure for such long-term investments. These big infrastructure deals are now seen as international ties of "friendship," binding countries together for the long haul, and serve as a platform for increased political cooperation and trade. They are also extremely difficult ties to get out of — .
This is perhaps what Chinese President Xi Jinping means when he speaks of the “Community of the Same Destiny.”
“This entirety came together in Xi Jinping’s speech at the Shanghai conference in May 2014 where he used the term ‘Community of the Same Destiny,’ which is a new concept of collective security based on joint economic development," said Huang Jing of the National University of Singapore. "That is all One Belt One Road is about. If there is a political dimension, that dimension is to try to find a new way to avoid confrontation, try to find a new way to avoid division in the international community that we all learned in the Cold War years. So it’s trying to create international economic integration, economic interaction with each other, and interdependence to lower the risks of a group of countries [fighting] against another group of countries — to lower the risk of confrontation against the United States.”
As countries from China to Europe pursue their individual economic ambitions many are coming to a similar conclusion that a more interconnected Eurasia is better for everyone, and they are honing in on a similar initiative: the emerging economic network of the New Silk Road.
That’s the theory, anyway.
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