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New Silk Road to Link Central Asia, Europe

China and seven Central Asian countries have agreed to build a modern-day equivalent of the historic Silk Road, in the hope of once again making Central Asia a vital transit route for trade between Asia and Europe. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

Until the Middle Ages, a network of trade routes known as the Silk Road was an important economic artery connecting China and Europe via Central Asia. Today, less than one percent of all trade between Asia and Europe goes overland through the countries of Central Asia. The main reasons are poor transportation infrastructure and cumbersome border and customs procedures.

That is about to change. China and seven Central Asian countries - including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia - have agreed on an $18 billion strategy to improve the region's network of roads and railway lines within the next 10 years.

Sean O'Sullivan is the director of the Central and West Asian department of the Asian Development Bank, which is providing some of the financing for the project. He says the purpose of the New Silk Road will be to provide a more direct route between East and West.

"The idea is that instead of everything going around the Central Asian region, either by sea or in the North, the Trans-Siberian railway route, the idea is that through cooperation, through better infrastructure, through better and smoother border crossing and coordination, that the transport will take these routes right across instead of going around or by sea," he said.

O'Sullivan says the project will not follow the exact China-to-Europe routes taken by the ancient Silk Road. Instead, the plan is to develop six corridors that not only go from east to west, but also from north to couth, connecting the Central Asian republics, Russia and China with South Asia and the Persian Gulf countries.

"One of the key features of Central Asia and these countries we are working with, most of them are landlocked and it's just very important to get a corridor, for example to the south, to the sea across Afghanistan, which is opened up," he added.

About half of the funds for the project will come from the eight countries involved, while the Asian Development Bank and other multinational organizations will provide the rest.