Asia is changing and the Silk Road’s glorious past is back. Whatever China decides, would implement.
President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road concept in Kazakhstan in September 2013. Now his dream has come true, where the 2,500 years ancient Silk Road has been revived. A mile-stone has been achieved. A “wing-win” situation has been created for all. The Belt and Road’s cargo railway project has been tested. The outcome is successful and astounding. New railway connectivity has been built across the Asian continent.
In implementing the Belt and Road initiative, China has multiple options across Asia. A cargo train in Yiwu from Zhejiang Province in eastern China started its journey on 28 January onward to Bandar Abbas in Iran and arrived on 15 February, completing a journey of 10,399 km in 18 days – about 578 km journey per day.
The train carried thirty-two containers of commercial products originating from China’s eastern province of Zhejiang. It will continue its trip every month between Yiwu and Bandar Abbas. The distance is just half of the sea from Bandar Abbas to Yiwu. This is a grand opening of the Belt and Road imitative linking southern China to Iran via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan onward to Europe. The route bypassed Afghanistan and Pakistan, the region grappling with terrorism.
Economic sanctions were removed on Iran in January and within days, President Xi visited Tehran. The Iranian side welcomed “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative. Bilateral trade between China and Iran stood US$ 52 billion in 2014, three times higher than the Sino-Pakistani trade. Both countries excited to enhance bilateral trade up to US$ 600 billion within the next ten years.
Chinese Ambassador to Iran, Pang Sen, said that as one of the cooperation projects after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Iran, the cargo train is playing a important role to promote construction of the “Belt and Road” initiative. The cargo journey from Yiwu to Bandar Abbas is exiting and historical. It has revived the business that had carried through the ancient Silk Road on camels. A new trading route has been rediscovered between China and Iran. Much of China cargo to Iran and the Gulf would be transported via this new and save passage – free of terrorism. Moreover, cargo train has outstripped truck road and maritime transport as quicker, safer, and economical, decreasing time and money by 50 percent.
Pakistanis have to learn a great deal of lesson from the Yiwu-Bandar Abbas cargo railway connectivity. Whilst Pakistani are wrestling with the Western, Eastern, and Central route alignment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the past couple of years, Iran has just grasped the opportunity offered by China in January. This fasted cooperation is amazing. It is an example of cooperation between the two great Asian civilizations – Chinese civilization and Persian civilization.
It symbolises Asian cooperation and the bond would always flourish. China’s business with Europe via the Silk Road through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran is just on the way. China’s vision of Asian connectivity via road has gained momentum. It is not China’s victory. It is its cooperation and a victory for all.
China has connected Iran via Kazakistan and Turkmenistan, a marvellous Central Asian route. After the inauguration of cargo train from China to Europe, more goods will be transited through Iran to European countries and this will increase the Islamic Republic’s transit revenue, as told by an Iranian official. Indian scholar C. Raja Mohan wrote in The Indian Express on 17 February that ‘India should welcome the China-Iran Silk Road that has more chances of success than the CPEC’.
There was no controversy in Iran generated about the railway cargo route alignment. Pakistan has its own geo-strategic importance but it needs to grasp the opportunity offered by China instead of indulging into the so-called provincialism of the CPEC route alignment. Chinese officials and scholars have already conveyed their displeasure about the route controversy of the CPEC.
The CPEC now has to compete with the China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran (CKTI) Railway, which is relatively comfortable compared to the passage going through difficult Karakoram terrains. If the route is not faster and economical compared to the CKTI, the CPEC might come in limbo. Pakistan has to multiply its efforts to reap the benefits of the CPEC. In short, the Belt and Road initiative has taken a practical shape rapidly in the form of the CKTI Railway.

he writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. He writes on East Asian affairs.