地缘贸易博客This blog considers how ideas and events framed by geography and trade shape our world, while sharing observations and analysis on discovery, transport, industry and much more.

Friday 25 March 2011

The Turkic Peoples – who are they?

The mountain ranges of Central Asia with tribal horsemen

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a broad buffer zone where Europe meets Asia, mostly straddled by Turkic populations was re-discovered. Turkic-populated lands have not drawn intense Western interest since the rivalries of 19th century empires.

Five hundred years ago, Turkic people ruled much of Eurasia. The Turkic dynasties held sway over India, Persia, North Africa, the Balkans, Russia and parts of China. Arab caliphs hired tough Turkic fighters as mercenaries for the armies of Islam from the 7th century onwards, and soon afterwards Turkic warriors became the military backbone of the Muslim world. From the tenth through the fourteenth centuries, Turco-Mongolian horseback fighters and their families spread westwards across the Middle East under conquerors such as the Genghis Khan.
Khazak Nomadic family tents in 21st century
The Turkic people account for around 140 million people worldwide. Their several nations constitute one of the ten largest language groups in the world, and their biggest state, Turkey, has the largest economy and army between Europe and India. Turkey and the five new mainly-Turkic states of Eurasia - Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic are becoming increasingly important again in the 21st century.

During the 19th and 20th centuries Turkic ascendancy ended but the Turkic people remained. Turkic customs, language and identity has remained throughout these lands despite Soviet rule. The Turkish language and its dialects is still a rite of passage for the traveller who wishes to trade along the ancient Silk Road from Iran to the Western provinces of China.
A new 21st Century Power Game in Central Asia
Central Asia has become an area of increasing strategic competition to secure access to the region's oil and energy resources. China, Russia, US, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are locked in a tightly contested competition.
China has been building new security relationships to match its growing economic ties with the Central Asian countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a six-member group founded in 2001 that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China has committed itself for the first time to a regional collective security agreement focused on enforcement of borders. Beijing has already conducted joint military maneuvers with Kyrgyzstan.
The United States has not been absent from this competition, having acquired a military base, known as Camp Stronghold Freedom, in Uzbekistan, as well as a presence in Afghanistan.
Trade between China and Kazakhstan has increased substantially as China's economy has become more dominant regionally, but Russia still remains a significant trading partner too. The Russians are trying to set up an OPEC-like cartel to tie down gas in Central Asia.
China has been seeking to increase its influence in a part of the world long dominated by its historic rival, Russia. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have followed the Kazakh example in looking toward China, rather than to Western-dominated international financial institutions, for development funding and economic thinking. China's politics and central planning policies have a strong appeal for many of the former Soviet republics of the region.
Government in Central Asian Republics
The Central Asian Republics are largely ruled by autocrats and strong men to varying degrees. The regimes generally restrict the freedom of speech, put down any opposition fiercely and fix elections. Uzbekistan, the most populous has been ruled by Islam Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan, both since 1989. Emomali Rakhmon has run Tajikstan since 1992. Turkmenistan had a colourful dictator known as Turkmenbashi (Head of the Turkmans) until 1996. Only Kyrgyzstan has the region's first experiment in parliamentary democracy since last year.
There has also been conflict in recent years in China's most far-western province, Xinjiang between the Uighur people and the Chinese Government. The Uighur people whose Turkic language and Islamic faith draw them toward kinsmen in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian Republics have been seeking a Turkic leader and their independence from China.
It is unclear if the Turkic peoples will re-assert themselves to play a leading role, again, in the 21st century, although what is clear is that they are a large group of people, 140 million people worldwide, not to be underestimated, that will form an important part in shaping the region that lies between Europe and Asia, the lands they have inhabited for centuries.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Africa's Newest Country – South Sudan is due to be born in July 2011

Khartoum, a thriving African metropolis where the
Blue Nile meets the White Nile in 2011

On 9 July 2011, South Sudan is due to be born as a new African country. The Sudanese recently voted in a UN referendum to separate into two different countries. Sudan has been troubled with civil war particularly in the South Darfur region in a struggle between different ethnic groups to control the country's energy resources and some have even gone so far as to claim that this may have been the world's first 'Climate Change war'. For many there is relief and hope that a division of the country may finally bring peace.

But what will this split mean geographically and trade-wise for the newly created South Sudan.

Map of division of Sudan
 The yellow line marks the bounds of the new South Sudan

No sea access

For a start the new country will become landlocked losing its access to the Red Sea and more importantly its direct access to Port Sudan. Over the last decade, Port Sudan has received considerable Chinese investment. Its port operations have been beefed up and turned into a modern port facility able to process the most up-to-date technology in cargo ships.

Khartoum remains in the north

The historic capital and trading city of Khartoum built at the meeting of the Blue Nile (source in Ethiopia) with the White Nile (source in Uganda) will no longer be within its borders. In recent years, Khartoum has flourished once again as an important trade centre on the Nile River. Much Chinese investment is going into building infrastructure; a new bridge across the White Nile, a sparkling new airport and much new office space and hotels.

Much of the recent boom in Khartoum is due to the building of an oil pipeline to transport oil from the southern oil fields to Port Sudan that passes through Khartoum. When the export pipeline came online in 1998, oil exports increased greatly from a meagre 20-30 barrels a day to upward of 350 barrels a day from 2004 onwards.

The new administrative capital for South Sudan will be Juba, a city too located on the Nile (the White Nile), north of Uganda, but lacking the strategic resonance of Khartoum.

What about the oil fields

Oil is the major revenue generator for Sudan, in 2009 it brought in more than 90% of foreign earnings. Around 75% of the oil reserve will be located in South Sudan. But the oil pipe that transports the oil to the Port Sudan will be controlled by the North as shown in the map above.

This does not bode well for South Sudan as has often been demonstrated in other parts of the world, those who control the pipeline often benefit from a position of power. Moreover the Southern Sudan provinces and the North already have a history of squabbling over the price of oil and their respective shares of profits under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

China in Sudan

China's economic and human presence in Africa has continued to rise over the last decade. In fact, China is the biggest and most active player in Sudan. It has a 40% interest in the oil fields. It has also recently announced that it has entered into a $1.2 billion contract to build a new airport in Khartoum capable of handling aircraft as large as the Airbus A380 that will open in 2012. In recent years, the number of Chinese expatriates working for Chinese companies on big infrastructure projects in Sudan has increased. Small merchants, traders, and others too have joined the large company workers in Sudan, attracted by business opportunities for independent entrepreneurs. They have established Chinese restaurants and other amenities for the workers of the large companies. They have become an anchor for the large Chinese community in Sudan.

What will happen in July

One of the first big tasks for the new South Sudan Government will be to agree with the Khartoum-based Government, a new set of administrative conditions for ongoing oil export. The existing arrangement between the North and the South will expire in July 2011.

However, with the loss of direct access to Port Sudan within its borders, South Sudan is said to be already exploring alternative options with neighbouring countries Kenya and Uganda to export its energy resources. These include a proposal for a new oil pipeline to Kenya (although this is not thought to be viable as it would need to go uphill and would be very costly) and a possible rail link going through Uganda and on to Kenya. China has expressed reservations about the cost-effectiveness of the proposed routes. But there is speculation that Russia may be interested in investing in the largely untapped gas resources that the country holds. Experts agree that there is also considerable scope to increase oil production in South Sudan.

The next few months will be busy as final arrangements are completed for the arrival of Africa's newest country. The Geo Trade Blog will continue to follow events in Khartoum and in South Sudan.

Thursday 10 March 2011

The Power Vacuum left from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 - almost 100 years later

Map of Ottoman Empire - at its greatest extension it included
Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria,
parts of Arabia and much of the coastal strip of North Africa

The Ottoman Empire (1301-1922) was the one of the largest and longest lasting empires in history. It was an empire inspired and sustained by Islam, and Islamic institutions. It replaced the Byzantine Empire as the major power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire reached its height under Suleiman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-66), when it expanded to cover the Balkans and Hungary, and reached the gates of Vienna.

When the Ottoman Empire eventually fell in 1922, it left behind, predictably, an immense power vacuum. But less expected is that close to a 100 years later in the 21st century, we are still feeling the effects of an ongoing power vacuum re-adjustment process.

The ongoing power vacuum is illustrated by the sheer number of major conflicts in recent decades that have broken out within the confines of the former Ottoman Empire geographical area. The Balkan wars in Bosnia/Serbia and Kosovo in the 1990s, Algerian civil war 1991-2002, the war for Kuwait in 1990 -1991, the invasion of Iraq from 2003, the second Palestinian intifida 2000-2005, the Lebanon war in 2006, the Gaza war in 2009, and most recently the Tunisian uprisings at the end of 2010 leading to the ousting of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2010. Followed closely by the Egyptian uprisings that also ousted President Hosni Mubarak, in Feburay 2011. Uprisings have spread across the Middle East and North Africa countries to Algeria, Libya (on the brink of civil war), Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia in February and March 2011.

November 2011 Update

Since publishing this post in March 2011, the countries occupying the territory of the old Ottoman empire have begun to look even shakier. On the one hand, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1973, applying for the first time, the new UN concept "responsability to protect" within the UN Human Security Framework prevailing over national sovereignty has been enacted. This led to the NATO-led campaign which saw Muammar Gadaffi unseated and later killed. The NATO campaign officially ended on 31 October 2011. On the other hand, Tunisia has recently celebrated its first free elections with an Islamist party winning around 40pc of the vote. Egypt is soon to celebrate its first free elections with the Islamist parties expected to do well there too. Finally, Syria has become a bloodbath with its Leader, Mr Assad refusing to leave power.

Meanwhile Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, after his election victory in June 2011, has begun to implement a new "activist" foreign policy, which has prompted some commentators to proclaim "that the Ottoman's are coming back". Turkey was caught unprepared for the Arab Spring. Moreover the Western Balkan countries, who are mostly actively seeking EU Membership -Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia- have also begun to hedge their bets with a modern Turkey awash with cash ready to invest in major new airports and other big infrastructure projects on their soil. In the words of the Turkish Foreign Minister, a new "Golden Age" of the Balkans with Turkey at the head is getting underway. The power vacuum appears to be no further resolved after the Arab Spring developments.

Why did the Ottoman Empire maintain power for so long

There were many reasons why the Ottoman Empire was so successful. It was highly centralised, power was always transferred to a single person, and not split between rival princes. This meant the Ottoman Empire was successfully ruled by a single family for 7 centuries. Religion was incorporated in the state structure, and the Sultan was regarded as "the protector of Islam"It was highly pragmatic, taking the best ideas from other cultures and making them their own. It had a very strong military base with a slave-based army, good expertise in developing gunpowder as a military tool and a strong military ethos pervaded the whole administration.

Constantinople which had been at the heart of the Byzantine Empire, was conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. It was made the capital of the Ottoman Empire and renamed, Istanbul – the 'city of Islam'. Istanbul became not only a political and military capital, but because of its position at the junction of Europe, Africa, and Asia, one of the great trade centres of the world.

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 – why is there still such a vacuum of power

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the fact that what in the 21st century we call “the Arab world” is a big and amorphous thing, and arguably not one thing at all. It is more likely a collection of different ethnicities, with confessional and sectarian differences that did not matter when they formed part of a greater empire. This is equally true of the Balkans which contained many different fragments.

The Economist in a recent article described the political instability of the Arab world as being connected to further problem: the missing glue of nationhood.

Many years ago an Egyptian diplomat, Tahsin Bashir, called the new Arab states of the Middle East “tribes with flags” (though he exempted Egypt). His point still holds. In countries as different as Lebanon and Iraq, ethnic, confessional or sectarian differences have thwarted programmes of nation-building. That is why Iraq fell apart into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish fragments after the removal of Saddam despite decades of patriotic indoctrination. Syria could follow suit if the minority Alawi sect of the ruling Assad family were somehow to lose control of this largely Sunni country. Sudan has seen not one but two civil wars between its Arab-dominated centre and the non-Arab minorities in its south and west.”

Until the question of how to re-structure the old Ottoman Empire geographical region is resolved, an ongoing battle for power looks likely to continue in the foreseeable future. Perhaps we might have seen an earlier resolution and re-ordering to reduce the power vacuum if the region had not been home to around 75 per cent of the world's oil resources which powers the modern world. This has inevitably led to greater intervention from world powers to guarantee a vital strategic resource for their peoples and has not made it any easier for the re-ordering process to take place within this context.

Thursday 3 March 2011

China's new Iron Silk Road – High-Speed Rail across Asia and Europe by 2025

Map of Ancient Silk Road
Less than two years after China's first high-speed railway went into operation, China plans to construct a high-speed railway system that will travel across Asia and Europe by 2025. The project will involve 17 nations.

China’s new rail network is a 21st-century, high-tech marvel. Its forerunners go back to the 18th century, when the British consolidated their imperial power with railways in India. Russia followed suit as its own empire grew, completing the Trans-Caspian railway from Turkmenistan to the Caspian port Krasnovodsk in 1889, and the Trans-Aral Railway from Central Asia through Kazakhstan to the Russian heartland. Indeed, China’s network is the first transcontinental project in Asia since Russia finished the Trans-Siberian Railway, from European Russia to Vladivostok, in 1916. The difference in the China project is that it is more extensive than all those projects put together.
China's new Iron Silk Road, High-Speed Rail Network

Southern route - Kunming in Yunnan Province, Southwest China and runs south, as far as Singapore passing through Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Western route - Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China with Germany passing through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey

Northern route - City of Heilongjiang in northern China with South-Eastern Europe through Russia
Even by Chinese standards, the plans seem mind-boggling. The first long-distance line inside China, linking inland Wuhan to coastal Guangzhou, opened in December 2010, hitting top speeds of 350kph, faster than the speediest trains of Europe or Japan. Beijing hopes to have 800 bullet trains running across China by 2013 and, soon after that, across the border. Two networks will connect China to Europe—with terminuses in London and Berlin—and a third will link to Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, and Singapore. Chinese engineers have begun work in Burma, and Beijing says Central and Eastern European countries are keen for the building to start. The planned rail deals will vastly improve China’s ability to transport crucial energy resources from suppliers in developing countries.

China will obtain major benefits from this ground-breaking project, which will carry mostly cargo transportation. The second route will serve as a new "Silk Road" for China's western regions. It will bring tremendous trade opportunities and wealth to under-developed Central Asia which has been outside the global economy for centuries. It will enable China to tap into opportunities and resources from the resource-rich Central Asian region reducing dependence on other overseas suppliers. It would also provide a direct route for natural resources especially oil and gas, from Myanmar, Iran and Russia.

Nations along the three planned routes are being offered all kinds of lures to agree to the high-speed lines. Cash-poor Burma's high-speed rail network is being built in exchange for raw materials for export to China, such as lithium. Central Asian economies that pump gas and oil to China are also being given financial assistance. So China might just be able to pull it off.

The new Iron Silk Road would also provide China with direct access to Middle East and Eastern Europe without using the sea lanes. This would mean that China could depend less on the narrow and congested Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. It would also mean that China would not come up against competition with the US who controls and guarantees security of the sea lane trade routes in Asia.

There are still many challenges to overcome such as discrepancies in track gauge, line direction and expense allocations are under discussion with the related countries.

However it seems that boarding a High-Speed Train in Beijing and arriving in London 2 days later may yet become a reality in 2025.

Trains of up to 1000km per hour within 10-15 years

China has already developed high speed trains to a remarkable speed of 350 km per hour. It has the fastest high speed train network in the world. But China is continuing to experiment with High-Speed Train velocity and its aim is to deliver trains with speeds of 500 km per hour in less than 5 years time (2015).

Engineers and scientists are continually working to develop even faster trains with speeds of up to 1,000 km per hour that would be operational in 10 -15 years time. If that happens, China will revolutionize the whole transport industry.

With trains travelling at such speeds new innovations for boarding and alighting will also be necessary as suggested in the video above.