Big Questions, Expert Answers

Our “Big Questions” series brings together leading scholars, former policymakers, and top industry experts to tackle critical questions. To kick off this series, we asked five leading experts the following:

Today, 90 percent of international trade travels by sea. But historically, many of the world’s most important trading routes ran overland, crisscrossing the Eurasian heartland and connecting some of the world’s wealthiest cities. Now, regional powers are championing new plans that propose reconnecting the Eurasian landmass through Central Asia with roads, rail, and other hard infrastructure. What will these efforts yield? Will a future Eurasia look more like the present or the past?

In our first response, former World Bank Vice President Dr. Johannes Linn identifies barriers to economic integration. Among these challenges, the biggest could be geopolitical: will Eurasia cooperate like Europe after WWII or be plagued by major power conflict like Europe before WWII? He proposes three institutional innovations that might usher in a more prosperous future.

In our second response, Dr. Thomas Fingar urges caution. After a survey of geopolitical, economic, and development considerations, he projects that OBOR’s biggest impacts will occur within Central Asia rather than outside it. He expects that maritime transportation will remain dominant, but sees potential for greater regional integration.

In our third response, Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby discusses the challenges that Washington faces in Central Asia as China and Russia expand their presence in the region.

In our fourth response, Dr. Christopher Miller takes a longer view and finds lessons in the experience of the Mongol Empire. He reminds us that uniting economies is as much a political challenge as a technological one. Throughout history, the struggle for control of Eurasia’s trade routes has never been determined by commercial factors alone.

In our fifth and final response Dr. Elizabeth Wishnick asks: what’s really new about OBOR? She argues the initiative is an organizing principle for existing efforts and has much in common with Jiang Zemin’s 1999 “Go West” policy. The new aspects, she explains, are OBOR’s focus on southern and eastern Europe. Looking forward, she predicts OBOR is more likely to succeed outside Eurasia.

Stay tuned for our next big question.