Road networks are also expanding, led by India (in Afghanistan, for example) and, especially, China. Dusty Myanmar is now plugged into China’s spanking new highway complex. New roads bind neighbours along the Mekong River. Central Asia is also seeing a flurry of road-building.
Railways reflect the boldest ambitions. China has already pushed a railway up the Himalayas to Lhasa in Tibet, on which 5m people have travelled since 2006. Now it wants to push lines down them into Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. As for high-speed railways, from a standing start China’s are the world’s fastest and longest. The government has plans to roll out a high-speed network across Asia and even Europe. It proposes three main routes to connect two dozen countries, from Singapore in the south to Germany in the west (with a tunnel from mainland China to Taiwan to boot). By 2025, if the railway ministry is to be believed, it will take two days to travel from Shanghai to London.
Immense financial, not to mention political, obstacles stand in the way of such ambitions. But these projects are starting to redefine what people mean by Asia. It is no longer mainly a coastline with strong trade links to the rest of the world. Now, links across Asia matter just as much. Trade within the region is growing at roughly twice the pace of trade with the outside world. From almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now India’s biggest partner, with bilateral trade that may top $60 billion this year. Central Asia’s trade with China jumped from $160m in 1990 to $7 billion in 2006. And China is the biggest merchandise exporter to the Middle East. The crowds of worshippers at the mosque in Yiwu, a town in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang with a vast wholesale market, hint at the scale of the links. On the continent’s western edge it is getting hard to know where Asia ends.The integration of the coastal world-connected cities with the interior hinterlands seems like an immense opportunity for everyone involved as gains from trade accrue. And it's an immense opportunity for those only indirectly involved (like the West), as these bigger markets mean more ideas are generated and shared.