The New Crossroads of Empire (Z Magazine - April 2013)

The New Crossroads of Empire

Railroads build empires.  Beijing is building a new one. China, now a world-class producer of high-speed rail technology, is in the middle of a transportation boom unprecedented in history. 5,800 miles of domestic high-speed rail lines have been built since 2008, at a cost of $640 billion.  Three months ago, just in time for the Chinese New Year, the Ministry of Railways celebrated the opening of their longest route yet, running 1,200 miles between Beijing and Guangzhou, the historic trading center on China’s southeast coast.  In the annual spectacle of movement that was the most recent Chinese New Year—the largest mass-migration on the planet—passengers celebrated the upcoming year of the snake by slithering along the world’s longest high-speed railway at speeds of over 200 miles per hour.[1]  The overland journey from Beijing to Guangzhou, the great route from the mountains to the heartland, now takes only eight hours.

But equally as important is Beijing’s use of high-speed rail as a tool of foreign policy, a part of its twenty-year strategy to Go West and build connections across the Eurasian continent.  In last month’s edition of Z, I touched on the recent growth in relations between China and Turkey, where Chinese companies are in the process of building a railroad across entirety of Turkey’s great east-west breadth, connecting Asia to Europe at 200 mph.  But where Turkey is the future, the start of Beijing’s empire to the west has already been built.

The idea of a railroad has always been the dream for connecting global markets going on two centuries now.  The Trans-Siberian railway, the original Eurasian land bridge from Moscow to the Sea of Japan, was a two-decade project completed by the Russian Tsars in 1916.  In the U.S., railroads settled the west, and when they reached the Pacific, the U.S. moved across the ocean and became an imperial power.   But now the American century is over, and China is taking her turn at the game.  Working with Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company and largest rail company in the world, as well as RZD, a subsidiary of Russian railways, Beijing has for four years now been operating the “Second Eurasian Land Bridge,” as author F. William Engdahl calls it, direct freight rail service from Germany to China.[2]

In October 2008, Norbert Bensel, a top board manager at DB Schenker, the logistics subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn that manages the service, aptly described the new process of industry that was taking place.  “The introduction of the regular timetable and fixed departure times,” he stated, will create  “a new link in our global network” and  “a new level of quality in the trans-continental exchange of goods.”[3]  Heady words, and ones that speak of a great imaginary market coming to life.

Bensel was speaking at the commercial launch of what was then called the Trans-Eurasia expressway, a twice a week, 20 day freight shipping line from Beijing to the German ports of Hamburg, Duisburg, and Nuremburg.  Describing itself as the first regular rail transportation service between Europe and Asia, the line runs from Germany through Poland and Belarus to Russia.  From there, it can either go across the continent on the Trans-Siberian to Manzhouli, on China’s Northeast border, or south through Kazakhstan to Western China. 
Source: The Transport Politic, March 2010.

By October 2011, DB Schenker had the service running five days a week, and a number of major companies had bought into the route. Auto manufacturers like BMW, Audi, and Volkswagen now ship parts overland from their German manufacturing plants to their Chinese assembly plants, and computer companies like HP and Acer ship from their Chinese factories to the European market.  Since 2011, HP has shipped over four million notebook computers from Chongqing to Germany.[4]

Beijing is also developing the factory economy in Western China.  Whereas the Southeast coast had been the major growth market for Chinese factory development in the past, industry is now moving inland and to the west. Chongqing, in Sichuan province, has become a factory boomtown.  During World War II, Chiang Kai-Shek’s government fled to Chongqing, so remote that the Japanese couldn’t get there.  And now, with a municipal population over 13 million, it is  “the world’s biggest city” as Time Magazine put it in 2005.[5]  Two years ago, Beijing created two new Special Economic Zones (SEZs), the free-market economic-framework that has fueled the factory growth along the coast.  But the new SEZs are to be far from the coast, in fact as far from the coast as possible, located in Kashgar on the far western border of Xinjiang.  Beijing plans to invest billions of dollars into the area and provide regulatory and tax breaks as well, aiming to attract domestic and international investment.[6]  Frederick Jackson Turner is not in China, and for the first time since Xinjiang was conquered in the late 18th century it is being industrially developed as a global trading hub.

The other half of Beijing’s Go West strategy is creating overland energy corridors, namely oil and gas pipelines from Iran and the Caspian region.  The developments started in 1997, when Kazakhstan and China agreed to a “project of the century,” with China promising to invest nearly $11 billion in Kazakhstan’s oil infrastructure and pipelines.  Progress, however, was slow, and it took until 2003 for China to begin making waves in Kazakh oil, when the Chinese National Petroleum Company bought 100% of the shares in the Northern Buzachi fields from a Chevron-Saudi consortium.  Since then, Beijing has worked steadily to acquire more production companies in the field, working with Kazakh state owned companies like KazMunaiGaz.  According to the estimates of Kazakh government researcher Konstantin Syroezhkin, by 2012:
China’s share in oil production in Kazakhstan amounts to around 25-27% and in gas production to13-15%. Of course, these figures are far from those with which the Kazakhstani opposition and some deputies “frighten” the Kazakhstanis (40%), but they are quite considerable, particularly if we keep in mind the areas Chinese companies are operating in the country and the fact that the oil and gas sector is the basis of Kazakhstan’s economy and the main contributor of revenue to the budget.[7]
In order to transport the oil to China, a Western Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline was also agreed to in 2003. Within a year construction on the first phase had begun, and by 2005 a pipeline to the Kazakh-Chinese border was complete, at a cost of over $800 million.  In July 2006, a mark of great geopolitical significance was reached, as an oil refinery in the city of Dushanzi, located hallway between the border and Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, received China’s first-ever overland imports of oil.[8]  Construction began on the second phase of the Kazakh pipeline in 2009, and again within 2 years the project was complete.  Throughput of the overall pipeline network, which started at 10 million tons of crude oil per year, was expected to reach 20 million tons in 2012 and 50 million tons in 2020.[9]

A second pipeline, for transporting natural gas, has also been constructed, running from fields in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Khorgos, at the southern end of the Kazakh-Chinese border.  The first stage of this pipeline, built over two years and finished in 2009, runs from the Uzbek-Kazakh border through Shykment to Khorgos. With a throughput capacity of 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas, the pipeline covered a distance of 1,333 km, and came at a cost of $7.5 billion.[10]  A second phase within Kazakhstan has been planned as well, running from the Caspian Sea to Shykment.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have also worked closely with the Chinese on energy deals.  The China-Uzbekistan relationship was solidified in 2005, when the Uzbek President visited Beijing and signed agreements for the Chinese government to invest in Uzbek energy resources.  By 2010, the Uzbek section of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline was complete, and agreements had been signed to export 10 bcm per year of Uzbek gas to China, with plans to increase this by 25 bcm.  This figure, however, is a drop in the oil drum compared to imports from Turkmenistan.  Beijing has agreements with Turkmenistan to import upwards of 40 bcm of gas per year, and at dirt-cheap prices, making China by far the largest investor in Turkmenistan’s gas sector. 

A 2009 meeting in the remote Turkmeni desert symbolized the new petroleum reality in Central Asia, with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kazakh President Nursaltan Nazarbayev all convening with their Turkmeni colleague to inaugurate the new gas pipeline.  “The whole world is watching us right now,” Hu stated.[11]   And once can be sure that Washington was watching when the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (for real) visited Beijing in November 2011 and agreed to increase gas exports to China by 25 bcm per year.  Soon, the total gas trade between the two states will be 65 bcm per year, half of China’s total gas consumption.[12]


While China is building her industrial connection to the west, the U.S. has been establishing its own attempt at a trans-continental transport network as well.  Known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and operated by the Pentagon’s Transportation Command, it has been pieced together since 2009 to supply troops, weapons, and supplies for the war effort in Afghanistan.

One main path starts in the Latvian port of Riga, on the Baltic Sea.  From there it travels by rail through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to Termez, on the Afghan border.  Another path starts in the Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti and runs across the Caucasus to Baku, on the Caspian Sea.  It then goes through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and meets up with the first path in Termez.  Sounds like a log jam?  It is.  The NDN is not an efficient method of transport—“to Afghanistan, on the slow train,"—as CNN put it.  As of November 2011, the rail trip from the Riga to Afghanistan takes about 10 days.  This seems to be a best-case scenario however, as many reports have stated that it can take up to 35 days for goods to cross the Uzbek-Afghan border, due to myriad problems related to congestion and corruption.  This touches on the larger problem of the network, namely that it requires the consent of the corrupt and dictatorial governments of the region.

Consider the case of Uzbekistan, the most populous state in Central Asia and one ruled with an iron fist by Islam Karimov since 1989.  Karimov is of the Saddam Hussein mold of dictator, a former Soviet secret policeman obsessed with power and violence, famous for boiling prisoners alive.  And like Iraq, Uzbekistan is flush with resources, namely gas, copper, uranium, and gold.  After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1992, Karimov played Washington's imperial expansion game, signing up for NATO military training programs like the Partnership for Peace.  Then, after 9/11, it took Uzbekistan barely one month to agree to host a U.S. military base at Khanabad airport.  Within a week of the base opening in October 2001, more than 60 planes had dropped off supplies and 1,200 soldiers were on the ground, primarily light infantry troops from Fort Drum’s tenth mountain division, the first U.S. soldiers to ever be deployed to former Soviet territory.  

Months later, Kyrgyzstan followed suit, and allowed the U.S. military to use the Manas International Airport, located on the outskirts of the capital city of Bishkek.  Within months, Air Force engineers had built a thirty-acre compound at Manas, the equivalent of six city blocks, to house 3,000 personnel.  Located 7,000 miles away from Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, Manas is less than 300 miles from the Chinese border.

Here, it is worth quoting at length from a remarkable article, “Footprints in Steppes of Central Asia,” written from Bishkek by Vernon Loeb and published in the February 9th, 2002 edition of the Washington Post:
In a remote corner of Central Asia in a country that didn't even exist a decade ago, the U.S. Air Force is building a base that within months will be home to 3,000 personnel and nearly two dozen American and allied aircraft.  While the intensity of the war in Afghanistan has slowed, the base going up outside Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, tells a much different story. It embodies what senior U.S. defense officials say is a major commitment to maintain not just air operations over Afghanistan for the foreseeable future but also a robust military presence in the region well after the war.
Just how long the United States plans to remain is anyone's guess. Senior military officials say they have no plans for a permanent American presence. But if the construction here at Manas International Airport is any indication, the Pentagon, rather than searching for an exit strategy for Afghanistan, is focusing on the opposite: establishing a foothold…
"America will have a continuing interest and presence in Central Asia of a kind that we could not have dreamed of before," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday…
All told, more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel now live and work on ships and bases stretching from Turkey to Oman and eastward to the Manas airport, 19 miles outside of Bishkek and 300 miles from the Chinese border.  "The imperial perimeter is expanding into Central Asia," Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, wrote in a recent e-mail circulated among leading military analysts.

The full article is an amazing read on the bellicose optimism of American policy makers in the wake of September 11th.  Central Asia had been conquered, the war in Afghanistan would soon be over, and Iraq was next in line.  But in a sign of the peril that expanding your "imperial perimeter" brings, relations with Uzbekistan soon turned sour.  In the summer of 2005, after Karimov's security forces massacred hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijon, U.S. and other international officials began making calls for a judicial inquiry.  Angered at this, and distrustful of the U.S. due to the recent "color revolutions" Washington had sponsored in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, Karimov kicked the Pentagon out of Khanabad.

Now, with the growing importance of the Northern Distribution Network, the U.S. has been crawling back to Karimov in order for him to open up his borders for U.S. military transit.  In late 2011, Washington lifted the last of the arms-sales restrictions placed on Uzbekistan following the Andijon incident.  More importantly, after an official visit to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in November, Army Lt. General James L Brooks stated that transferring leftover or old U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan was one of the key points of discussion. "I think that there are ways that the excess equipment could benefit both countries, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, with the excess of US equipment from the war," he was quoted as saying.[13]

Although it is ethically troublesome for the U.S. to kowtow to such an oppressive government, it is simply a sign of the times.  Pentagon aid to NDN states, authorized in the yearly Defense Authorization Act, has increased from $1.2 billion in 2008 to $1.6 billion in 2010 and $1.69 in 2011.  Uzbekistan, as the hub of the NDN operations, receives the lion share of these funds.  In fact, in 2010 the U.S. added sweeping new language to section 1233 of the annual Defense Authorization Bill, setting the stage for untempered military aid to the region.  Now, “key cooperating nations,” working in support of the war effort would be given “specialized training”, “supplies”, and “specialized equipment.”  Moreover, it was all to be a gift, provided on a “non-reimbursable basis.”[14]  Trucks, spare parts, weapons, night-vision goggles; it is all being provided by Washington (and London), easier to leave behind than ship out.  With the U.S. led forces planning to retreat hightail out of Afghanistan after realizing that the country cannot be occupied, the dictators and autocrats have the upper hand and are demanding the world.  The U.S. is enabling region-wide corruption for the purpose of propping up a corrupt Karzai government in Afghanistan.
Source: MoveOne Logistics
Disregarding the logistical and ethical problems, the entire effort is not a sustainable plan, as it is a true fact that the U.S. will soon remove all its “combat” soldiers from Afghanistan.  What Washington hopes to maintain is a Status of Forces Agreement and a small permanent base of some 20,000 “non-combat” soldiers; whether the Afghans will allow this is a different story.  But regardless, why develop such an extensive military supply network? For the U.S. State Department, the NDN is the first step in creating what they term a "New Silk Road", with Afghanistan serving as the heart of a Pentagon controlled Eurasian network.  In November 2012, Dennise Mathieu, a former Ambassador to Nigeria and top State Department advisor to Transportation Command, laid the U.S. strategy out: “Eventually, with continued cooperation, they will be able to go all the way from China into Europe…You will have a whole new economic network, built upon the foundation of this military logistics supply network.”[15] 

Hilariously, the State Department is also still pining for the famed TAPI pipeline, connecting Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.  Dreamt up in the 1990s, TAPI has approached the territory of conspiratorial legend—the great pipeline behind the invasion of Afghanistan—except for the fact that the State Department is still talking about it.  But as the war continues into its 12th year, construction on the pipeline has still not begun.  And in the meantime, Turkmenistan found its energy patron in China.  Highlighted here is the true difference between U.S. and Chinese foreign policy.  While China has embraced industrial development, the U.S. has focused exclusively on the sword.  Just read the above quote from Ambassador Mathieu again.  The Pentagon military network will be the foundation of a new Eurasia?  It is laughable, but the same idea has driven U.S. policy around the globe, from Columbia to Iraq to the Philippines. 


China’s current policy of Going West, and expanding their economic influence into western Eurasia—Central Asia, the Middle East, and eventually Western Europe—is rooted in Beijing’s keen reading of the last 20 years of history.  Economically, they watched the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the reality of Western-backed free-market “shock therapy” being imposed on a nation of 150 million, and decided a different path was needed.  Beijing wants stability, not shock.  Militarily, they watched the U.S. follow the Cheney plan of imperial expansion and privatization, fighting wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, all at a huge cost to the U.S. economic balance sheet and public support.  In contrast, China’s military still does not have any overt foreign bases.  In 2009, when a Chinese official suggested that the People’s Liberation Army was thinking of building their very first overseas military base, in the Red Sea area, the idea was quickly denied, and no base was ever constructed.

Currently, Beijing seems to be happy letting U.S. soldiers protect China’s foreign investments, which more and more is the effective purpose of the American military.  China is now the largest investor in the Iraqi oil sector, as well as making the largest investment in the history of Afghanistan, a $7 billion Copper Mine contract.  In Central Asia and the energy rich Caspian Basin, which U.S. strategists have tried to control since the George H.W. Bush Administration, China has built oil and gas pipelines to their Western province of Xinjiang.  The arid mountains of Uzbekistan, where the China-Central Asia gas pipeline intersects with NATO’s supply route for the Afghanistan War, are the new crossroads of empire.  While Washington strategists dream about ending the war by turning the supply route into a Pentagon-designed “New Silk Road” in the region, Beijing has built their own “New Silk Road.”  As Zbigniew Brzezinski feared, the vassals are now independent and the barbarians have come together, resulting in an economic conquering of Eurasia. 

Turkey is the newest and perhaps largest key to this new political order. To put it bluntly, if China can steal Ankara from under NATO's nose, they will have won the geopolitical Great Game. The "Pan-Turkic world" dreamt up as a NATO sword striking into China will have instead been flipped into a new silk road for the benefit of a China dominated Asia. Herein lies the failure of U.S. Post Cold War global strategy, what the Pentagon calls an attempt at "Full Spectrum Dominance." After spending the last two decades pouring money into militarizing Central Asia, the U.S. is now seeing their influence slip away as China rushes in with industrial development.  And now Turkey, a NATO member since the beginning of the Cold War, could go the same way.  

The last the 40 years of U.S. foreign policy have been devoted to gaining hegemony over the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  U.S. leaders have made this an entirely military project, fighting multiple wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan and constructing hundreds upon hundreds of military bases and installations.  But within a decade, China implemented an economic strategy and trumped the U.S. attempt.  Political leaders across Eurasia are beginning to disregard the longstanding U.S. policy of gunboat diplomacy—using arms sales and military threats to control international economic and geopolitical policies.  The guns are still there, but the resources and industrial infrastructure is being developed and controlled by China.  To go back to the beginning, here is the reasoning behind the CFR's thesis that the U.S. needs a "new strategic partnership" with Turkey.   Sitting in New York City and Washington, they see a Turkey that is having it both ways, forging an independent path using both the American military machine and the Chinese economic model. Now the question becomes whether the CFR and its associated think-tank warriors will tolerate this independence, or if they want Ankara exclusively to themselves.  For it is not as if Turkey is spurning U.S. military advances.  In terms of NATO, Syria, and Missile Defense, Turkey has been a willing partner in American war making.  However, it may be that this is not enough.  A battle of grand strategy is taking place in the heartland of the world, and the U.S. plans seem to be falling to pieces.


Whether the Chinese people are benefitting from these developments is a different question altogether, and one that cannot be fully examined in this space.  Corruption and scandals have plagued the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party as of late, and top leaders have been exposed as amassing giant fortunes from grift.  In 2011, Liu Zhijun, railroad minister for eight years, was dramatically fired from his post, accused of netting $152 million in bribes.  One wonders if China’s high-speed railroad boom will be a repeat of the Gilded Age, the famous phrase used in 1873 by Mark Twain to describe the veneer of conspicuous wealth associated with the U.S. westward expansion.  However, perhaps there is also a Eugene Debs or Jane Addams or William Jennings Bryan somewhere in China, someone willing to work for radical change and reform in the face of moneyed industrialization.  Will the Communist Party allow them to speak?  With such vast geopolitical shifts occurring, the moment is ripe for action on both sides of the equation.  As fast as freight and oil crosses the continent, people and ideas can move faster.  And while a move away from war and militarization in favor of industrialization should be applauded, there is no joy in seeing one form of imperialism replaced by another.

[1] “China Opens Longest High-Speed Rail Line,” Keith Bradshar, New York Times, Dec. 26th, 2012.
[2] F. William Engdahl, “China’s Land Bridge to Turkey Creates New Eurasian Geopolitical Potentials,” April 28th, 2012. Available at:
[3] “Trans-Eurasia Express to Launch next year,” Railway Gazette, Oct. 6th, 2008.
[4] “The Silk Railroad of China-Europe Trade,” Bloomberg Business Week, Dec. 20th 2012.
[5] “China: the worlds largest city,” Time Magazine, April 18th, 2005.
[6] “Xinjiang to set up two special economic zones in 2011,” Peoples Daily, Feb. 14th, 2011.
[7] “Chinas presence in the energy sector of Central Asia,” Konstantin Syroezhkin, Central Asia and the Caucasus (Sweden), Jan. 2012.
[8] “Crude Oil Imports Reach PetroChina Dushanzi Refinery via China-Kazakhstan Pipeline,” PetroChina Press Release, 7/29/06.
[9] “Chinas presence in the energy sector of Central Asia,” Syroezkhin.
[10] Ibid.
[11] “China extends influence into Central Asia with Pipeline,” Reuters, Dec. 14th, 2009.
[12] “Turkmenistan to increase China gas supply by 25 bcm,” Reuters, 11/23/11.
[13] Dierdre Tynan, “Uzbekistan: U.S. Mulls giving military equipment to Tashkent,”, Dec. 15, 2011.
[14] National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, Sec. 1233.
[15] “Afghanistan Supply Route Provides Economic Opportunity,” Nov. 28th, 2012,

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