Keystone Countries: What The New Silk Road Is All About

The Silk Road is about the countries in the middle. Always has been, always will be.

The projects of the New Silk Road are like pieces of a puzzle scattered across a clutter-filled room. You see some here, some there, but they mean very little in and of themselves. On their own, they range from moderately impressive works of engineering to mystifying, newfangled dreams of development — why are obscure resource-dependent nations building massive transport and manufacturing hubs in the middle of the desert or bulk cargo ports peaking out of the jungle? It’s only when we start to put the pieces together can we start to see the much larger picture … and that is when things start getting interesting.

The New Silk Road is a network — a network of various initiatives being blended together into a new economic grid that spans the entirety of the Eurasian landmass. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) intersects with India and Russia's North-South Transport Corridor, which connects with Europe's TRACECA corridor, which will complement Japan and India's Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and the nascent US-driven Blue Dot Network, which will be bolstered by the plethora of “unbranded” endeavors led by the big international development banks, national and local governments, and players like Japan, Russia, and Turkey.

What we're looking at is an array of diverse economies and political systems that stretch from East Asia to Western Europe and contain 65% of the world’s population, 75% of known energy resources, and 40% of global GDP being same-paged as they move towards very similar goals. Ultimately, roads know no nationality, and elements of many of these initiatives will overlap, serving as as tributaries flowing into the vast undertaking known as the New Silk Road.

While we often speak of the New Silk Road in terms of end-to-end shipments — from China to Europe, for example — it is actually the countries that make up the interior regions that stand to be impacted the most. The nations of the South Caucasus, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe are currently in rapid transition as they move from being under-developed backwaters to the new focus points of the next phase of globalization.

Silk Road development is also central to the plans of many of these centrally positioned countries. For Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Oman, the NSR provides an opportunity to develop their non-oil sectors and bolster their claims for political legitimacy. For Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, it means a chance to get out from under India’s political umbrella and the opportunity to develop their transport infrastructure, industry, and attract foreign investment. For Georgia, it means a bid at international relevance as a manufacturing hub in the geographic heart of Eurasia. For Poland, it's the chance to be a gateway between the EU and China.

These are countries that have traditionally been ruled over and dominated by more powerful political entities who are now pushing back against these historic allegiances as they engage with countries on both ends of the geopolitical spectrum. They are selling ports to China, building roads with the World Bank, extracting natural resources with Russia, creating logistics zones with Dubai, developing special economic zones with Japan, and giving oil rights to companies from the UK. They market themselves as neutral territory, as friendly to all but aligned with none.

Dubbed the multi-vector strategy, the goal is to balance the influence of the big powers of the world -- the USA, Russia, China, Japan, India, the EU -- against each other through creating a competitive dynamic on the playing field of their own territory. I.e. If Japan doesn’t build Bangladesh a new port, China will; if China makes big investments in Kazakhstan, Russia is going to feel pressure to follow suit; if China makes a big wager on Sri Lanka, India is going to feel oblidged to ante up. Rather than being aligned with a single ally or patron state, these nations in the middle suck in investment from all sides, creating a situation where China, India, Japan, Russia, and the USA must compete against each other by providing loans, FDI, aid, manufacturing capacity, technical know-how, and trade in exchange for influence.

Fading fast are the days where South Asia is overruled by India, where Central Asia is the domain of Russia, and where the eastern realms of Europe are only looking west for support and economic sustenance. There are new players in town and a new game being played, where traditional alliances, similar culture, and congruent political and economic systems are mattering less and the amount of investment on the table more. This leads to an interesting form of independence and leverage for these less powerful, traditionally bullied countries in the core of Eurasia, as they are suddenly no longer backwaters but front and center in the new Great Game — and in the process become geopolitical buffer zones, the keystones holding the New Silk Road together.