A few news outlets, mostly military specialty sites, have taken note of this interesting development. On 10 July, Military Times reported that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had deployed armored medical vehicles to Germany for a joint exercise with German forces. Along with the armored vehicles, Deutsche Welt said 92 Chinese soldiers arrived to participate in the exercise, dubbed Combined Aid 2019. The exercise’s focus was on responding to “humanitarian crises, such as mass casualty incidents and serious disease outbreaks.”
The armored vehicles, which are tracked and look like modified armored command vehicles, were delivered by sea.
But it’s important to note that, from the standpoint of physical logistics, they need not have been. It is undoubtedly a political necessity today to take the long way around – a weeks-long sea voyage – to move PLA armored vehicles from China to Europe. Even painted out with the red cross, an armored military vehicle is an armored military vehicle.
But since 2017, it has been physically possible to move Chinese armored vehicles all the way from the East coast of China to the UK by rail, across Asia and Europe, in a matter of days. In all of history, a feat of that nature had never been possible before. Trying to move men and materiel into and/or across Asia has defeated some of history’s mightiest armies, including those of Nazi Germany and Napoleon – or, going back further in history, Central and South Asian warriors of the Middle Ages, the imperial Romans, and Alexander the Great.
When I wrote about the rail link from China to the UK in January 2017, I observed that the idea of using the railway for military purposes was assuredly being foreseen by someone at the time (at a guess, China). If you can imagine it, someone is trying to do it. When the unthinkable becomes thinkable, you can count on the human brain to be thinking.
It is thus interesting to note how quickly after the rail-bridge across Asia was completed we are seeing the first deployment of military vehicles from China to Europe.
It’s also extremely interesting to note the quote Military Times has from a retired Chinese PLA colonel, Yue Gang. Citing the South China Morning Post, Military Times quotes Yue:
“The PLA in the future will need to go abroad to protect China’s overseas interests in countries along the Belt and Road Initiative,” he explained. “If there could be some basic mutual trust and understanding with NATO forces, the risk of potential conflict could be greatly mitigated.”
The railway itself, along with other elements of the transport-focused Belt and Road Initiative, thus becomes the pretext for sending the PLA “abroad to protect China’s overseas interests.”
At the moment, the most expeditious access to Europe via the railway, which runs partly through Russia, depends on quiescence from Moscow (CSIS map further below). There is also a Chinese rail link to Iran, but moving freight from Tehran onward to Turkey and Europe depends on using Iran’s national network (which, for one thing, involves a discontinuity in eastern Turkey, at Lake Van).
Meanwhile, at about the same time Chinese armored vehicles were exercising in Germany, Russia and China were concluding an agreement to develop a stretch of roadway through Russia that will link China’s road system with Belarus, and from there to the rest of Europe.
The project, called the Meridian Highway, will be a joint project, presumably creating roads that meet the standard required by Beijing. If the Meridian Highway is suitable for heavy truck transport, it will be suitable for military vehicles. (The priority consideration is likely to be the other way around. Most Americans are not aware, although the U.S. Army and National Guard certainly are, that the Interstate highway system was developed to ensure that our military vehicles would have access to a network of roads and bridges that would support them.)
That does not, of course, mean that China has immediate plans to rush main battle tanks across Central Asia.
But it does mean China could – at least in the sense of it being physically possible. When the Meridian Highway is completed, a physical access route will exist that has not existed before. Notably, it will exist for Russia too.
What about when China wants to move large, bulky items by rail without checking in with Moscow first? China has thought of that.
In 2018, a little over a year after completing the rail link to the UK, the Chinese completed a rail link across the Caucasus connecting Baku, Azerbaijan to Kars, Turkey through Tbilisi, Georgia. Accessing Baku is currently a matter of crossing the Caspian Sea (across which cargo is moved regularly) from Kazakhstan, where China already has rail access.
But China’s interest in having a “Southern Corridor” for the Belt and Road Initiative has long been assumed to include a more direct rail option that bypasses Russia. The Center for Strategic & International Studies offers a depiction of such a corridor, branching off through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The move into the Caucasus with a rail link – which heads into Turkey, and thence to Europe – is a strong indicator that Beijing indeed seeks such a connection.
The days are pretty well behind us when geopoliticizing Asia was mostly about roaming exotic coastlines and fearing for your head when you ventured inland. Europe and America didn’t have to “militarize” the terrain on a continental scale after all; China is doing that. It now has more than abstract, symbolic meaning when Chinese armored vehicles show up in Germany.
The geopolitics of the whole Eastern hemisphere are being transformed in the 21st century — and hence the geopolitics of the world. Having alliances at either end of Asia, as America does, takes on a new meaning and new dynamics when Asia is no longer impenetrable at its core. Even Russia’s most forbidding terrain will lose some of its aura of trackless apocalyptic nightmare.
The idea of a landbridge across Asia is no longer a Holy Grail to be pursued by military dreamers with outsize visions of conquest. There already is one.