Modern Silk Route

Updated: Apr 30 2004, 05:30am hrs
It could well prove to be the ultimate pan-Asian drive at regional integration. India, along with some 10 other Asian countries, including Pakistan, China and Japan signed a historic international agreement earlier this week in Shanghai, which envisages a project linking 32 countries across Asia with Europe via road, rail and ferry. The 1,40,000 km project, which is the initiative of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), was inspired by the example of the European transportation network developed on the basis of some 140 existing treaties. Once completed, the ambitious Asian highway will allow vehicles from Tokyo to travel directly to Istanbul facilitating the flow of people, goods and ideas. In fact, for many of the landlocked countries in the region, it is being seen as a revival of the ancient Silk Route.

However, given that this ambitious project was initiated as far back as 1959 by ESCAP, but slowed down after financial assistance was suspended in 1975 mainly due to financial and political constraints during the Cold War years one pauses to ponder its viability. Revived in 1992 by ESCAP under the revised Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development project, with several more countries joining the original 15 members, including India, much of the work has already been completed or is underway, leaving only another 17 per cent to be implemented. The scheme, therefore, is very much in the realm of the feasible rather than a pie in the sky. All the 32-member countries have agreed in principle on the final text of the agreement, and although only a few have signed it as of now, it can enter into force following ratification by just eight countries. Many of the existing roads are in disrepair, with some 55 highway routes needing urgent upgradation to bring them up to agreed standards. Also, approvals for route plans and amendments, as well as more bilateral or multilateral talks on border-crossing issues, need to be worked out. Clearly, there is a need for sustained political commitment from the participating countries to upgrade and improve regional transport infrastructure, without which any free cross-border transport along the proposed routes would be difficult. Although part of the funds are expected to come from multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, the final tab has still to be worked out. For instance, the development of just one portion, covering Vietnam, China, Mongolia and Russia, is estimated to require some $4 billion. Nevertheless, the pros of the project far outweigh the cons. For one, it would incorporate several inter-regional projects that are already underway such as the Mekong Highway thereby preventing duplication. With the economic landscape in the region poised for significant growth, this highway project could become an important instrument in providing further impetus for regional integration.