The 19th century “Great Game”, the subject of Kipling’s classic book “Kim,” referred to the geopolitical jousting between Czarist Russia, busy expanding into Central Asia, and Great Britain, long established on the Indian subcontinent.
The two great powers almost came to blows along their common border in the high Pamir Mountains. They finally agreed to give a buffer zone to Afghanistan to lessen the chance of inadvertent war between themselves. That buffer, the Wahkon Corridor, is a finger of Afghanistan that now separates Pakistan from Tajikistan and points into China. During that first “Great Game”, China was too weak to play any part. Not any more.
The recent news that the first Chinese freight train has arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, through new rail lines built in Central Asia, is the latest indication of a new “Great Game” — this time between China and everybody else… and, friends, China has already won. China’s “One Belt, one Road” or “New Silk Road” program has signed up 34 countries on its periphery. In 2015 alone, it resulted in $92 billion in signed contracts.
One of the big surprises of Fred’s trip to Tajikistan recently was the now ubiquitous presence of all things Chinese. Traveling through remote mountainous areas, Fred found that he had better cell phone coverage there than back home on Whidbey Island. That was thanks to Chinese-built solar and wind-powered cell towers dotting the mountain peaks.
Villagers in even the most remote villages, who had been dressed in rags when Fred and Sharon passed through the area 20 years ago, now wore new Chinese-made clothes and carried cell phones. Chinese consumer goods fill the most remote village markets.
Even before the now-complete final stretch of rail line through Central Asia, evidence of Chinese ascendancy in the economic life of Central Asia was everywhere. Fred found hotels filled with Chinese businessmen and mountain highways clogged with hundreds of huge Chinese double 18 wheeler trucks. Chinese-built infrastructure projects such as toll roads, airports, power plants, bridges, tunnels and railroads are everywhere.
All that China asks for all this assistance is unfettered access to all a country’s mineral wealth and a few border-line adjustments here and there. Locals note that for more than a century, Russia took all their mineral wealth and gave little back in return. In comparison, China is viewed by the locals as a welcome partner.
Sure, the huge trucks take a toll on poorly made Soviet-era highways, but the Chinese are busy repairing and improving the roads. All this building is being overseen by Chinese foremen, but there are plenty of new low-level jobs for local workers.
Several years ago in this area, a road accident resulted in a Chinese truck falling off a highway into the rocky and raging Panj river. The truck broke open and spilled out its contents of hundreds of pairs of Chinese-made sneakers. Little by little, these sneakers floated downstream and washed up on riverbanks where poor villagers were amazed to find them.
During his recent trip through the mountains, Fred saw a number of individuals in traditional dress wearing brightly colored sneakers they had fortuitously picked up during “The Miracle of the Chinese Sneakers.”