The new Silk Road: a highway for radical Islam? | China Commentary |

As the EU's trade with China grows, a new land route through central Asia is being developed – but there is a danger that it might be exploited by radical Islam, reports from Kazakhstan

It was no surprise that last week's European Union-China summit in Brussels concentrated on trade. Despite the economic crisis European exports to China have been growing steadily since 2000 and reached €136bn in 2011. This trend is set to continue as Europe's sales to China have already risen to €73bn in the first six months of 2012, from €66bn last year. The volume of imports from China is also huge. After having peaked at €293bn in 2011, it has stabilised at €140bn in the first half of this year.

This vast flow of goods is transported almost exclusively along sea routes that connect China's main ports to India and the Mediterranean. These ocean highways are not going to be replaced, but alternatives may emerge in the future. For example, new sea routes across the Arctic could soon be viable, as ever more ice melts as a result of climate change. Meanwhile, among the other potential new options available is the reopening of land corridors through central Asia, along the routes that have been used for centuries by merchants, monks and adventurers in what is known as the Silk Road.

The infrastructure that would enable trucks to drive from China to Europe already exists in many areas, while the condition of the roads on the route through China and Russia is already decent. The missing link is in Kazakhstan. This vast central Asian state, as big as western Europe, has emerged as the economic power of the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its road network remains underdeveloped. The World Bank estimates that almost a quarter of Kazakh roads are in a "poor" state. To counter these shortcomings, the World Bank and several other international organisations are funding an ambitious programme called the Western China-Western Europe Corridor. The aim is to upgrade or reconstruct over 1,000km of domestic roads out of the 2,800km that constitute the Kazakh section of the new Silk Road.