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#SpaceWatchGL Op’Ed: The Geopolitics of Rail and Space Power in Eurasia

A freight train from Yiwu, China, arrives at Riga station in Latvia on 5 November 2016. Photograph courtesy of Xinhua.

The infrastructure boom across Eurasia is creating its own demand for satellite data and services. In this essay, Dr. John B. Sheldon of ThorGroup GmbH looks at the growing interconnections between satellites and the expanding rail networks across Eurasia.

The transformation of the geopolitical and geoeconomic order of Eurasia is perhaps the greatest phenomenon of our time, even with headlines pounding out the steady drumbeat of imminent war in the Middle East and elsewhere. One key indicator of this transformation is the revival of railroads as a means of economic regeneration and connectivity, as well as a symbol of geopolitical potency and the spur for intense geoeconomic competition primarily between China and Japan, and to a lesser extent between South Korea, France, Germany, and Russia. This competition has been referred to by some scholars as ‘Railpolitik’, a play on the word geopolitik coined by Karl Haushofer who, to this day, has harmed the reputation of the study of geopolitics.

Still, despite being shunned by mainstream academia, geopolitics remains a relevant and important field of practical enquiry for executives and policy makers. Geopolitics hardly determines political and economic outcomes, but since geography changes over longer periods of time compared to human lifespans, it certainly sets the stage for those outcomes. Those who study and practice geopolitics should no more work in the shadow of the likes of Karl Haushofer who hijacked geopolitics as a vehicle for the racist and genocidal policies of Nazi Germany any more than medical doctors should have their profession maligned due to the horrific experiments of Josef Mengele in the examination rooms and wards of Nazi concentration camps.

With China, India, and Japan engaged in economic competition to build railroads across Eurasia as part of wider efforts to build infrastructure all over the supercontinent and improve connectivity and economic development, they are also spurring and providing rationales for the expansion of satellite capabilities and the competition for primacy in the use of satellite applications such as positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services, Earth observation, and communications.

Across Eurasia – from Southeast Asia to Central Asia to the Transcaucasus and Middle East – there is a renaissance in railroad building not seen since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These rail programmes are being proposed and built as part of wider transcontinental infrastructure efforts such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Japan’s quality infrastructure initiative, and India’s involvement in the North-South Transport Corridor, among others. Similarly, Chinese and Japanese rail companies are aggressively competing to build high-speed rail networks across Southeast Asia, while India is looking to modernise its extensive rail network across the subcontinent, with Japanese and European rail companies expressing interest in bidding on those projects.

Take China, for example, and the rail connections it is establishing across Eurasia from China to Western Europe. In 2017 alone, 3,673 trains crossed Eurasia between China and Europe, connecting 35 Chinese cities with 34 cities in twelve European countries. By the end of 2018, the number of trains traversing Eurasia between China and Europe is expected to exceed 4,000,  and billions of dollars are being spent building, upgrading, and modernizing railways and rolling stock in China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and a number of European countries to facilitate these burgeoning rail connections that can take as little as 17 days to deliver goods to market compared to the average 45 days it takes a container ship to sail from a Chinese port to a European port.

Given the increasing number of train journeys, the maintenance and operation of long-distance rail track and infrastructure in what can often be harsh climates and topography, and the growing economic value of the cargoes being carried between markets, the need for space-based data is growing. Accurate positioning and timing data, real-time long-distance communications, and regular monitoring and surveillance of infrastructure, rolling stock, and the environment in which railroads operate are now an integral part of operating a modern rail network.

As a result, all of these railroad activities are providing national policy makers with the rationale for expanding and extending their satellite capabilities and services across Eurasia in the name of rail safety and efficient rail operations. Furthermore, the rail rationale is hardly a contrived one on the part of space policy makers and officials, since modern rail operations increasingly rely upon the whole panoply of satellite services.

Modern rail networks are reliant upon space-based PNT services, satellite communications, and Earth observation capabilities for maintaining complex train schedules and schedule deconfliction, real-time communications over long distances (especially in rural areas), and satellite imagery for rail maintenance and safety. Further, meteorological services powered by satellite data are used every day by rail operators to monitor extreme weather (heat, precipitation, ice, etc.) that might impact rail safety and schedule-keeping over vast continental distances and highly varied geographies.

For China, this means that its expanding rail networks in China and increasingly across Eurasia is generating demand for the data provided by its Beidou global navigation satellite service, its large number of communication satellites, and its growing constellations of high-resolution Earth observation and environmental monitoring satellites. Obviously, these Chinese space systems serve a wide range of terrestrial data needs, not just rail networks, but when combined with other modes of transportation and logistics (road, sea, and air) the integration of space systems and rail creates a sophisticated and efficient transportation network that both generates and consumes very large amounts of data via satellite.

The same can also be said for countries such as India, Japan, and South Korea, all of which possess large domestic rail networks and also export their rail technology and infrastructure abroad, especially in Eurasia. India and Japan also possess their own satellite capabilities in PNT, communications, Earth observation, and environmental monitoring that are integrated into their rail technologies. South Korea also own a number of communication and Earth observation satellites, and is also creating its own, regional space-based PNT system that is expected to be operational from the mid-2020’s onward.

There is a rich irony, however, in the increasing space-dependencies of rail networks. Railroads are often used by telecommunication companies for connecting their national and international networks with fiber optic cabling. The fiber optic cable industry is traditionally a fierce competitor for the commercial satellite communications sector, but increasingly the telecommunications market is seeing a measure of technological convergence and complementation as fiber optic cabling and satellite communications are often used in tandem by many users, to include the rail industry.

As Eurasia is transformed economically, logistically, and therefore geopolitically through the various infrastructure initiatives of China, Japan, India, and others, the more acute the space dependencies of the growing number of transport corridors and networks will become in Eurasia. The infrastructure boom, therefore, should also be studied in Earth orbit as well as on the plains, valleys, and mountain ranges of Eurasia.

Dr. John B. Sheldon is the Chairman and President of ThorGroup GmbH, and publisher of SpaceWatch.Global.

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