Paving the Silk Road

By Cohen, Ariel | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Paving the Silk Road


Cohen, Ariel, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Central Asia and the Caucasus have become a focus of American foreign policy, and with good reason. This region stands to play a strategic role in developing the Silk Road - the cross-continental trade route between the far East and Central Asia, and Europe and the Middle east. The strategic implications of the Caucasus, a nexus between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, are complicated by a host of political, ethnic, and religious tensions. But the main threat to the development of the new Silk Road, an engine of regional economic growth, is posed by a potential wave of ethnic conflicts in failing states, militant Islamic involvement, and the potentially anti-Western policies of regional powers like China, Russia, and Iran.

Text:

US Interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Central Asia and the Caucasus have become a focus of American foreign policy, and with good reason. This region stands to play a strategic role in developing the Silk Road-the cross-continental trade route between the Far East and Central Asia, and Europe and the Middle East. The strategic implications of the Caucasus, a nexus between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, are complicated by a host of political, ethnic, and religious tensions. The Caucasus is home to three post-communist states: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In addition, the northern Caucasus, which is part of the Russian Federation and includes Chechnya and other autonomous republics, has become a cauldron of ethnic tension. Russian control in the northern Caucasus is challenged by nationalists and Islamic militants, some of whom dream of a united Muslim state stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. New players, such as China, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, are now assuming a more prominent role. Militant Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise.

But the main threat to the development of the new Silk Road, an engine of regional economic growth, is posed by a potential wave of ethnic conflicts in failing states, poverty, militant Islamic involvement, and the potentially anti-Western policies of regional powers like China, Russia, and Iran.

There is also a clear danger of US policy entanglements in the Caucasus. With the route for Caspian oil, from the Aspheron peninsula to Novorossiysk, seriously endangered by a Russian-Chechen war, the United States must secure its priorities by developing an East-West axis of American allies-Georgia and Azerbaijan--thus keeping Armenia from becoming a junior partner in a Russian-Iranian condominium and reaching out to the states of Central Asia.

US interests in the Caucasus are fivefold. The first is to assure independence and territorial integrity for Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as in the five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The second is to keep Iran in check until more pro-Western policies are pursued by Tehran or a new regime is established. The third is to defuse the violent and anti-Western potential of Islamic fundamentalism through economic growth and to shore up civil society throughout the region. The last two policy priorities of the United States are to prevent destabilization in the Caucasus, especially the northern Caucasus, and to ensure access to energy resources throughout the entire region.

Energized Concerns

Central Asia abounds with natural resources. While the Caspian Sea basin is a repository of oil and natural gas reserves comparable to those of the North Sea, the southern Caucasus harbors major oil and gas pipelines, bringing the energy resources of the region to global markets. Oil and gas reserves are valued in the hundreds of billions of dollar and will require many billions more to develop them further.

Oil usually flows along the cheapest and shortest route. In the case of the Caspian, it could be the Georgian port of Supsa, or Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf, such as the Kharg Island terminal.

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