updated 4/26/2004 4:11:24 PM ET 2004-04-26T20:11:24

Forty-five years after it was proposed, a modern version of the ancient Silk Road that once linked Asia with Europe is nearing completion — an 87,500-mile web of highways and ferry routes connecting 32 Asian countries.

Monday evening, 23 Asian nations signed a treaty on the road system, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported. China, Japan and South Korea were among those endorsing the agreement. Others were expected to commit later.

The Asian Highway Agreement is intended to ensure construction of a road system, modeled on the route traders once traveled by camel train, to provide access for many landlocked Asian nations.

First proposed in 1959 but delayed by decades of Cold War distrust, the project has been endorsed in principle by all 32 affected countries.

Even as telecommunications links draw the world ever closer, the realities of geography — enormous deserts, rugged mountain ranges and impassable jungles — mean that many in Asia still live in relative isolation.

Not one road, but many
The Asian Highway would be not one road but an entire system of routes that, by land and by sea, would link Tokyo to Turkey, Bhutan to Bulgaria.

A U.N. map of the highways as planned roughly resembles a spider web strung from Finland and St. Petersburg to Khabarovsk and Tokyo. Spurs extend through Turkey as it meshes across Central Asia, crosses India and loops through Southeast Asia down to the Indonesian island of Bali.

Big economies like Japan, China, South Korea, Russia and India would certainly benefit from the better trade links a unified highway system would bring. But the project is also designed to help smaller economies gain coveted routes to sea ports.

As envisioned, seven landlocked countries would be included: Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal and Uzbekistan. Island nations would be linked by ferry to the Asian continent.

“We see the importance of constructing transport linkage within the region in order to distribute development through all countries, not only to the developed ones,” Raj Kumar, an economist for the Economic and Social Commission, said in a statement.

Regional development
The highway plan is part of a broader project to build up all transport links in the region.

Most of the roads already exist but require upgrading to an international standard — much like the United States in the early 1900s, when smaller roads were cobbled together and improved to form the federal highways U.S. 1 and Route 66. Signs would be unified and border facilities improved to handle an expected increase in traffic.

Since the 1990s, the project has gained support, and its projected length has doubled to the currently planned 87,500 miles.

Though Beijing is a key proponent of the plan, so far the potential Asian Highway routes through China total only about 8,500 miles. One would link Shanghai with the border crossing with Pakistan; another would connect the border with Mongolia to the north and Laos to the south.

So far, funding for most of the preliminary work on the Asian Highway has come from Japan. Further financing is expected to come from bigger nations participating, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

“The amount will be tremendous,” Kim Hak-su, executive secretary for the commission, said in a statement. “We propose public-private partnerships to fund this effort if governments cannot finance it.”

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