Competing Visions

A geoeconomic contest is underway to shape Asia’s future. Regional powers are putting forward ambitious plans for building roads, railways, pipelines, and other hard infrastructure across the region. Drawing on official sources, CSIS experts developed the maps below to illustrate some of these competing visions. Each map captures, in broad strokes, the major infrastructure priorities of a leading actor. Collectively, these maps preview a competition as wide-ranging as the region itself. As this story unfolds, the collection below will be expanded and updated.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has a vision for greater physical, institutional, and people-to-people linkages among its ten member countries. Its Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 proposes connecting its members with new hard and soft infrastructure. Maritime countries Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore are strengthening the ASEAN Maritime Economic Corridor with improved ports. On the mainland, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam are upgrading highways through the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Corridor and railways through the ASEAN Rail Corridor, which includes the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link. Proposals to improve logistics, regulations, and digital innovation aim to allow goods, services, and people to move faster. The ultimate goal is “a seamlessly and comprehensively connected and integrated ASEAN.”

Announced in 2013, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), formerly known as “One Belt One Road” (OBOR), drives across the Eurasian landmass in two grand sweeps: the ocean-based 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the overland Silk Road Economic Belt. As Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy effort, BRI is striking for its opacity as well as its ambition. On the surface, it imagines a future Eurasia where all routes lead to Beijing. As an open-ended framework, however, the initiative is less clear. It combines new and older projects, covers an uncertain geographic scope, and includes efforts to strengthen hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure, and even cultural ties.

The European Union (EU) aims to extend its well-developed transport network. Its Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) includes nine corridors, five of which extend into the Eurasian landmass and its maritime periphery. These corridors complement the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the Eastern Partnership, and other agreements that aspire to deepen political and economic ties with their respective regions. The network could be extended in the coming years to include the Arctic, reflecting the EU’s ambition to play a role in developing the region. In 2006, the EU renewed its Northern Dimension policy with Russia, Norway, and Iceland to promote cooperation in the Arctic and Northern Europe. The EU-China Connectivity platform was established in 2015 to help coordinate TEN-T and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

India’s vision is primarily focused on increasing connectivity within its own borders. Looking outside its borders, India sees the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as largely paralyzed. Instead, the Modi government is focused on assembling small groups of its neighbors or “coalitions of the willing,” in support of its regional economic objectives. Other efforts reflect India’s geopolitical interests. By developing Chabahar Port in Iran, for example, India intends to bypass Pakistan and access overland routes to Europe and Central Asia. Looking even further, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy aims to strengthen links between India and ASEAN nations, giving India’s landlocked northeast region better access to its southern ports and establishing new land corridors connecting India to Thailand through Myanmar.

After years of isolation, Iran is reasserting itself as a bridge between East and West. In 2016, plans were announced to nearly double the railway network by 2025. Through its central position in the North-South Transport Corridor, which runs from Moscow to Mumbai, Iran aspires to become a transit hub. It also envisions new east-west connections with its neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan. To facilitate trade and transport with Central Asia, Iran has joined the Ashgabat Agreement.

Prioritizing east-west connections, Japan’s vision stems from decades of investing in Southeast Asia, where existing infrastructure reflects the needs of Japanese supply chains, especially maintaining access to the sea. Japan is acting swiftly to defend this incumbent advantage, and has boosted funding to expand “high-quality and sustainable infrastructure” in the region through its Partnership for High Quality Infrastructure. Consistent with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, Japan is backing a number of new land and maritime corridors that would increase connectivity between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also expanded Japan’s diplomatic footprint, becoming the first Japanese leader to visit all five countries of Central Asia.

Russia’s vision combines soft and hard infrastructure. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is Russia’s primary vehicle for regional economic integration, and officials have suggested it could be linked with BRI. Reinforcing its economic and diplomatic pivot to the east, Russia is tapping into the Chinese energy market with a series of proposed natural gas pipelines. To its south, Russia aims to increase connectivity with Azerbaijan, Iran, and India through the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). To its north, Russia is planning additional projects to advance its energy and defense interests as the Arctic becomes more accessible.

Announced in 2017, President Moon Jae-in’s vision has a northern and a southern component. The New Northern Policy expands South Korea’s cooperation on infrastructure projects, including ports, railways, natural gas pipelines, electrical grids, and Arctic shipping lanes. Primarily focused on Russia, the New Northern Policy includes North Korea, Belarus, Ukraine, Mongolia, China, and the five Central Asian countries. The New Southern Policy aims to bolster South Korea’s economic cooperation, including trade and energy infrastructure, with ASEAN countries.

Historically, Turkey has been a strategic land bridge connecting Asia and Europe while bypassing Russia. Today, Turkey is enhancing this position with major domestic, sub-regional and trans-national infrastructure projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway. Turkey also plans to build thousands of kilometers of new roads and railways under the Vision 2023 initiative, which will mark a century since its independence. Collectively, these efforts would expand Turkey’s transportation networks and strengthen their connections with Asia and Europe.