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Data: Xinhua; Map: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

China is building and upgrading railroads in the west and east of Iran, making the Persian Gulf nation the centerpiece of an enormous transportation-and-energy latticework connecting much of the global economy, per the NYT.

Why this is a big deal: In the same way that Britain ruled its 19th century empire through a far-flung navy, and the U.S. has done so through its trade deals and its own big naval ships, Beijing is preparing for the day years from now when it may be the premier global power. Its vehicle is an infrastructural Pax Sinica, what it calls "One Belt, One Road."

In eastern Iran, the work is linking it with Afghanistan and Central Asia, the oil-rich former Soviet region. And in Iran's west, similar work is connecting the country to Turkey, and from there to Europe. China already has roads, railroads, oil and natural gas pipelines – or plans for them — to which these railroads will connect. A passenger or cargo will be able to ride from Tehran east to the western Chinese capital of Urumchi, or west anywhere in Europe. Other infrastructure stretches through southeast Asia, into Pakistan, and north to Russia.

  • A level deeper: Jon Alterman, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Axios that One Belt, One Road is strategic at its core, designed "to secure China from a [potential] American-led blockade" of the Chinese mainland.
  • The U.S. is kind of doing it, too: "The U.S. military is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to ensure it can defend against the Chinese military on the shores of China if it comes to that," Alterman says. "If the U.S. is doing that, China is willing to spend a lesser amount to guard against the same eventuality."
  • And Iran fits right in to that vision: "China is serious about having a foothold in southwest Asia that is not subject to an American veto. Iran is a great hedge against American hegemony," he said.

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