This Week in Asia

Bering Strait tunnel: pipe dream or game-changer for US-Russia-China ties?

When US President Donald Trump bestowed his approval on a new US$22 billion, 2,400km railway between the United States and Canada last month, it brought a glimmer of hope to an even bigger and bolder infrastructure project.

The idea of joining up the far east of Russia with the far north of the US - either by tunnel or bridge - has been tantalising engineers, entrepreneurs and downright dreamers since the end of the 19th century.

More recently, in the 1960s, Chinese-American structural engineer Tung Yen Lin drew up detailed plans for an "Intercontinental Peace Bridge" across the Bering Strait, which he envisioned as a symbol of international cooperation as well as an important trade route.

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The Trump-approved Alaska to Alberta, or A2A, rail project is being hailed as an important link in the chain across the apex of the Pacific Rim, one that could eventually spawn a vast transport network connecting Asia directly with the Americas, through the strait.

Fyodor Soloview, founder of Anchorage-based InterBering, a private company dedicated to lobbying for the link, said there was a "significant body of interest, both Russian and American, in building a Bering Strait link", before adding that he thought the "the main beneficiary would be China - the main global shipper of products - and its vast railway network".

The area surrounding the Bering Strait alt=The area surrounding the Bering Strait

While the link would augment China's Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, prompting concerns from the US - which is involved in a trade battle with China and views the Belt and Road Initiative as a leveraged power play - its potential long-term benefits would most likely be seen by all concerned parties as an eventual boon for trade relations. Russia, especially, is intent on building its trade with China

"The project's a long way from breaking ground, but the announcement about A2A is a great step forward," Soloview said.

Plans to span the 85km-wide Bering Strait - which is just 55 metres deep and is untroubled by tides or swift currents - have included proposals for both bridge and tunnel. The latter option is thought to be the more practical one, as the strait lies within the Arctic Circle, where any steel structure would be particularly vulnerable to freezing temperature.

Like the proposed canal across the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand, the projected Bering Strait link is not without controversy, and it has aroused strong passions on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Detractors have long pointed to the enormous potential cost, likely engineering problems, detrimental environmental effects and even - according to ultranationalists in the United States - the dangers of opening borders to potential enemies.

Commenting on one of the first proposals for a Bering Strait-centred link - which envisaged tying together China, Russia, the US and Canada - Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University's School of Economics and Management, said the idea was essentially "meaningless".

"For transporting passengers, why not go by air?" Zhao said in a 2014 interview. "And for cargo, it would be more expensive than shipping by sea. And a rail line that crosses other countries involves sovereign rights and environmental protection, so the whole thing is nearly impossible,"

But advocates for the Bering Strait link claim it could carry 8 per cent of the world's cargo trade and open up deserted areas for development, while also floating the romantic idea of journeying from, say, Lisbon to New York, or further, without leaving the ground.

"The other big benefit would be the aspect of international cooperation and future dependence of the participating countries, that is the US, Canada, Russia, and China," Soloview said. "Ensuring the smooth transit of rail traffic, customs control, security on all parts of the railroad, bridges, and tunnels, and other regular cooperation would significantly improve the chances of peace."

To date, the only cost estimates for the Bering Strait link, including one by Soloview, refer to sums in excess of "hundreds of billions" of dollars. The bulk of the cost would be incurred building infrastructure to reach either end of the crossing. On the Russian side, the closest terminus lies 3,000km away, while in Alaska the project would require some 1,200km of new rail line. Complicating the logistical mix, Russian and American railways use different track gauges.

However, despite this array of difficulties, the link's proponents point to feats of construction like the Suez Canal and Channel Tunnel, which faced similar opposition in the planning stages.

"The Bering Strait has the potential to become a global shipping nexus via the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route between Europe, North America, and Asia," James A. Oliver, author of The Bering Strait Crossing, wrote in his synopsis of the book.

"The self-induced amnesia of the Cold War is yielding to a fresh outlook between East and West," he wrote. "In a world thirsty for energy resources and trade, the prospect for US-Russian cooperation across the northern Pacific Rim is tantalising in its multiplicity with profound implications for the global economy.

"In the 21st century, the Bering Strait crossing has the potential to unite the world."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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