Who today remembers that in 1993, the European Union launched a “Transport Corridor Initiative Europe-Caucasus-Asia” (TRACECA) with Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, a number of other Caucasian states and five Central Asian states? The EU management of this initiative soon dubbed it “The Silk Road of the 21st Century.” Twenty-two years later, aid and investment projects from this program are still alive financially, but only barely: the EU has, for example, extended 1.5 million euros for technical advice on reconstructing a road in Kazakhstan, and an investment forum will take place in 2015. But on TRACECA’s website, many sections are left blank — including, incredibly, the agenda for 2015. Among facilities listed, one oddly finds the Khorgos International Center for Boundary Co-operation between Kazakhstan and China, which is today the giant nodal exchange on the Sino-Kazakh border, with expanding infrastructure from China’s own Silk Road, or “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, starting with a 3,500km superhighway to the border.
All of this is to say, China does not necessarily have all the good ideas first, even those that have to do with the Silk Road. But it sure knows how to fund them, and therefore to implement projects on a scale that dwarfs all previous initiatives — whether it is this diminutive but well-conceived European precedent, or the US Silk Road initiative of 2011, launched at a time when the retreat from Afghanistan was looming and the administration of US President Barack Obama wanted to reconfirm links with Central Asia. Money talks, and the giant amounts of funding trumpeted by Chinese promoters of OBOR — up to a trillion dollars, according to the China Development Bank — have made potential partners, 65 countries and counting, sit up and listen.