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Transsib and the Silk Road: where parallels intersect

It is necessary not to oppose each other to the Trans-Siberian and Silk Roads (there will be enough cargo for everyone), but to develop an optimal scheme for their interaction in order to minimize transport costs and rational freight traffic in the colossal Eurasian space

The Institute of Economics and Industrial Engineering of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences published the "ECO" magazine, known and recognized in the scientific world, from the year 1970. Several issues of this journal in recent years have been devoted entirely to the development of the Far East. On the eve of the Eastern Economic Forum, the IEIOPE SB RAS decided to compile the best publications on these topics in the book. Readers of IA Eastrussia have a unique opportunity to get acquainted with some of the texts of the publication within the framework of the joint project "ECO - Far East". The author of the material is Leonid Bezrukov, doctor of geographical sciences, V.B. Sochava of the SB RAS (Irkutsk).

Transsib and the Silk Road: where parallels intersect
Photo: shutterstock
In the current climate of sharp cooling of relations with the countries of the European Union (EU), the United States and its allies, which threatens national security, the top leadership of Russia proclaimed a course to turn a significant part of international economic ties eastwards, primarily to the countries of the Asia-Pacific region (APR) . However, in the opinion of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, it should not be about "reorienting" existing ties, but about "activating" cooperation on the "eastern direction". This government course assigns a large role to Siberia and the Far East, which are regarded primarily as a spatial bridgehead necessary for the extraction, transit and export of raw materials.

Special hopes are attached to the development and strengthening of cooperation with our neighbor China, a powerful and growing trade and economic superpower. However, some of the declared areas of this cooperation raise certain concerns. Alertness of Russian experts was met, for example, by the project of the "Economic belt of the Silk Road", proposed by the Chinese side. Many experts saw in the draft of this "economic belt" China's desire to squeeze Russia out of Central Asia and take under "soft" control a large part of the vast Eurasian space. There are sharp questions about the emergence of serious competition of the Chinese transport mega-project to the Russian national transit transport arteries - the Trans-Siberian Railway (Trans-Siberian Railway) and the Northern Sea Route (Sevmorputi).

The problem of formation of the Great Silk Road is comprehensively considered now at various levels. However, there is still no complete clarity with the choice of specific routes. In the official government concept of the "Economic belt of the Silk Road and the Silk Road of the XXI century" from 28 March 2015, published with the sanction of the State Council of China, about the land routes said in the most general form. Meanwhile, the prospects for transit traffic through Russia and even the development of its eastern regions largely depend on their choice.

As can be judged by competent domestic and foreign sources, for the international transit transit between Europe and Asia, except for sea routes, four transport corridors are of primary importance. The leading role among them is played by the Transsib, formed more than 100 years ago, which passes through the territory of Russia along the route from Moscow to Vladivostok with the length of 9 300 km. In the western direction, this corridor opens up to the domestic seaports, primarily the Baltic Sea ports (St. Petersburg, etc.), as well as to the countries of Western Europe, up to the largest Dutch ports (Rotterdam / Amsterdam). In the eastward direction, the corridor has access to the network of railways in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China and the DPRK, ending at the present time with domestic ports of the Sea of ​​Japan (Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Vostochny and others) that link up with the Transsib.

In the long term, the transit potential of the corridor can be significantly strengthened due, firstly, through the DPRK through the Republic of Korea (Seoul / Pusan) via the restoration of the Trans-Korean Railway; Secondly, the connection with Japan (Tokyo / Yokohama) through the continuation of the railway along Sakhalin and Hokkaido with the construction of tunnels (or bridges) across the straits.

Transsib - one of the most powerful land transport arteries of the world. The highway is a two-way electrified railway line, equipped with sophisticated information and communication media. Another advantage of Transsib is that up to the most western borders of Russia it passes through the territory of one country, i.e. without crossing state borders, a corresponding slowdown and increase in the cost of transportation, political risks, etc. The capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railway is estimated by annual traffic volume 100 million tons of cargo, including up to 250 – 300 thousand international transit containers in 20-foot equivalent. At present, the carrying capacity of the highway is nearing exhaustion, which indicates the need for its radical modernization.

From the railway routes, the Northern Corridor (route) of the Silk Road may become the main competitor for the Trans-Siberian Railway in transit traffic in the near future. The east of the main line is the Chinese port of Lianyungang on the Yellow Sea. The highway crosses the territory of China (Xi'an, Lanzhou, Urumqi) and Kazakhstan (Dostyk, Aktogai, Astana), connecting Petropavlovsk with the southern passage of the Trans-Siberian Railway, going through Kurgan to Russia and further to Europe. The technical condition of the Northern Corridor of the Silk Road is still significantly inferior to Transsib, but the total length of the route “from sea to sea” is about a thousand kilometers less: the distance along Transsib from Vladivostok to Rotterdam is 11,8 thousand km, and along the Silk route from Lianyungang to Rotterdam - 10,8 thousand km

The southern corridor (turn) of the Silk Road, also starting in Lianyungang, provides an independent route to Europe from Trans-Siberian Railway. Separated from the Northern Corridor in Kazakhstan (Aktogay), this highway passes through Kazakhstan (Alma-Ata), Uzbekistan (Tashkent), Turkmenistan (Sarakhs), Iran (Tehran), Turkey (Istanbul), then through five or six countries of Europe to the Netherlands ports. The southern course plays a large role for the countries of Central Asia and Iran, but it is inconvenient for transit traffic between Western Europe and East Asia, both because of its large length (approximately around 13 thousand km) and due to the obvious problems of crossing too many countries with unstable political regimes and various technical characteristics of railways.

The TRACECA Corridor (Europe - the Caucasus - Asia), separated from the Southern Silk Road in Turkmenistan, goes through Ashgabat, the Caspian Sea (Turkmenbashi ferry - Baku), Tbilisi, the Black Sea (Poti ferry - Burgas, Varna, Constanta or Odessa / Illichivsk), further through four – six countries of Europe to the Netherlands ports. This corridor is complex in many respects: instability of political regimes in a number of countries, the use of ferry communications across the Caspian and Black Seas, the crossing of 10 – 12 borders with countries with different railway widths and specific transport and customs regulations, the presence of mountain sections with limited speed of trains and etc. Although the total length of the route - 12,1 thousand km - slightly exceeds that of the Trans-Siberian Railway, TRACECA cannot compete with the latter (as well as the Northern x ode of the Silk Road) in transit traffic, but, nevertheless, has a certain regional significance for the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The TRACECA corridor, which is being promoted by the EU and the USA, considering it as an important part of the American geopolitical project, is aimed at turning the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus towards Europe and isolating Russia.

Assessing the considered transport corridors as the frame elements of the global infrastructure of Eurasia, in the very first approximation it is appropriate to note the following. First, the Silk Road Southern Corridor and the TRACECA Corridor objectively cannot act as full-fledged competitors for Trans-Sib in transit traffic both for the above reasons and due to the remote mismatch of the main cargo-forming areas (southern corridors pass through East, Central and South-West Asia and Balkans, and Transsib - much more to the north).

Secondly, the Northern Corridor of the Silk Road, being considered the main competitor of the Transsib, is not bypassing Russia at all, but also over a considerable distance (2,7 thousand km) through its territory (the Urals, the Volga region and the Center). If the share of Russia in the total length of the Trans-Siberian corridor from Vladivostok to Rotterdam is almost 83%, then the Northern Corridor is 25%. It turns out that Russia remains not only a transit country, receiving profit for transit, but also a key partner of the Silk Road. To an even greater extent, almost half of the length of the Northern Corridor (49%) refers to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEA) as a whole, which, apart from Russia, includes Kazakhstan and Belarus, which are crossed by this corridor.

Thirdly, the threat of loss of a part of transit by the Trans-Siberian Railway and, especially, the Northern Sea Route, looks insufficiently justified, since it is still small now. The volume of transit on the Northern Sea Route reached in recent years is still hundreds of times less than the corresponding volume passing through the Suez Canal. Mass transit of goods to the Trans-Siberian Railway can only be expected after its railway connection with Korea and Japan, which is real, of course, in the longer term. Taking into account the total length, the Transsiberian Corridor will be more competitive than the Northern Silk Way, for transit cargo originating not only from Korea and Japan, but also from the North-Eastern part of China (for example, from the Tianjin-Beijing-Ulan-Bator-Ulan -Ude and Dalian-Harbin-Zabaikalsk-Chita). It is necessary not to oppose each other to the Trans-Siberian and Silk Roads (there will be enough cargo for everyone), but to develop an optimal scheme for their interaction in order to minimize transport costs and rational freight traffic in the colossal Eurasian space. If Russia, in accordance with its geographical location, controls the transport and economic ties of the northern part of Eurasia, then China is more of its southern part.

For all the importance of international transport corridors, a key role in the transit between East Asia and Western Europe is currently played by sea routes that provide up to 98-99% of the corresponding transport of goods. The overwhelming majority of them go along the Southern sea route through the Suez Canal, the smaller - along the deep-sea route around Africa (supertankers and ships with deadweight exceeding the permissible in the Suez Canal), quite insignificant - along the route of the Northern Sea Route. Let us emphasize that the official government concept of the PRC under the "sea Silk Road of the XXI century" implies sea routes through the Suez Canal and around Africa.

The reason for the undivided dominance of maritime transport over land is in the clear technical and economic advantage of maritime transport over the more costly land: according to our calculations, the freight rates of maritime transport are ten times lower than the average income rates of freight rail transport in developed countries. As a result, land transit compared to the sea from East Asia to Western Europe remains economically uncompetitive, that is, the cost of transportation by long-distance sea is objectively significantly lower than the more high-speed land options.

Nevertheless, a significant part of transit container cargo that requires high-speed transportation can cross the international Eurasian railway corridors. On the one hand, this transition will be determined by the pace of progressive shifts in the railway transport itself, primarily by the pace of its superhighway development due to the introduction of new technologies (trestle execution, magnetic cushion trains, aero-stackage transport, etc.). On the other hand, the growth of land transit is also associated with the trends of increasing difficulties and risks in maritime traffic (the appearance of natural limits in the further growth of the size of ships due to restrictions on the passage of canals and straits, the destabilization of major routes by pirates, the threat of blocking major routes in the event of military conflicts etc.).

The primary goal of the transport corridor is a significant reduction in tariffs and the cost of transportation along the railways, which is necessary for the economic "approximation" of the inland regions of Russia, China, Kazakhstan and other countries to the leading centers and key markets of the world, sea and ocean ports.

In domestic publications that consider the competitiveness of the Transsib in comparison with the land variants of the Silk Road, the transit function of these international Eurasian corridors, that is, their ability to provide transit transit between East Asia and Western Europe, is at the forefront. But revenues from transit traffic will not significantly affect the Russian economy. The same can be said about the Chinese economy, whereas for Kazakhstan these incomes will, of course, have a more significant significance.

Transcontinental corridors through Eurasia are certainly needed, but the very emphasis on international transit traffic does not always seem to be paramount. The primary task is a significant reduction in tariffs and the cost of transportation on railways, which is necessary for the economic “approach” of the inland regions of Russia, China, Kazakhstan and other countries to the leading centers and key markets of the world, sea and ocean ports. In other words, the corridor in question should not only serve the purposes of organizing transit transportation, but also become, above all, a belt of closer economic consolidation and economic development of the adjacent deep territories.

Indeed, the adjacent areas of Russia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Central Asian countries are connected not so much by the similarity of the ethnic composition of the population, the proximity of economic specialization or the uniformity of the historical path of development, rather than the specificity of their economic and geographical situation. These regions unite in the first place such a common feature of them as the intracontinental position in the depths of the Eurasian continent at a great distance from the ice-free seas and oceans. According to our transport-geographical zoning, in Russia the ultracontinental zone (over 1000 km from the sea) includes Siberia, the Urals and partly the Volga region; in China - Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Tibet, in part Shaanxi and Sichuan; the territory of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the countries of Central Asia - almost completely. To the north-west of Urumqi, the administrative center of Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region of China, is the most remote point of land on the Earth (over 2,5 thousand km).

The factor of deep inland position and giant land distances, which determines the increased level of transport costs, has, as a rule, an unfavorable impact on the economy, making it difficult to participate in the international and interdistrict division of labor. When interacting with the world market, inland producers and exporters, in view of the need to compensate for their own increased transport costs, receive much lower incomes than in the coastal markets. However, only in this case the goods from the inland country (region) can compete in price with the goods from the coastal country (area). When importing the same goods from the world market, they will cost for intracontinental consumers at prices significantly exceeding the prices of coastal consumers. Thus, profound differences in the degree of continentality determine fundamentally unequal levels of transport costs in continental and oceanic countries and regions, which form a tangible difference in the prices of goods and incomes of the respective producers and consumers.

The consequences of these processes are a slowdown in economic growth and a decrease in the standard of living of the population of the ultracontinental zones in comparison with the coastal zones, since the mechanism of "overflowing" the mass of the surplus product from the continental countries to the oceanic (in the process of the international division of labor) and partly from the deep regions to the coastal in the process of inter-district division of labor) ... It is known about the strong influence of the internal situation of Siberia on the decline in the efficiency of its economy, the life of the population. The transport and economic problems of the countries of Central Asia - Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, etc., deprived of access to the sea and belonging to the number of the poorest countries of the world, are well known and understandable.

Very sharp interregional socio-economic contrasts and disproportions of the "continental-coastal" genesis are typical for China. Until now, the huge intramaterial spaces of the western and middle parts of the country (Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, etc.) remain relatively sparsely populated and poorly developed. If the policy of accelerated industrial development and increasing the export potential of the coastal eastern regions has brought phenomenally positive results, then backward semi-natural agriculture, the fragmentation of the national market, the weakness of inter-regional and external economic ties are still characteristic of the deep ultrancontinental areas of the west of the PRC.

Despite the active state policy of equalization of territorial socio-economic differentiation, the gap in the level of per capita income between the coastal provinces and inland provinces and autonomous regions is not decreasing. The sharp lag in the standard of living of the population of the ultracontinental regions from the seaside areas turned into an acute domestic political problem in China, has become a valid additional reason for separating ethnic separatism in autonomous regions (especially in Tibet and Xinjiang).

The increased level of transport costs and large transport capacity of the economy of countries and regions remote from the sea account for a significant part of their general economic difficulties. In order to reduce the costly burden of expensive land transportation, it is primarily necessary to orient the ultracultinal countries and regions to exchange products primarily with their neighbors, i.e., near intra-district and inter-regional economic ties, with a certain restriction of less effective long-distance ones, providing in general terms self-sufficient development and formation of a capacious internal market, the consolidation of the territorial division of labor, the organization of the economy on a district basis and the principles of an economy the maintenance of a relatively low level of transport tariffs and the main line of transport, the formation of linear-territorial systems of productive forces along major transport routes and the rapprochement of leading centers among themselves, and so on.

On the basis of the methods and techniques of organizing economic activities that are adaptive to the ultracontinental position, the creation of transcontinental Eurasian transport corridors should be considered a potentially powerful means of further transport majolization. An example of such a superhighway to a certain extent is the Transsib. From this point of view, the intensification of cross-border economic cooperation of adjacent regions of Russia, China, Kazakhstan and other countries in the zones of influence of transport corridors should be considered a promising direction to alleviate the disadvantageous consequences of their intra-continental position.

The essence of this direction is the economic interaction and complementarity of the internal neighboring areas of Eurasia and their mutually conditioned development. An exceptionally large role in the growth of urban settlements of the main transport highways is due to the fact that transportation by them is several times, and sometimes tens of times cheaper than the rest of the network. Therefore, the zones of direct influence of transport corridors bear the least transportation costs and have the best opportunities for development and growth. At the same time, due to optimization of economic ties, it is possible to reduce the average transportation distance and thereby reduce transport costs. Consequently, cross-border economic interaction based on the common transport and communication infrastructure can bring a very big effect.

In the first approximation, we estimate the demographic (and, to some extent, correlated with it, economic) potential of the ultracontinental zones of Russia, China and Kazakhstan, which gravitate toward the two international transport corridors - the Transsib and the Northern Silk Road. In accordance with the existing recommendations, bands of up to 200 km in width from the highways are accepted as the zone of economic influence of the corridor. In 20, the ultracontinental subjects of the Russian Federation, crossed by the Transsib or gravitating to it (from the Republic of Tatarstan to the Amur Region), live about 43 million people (2010 year), or 30,1% of the country's population. In the ultra-continental zone of China, adjacent to the Silk Road (without Shaanxi), is located 59 million people (2010 year), which is only 4,3% of the population of China. In the regions (East Kazakhstan, Almaty, Karaganda, Akmola, North-Kazakhstan) and cities (Almaty and Astana) of Kazakhstan, crossed by the Northern Silk Road or gravitating towards it, there live slightly more than 8 million people (2012 year), which is almost half (49,1%) of the country's population. These calculations show that if the absolute values ​​of China's demographic potential dominate in the ultracontinental zones, the corridors in question will not be the most important for him, but for the population and economy of Kazakhstan and Russia.

Direct positive effects of the international transport corridors under consideration include the following. The sharp decline in railway tariffs (to the level of maritime freight rates) means a drastic reduction in transport costs and transportation costs, and ultimately - the economic "approximation" of the inland regions and countries to the leading centers of the world, sea and ocean ports and thus eliminating one of the main brakes development. There will be a significant increase in the capacity of highways, accompanied by an increase in traffic, freight and passenger turnover, which is necessary for closer economic consolidation and economic recovery of the adjacent territories. Russia, China, Kazakhstan and other countries will also be guaranteed to receive tangible revenues from fulfilling the functions of the transport bridge between Western Europe and East Asia.

At the same time, these revenues should go primarily to transit regions, and not just to central agencies and companies-for example, the modern practice of receiving payments for air transit over Siberia's airspace by Aeroflot alone registered in Moscow, and not by itself Siberian airports and airlines.

Even more significant is the indirect effect of the implementation of these megaprojects, which consists in the strongest multiplicative general economic and social impact of international corridors on the adjacent wide strips. So, within the limits of the influence zone of the Transsib, the most developed, inhabited and populated areas of Siberia are located, the conditions and possibilities of which do not fundamentally differ from the average Russian ones. The construction of the superhighway will secure for the southern part of Siberia, which has comparatively comfortable natural and climatic conditions, the status of the territory, a priority for a new powerful integrated development. The creation of the Great Silk Road on a modern railway basis will be an effective option for including the currently lagging deep north-western and central part of China in the zone of advanced development, which fully corresponds to the main directions of state regional policy. The formation of the Northern Corridor of the Silk Road can bring a particularly noticeable effect to Kazakhstan, since its resource-rich regions and large urban agglomerations (Astana and Karaganda) are located in the east and the north of the country in the zone of its stimulating influence.

An important positive impact for Russia (as, indeed, for China and Kazakhstan) has the political effect of implementing international transport corridors - the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Northern Silk Road. Current trends indicate the continuation of the geopolitical and military-strategic confrontation between Russia, its allied CIS countries, as well as China, on the one hand, and the West, on the other. The advanced powers of the West, representing now the "prosperous" center of the world economy (the "golden billion" of the planet) have debugged the whole system of the international division of labor. Thus, in 2016 under the auspices of the United States, efforts have been made to create a trans-Pacific and transatlantic partnership, largely surrounding and squeezing Russia, China and the continental countries of Eurasia around the perimeter. At the same time, the continental position of Russia and the sanctions of Western countries seriously complicate its integration into the world economy, force it to form its own system of Eurasian alliances, and intensify efforts in the eastern direction.

The existing limitations and risks make it inevitable to strengthen Russia's all-round ties with its neighbors, primarily with the eastern neighbors, as evidenced by the formation of various integration structures in the post-Soviet and adjacent space (CIS, CSTO, SCO, EEA, etc.). In this respect, the system of international Eurasian corridors acts as a basic factor in the political unification of the countries of Northern, Eastern and Central Eurasia.

Thus, the creation of international transport corridors - the Trans-Siberian Highway and the Northern Route of the Great Silk Road - should not be viewed as a means of solving only narrow-sector transport and communication problems, and primarily as a means of organizing transit transport between Western Europe and East Asia. In fact, these corridors should become zones of closer economic consolidation and economic development of the adjacent inland areas, work for the economic and political integration of the vast Eurasian space. The timely implementation of these transport mega-projects based on fundamentally new technical solutions will largely determine the position of Russia, China, Kazakhstan and other Eurasian countries in the world community, their economic efficiency and strategic security.

(magazine "ECO", No. 7 for 2016; abridged version)

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