China’s gargantuan Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road initiative, ‘One Belt, One Road’ for short, promises much. President Xi Jinping has hailed its proposed super-grid of rail track, oil and gas pipelines, superhighways and shipping facilities as this century’s economic game-changer, a project that will bring about ‘a new type of industrialization’ and ‘promote the common development of all countries.’ But some have their doubts. As Beijing has a track record when it comes to ‘Silk Roads’, we would do well to consider History.
Since the term ‘Silk Road’ was coined in the nineteenth century, commentators have enthusiastically inked this ‘ancient highway’ onto their historical maps, none more so than the Chinese government. The image of a thin black line snaking its way across Asia, camel caravans laden with silk, suits Chinese purposes well, and visitors to Xi’an (China’s ancient capital) are constantly reminded it was the very ‘beginning’ of the Silk Road, the all-powerful terminus. The tourism bureau has even built an over-sized camel caravan statue to ‘mark the spot’.
Yet, antiquity’s most successful economic network was never a single road, rather a complex spider-web of smaller, interconnected trading routes, ‘Silk Roads’ in other words, strung out across Eurasia. Nor were they designed to serve Chinese markets, or European for that matter, rather tracks evolved around their Central Asian heart, serving cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Merv and Balkh, which for much of the first millennium were as rich as if not richer than their Occidental and Oriental counterparts. But make no mistake, all economic ‘roads’ in the current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plan begin and end in Tiananmen Square. Perhaps in an attempt to disguise this stark truth, President Xi has now banned all mention of ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR), and has switched to the softer ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.
Made in China?
Goods like silk have been coming to Europe from China by land for centuries, but just as the ‘Silk Roads’ were a Central Asian network, trade came through Central Asian (primarily Sogdian) middlemen. European and Chinese merchants making long trans-continental trips, were very, very rare, and before the likes of the Polos unheard of. Moreover, silk was merely one of a host of different goods. Slaves and horses were just as crucial a commodity, as was glass, paper and jade, with China importing as much as it exported. Thus caravans were as likely to go north and south as east or west, and the network grew to cover great swathes of the Eurasian landmass, peaking in the Mongol period.
Nevertheless, the scale of President Xi’s ‘New Silk Road’ dwarfs all that has gone before. In June 2017 twenty eight heads of state met in Beijing, alongside the chiefs of the IMF, World Bank and UN. In total, sixty five countries are to be involved, with a 4.4 billion total population reach and 30% share of the global economy. Nor is OBOR limited to Asia and Europe, as African cities and Indian Ocean ports also feature heavily. For this reason some critics fear China is seeking global strategic and economic domination, and might even want to make the Renminbi the main trade and investment currency. Experts are also concerned it may leave countries laden with massive debts if projects fail and loans turn sour – not improbable in unstable, high-risk markets such as Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics.
What’s more, Beijing is making sure that this time round all middlemen are Chinese. According to the outgoing president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, these Chinese intermediaries have been allowed to ‘hijack’ OBOR and are using it ‘as an excuse to evade capital controls, smuggling money out of the country by disguising it as international investments and partnerships.’ Of the one trillion dollars promised as investment by China, analysts question how much actually has been and will be spent in partner countries. A significant indicator might be that for every five trains full of cargo set to leave Chongqing for Germany each week, only one full train will return.
Smooth as Silk?
Beijing claims that OBOR will bring economic stimulus to its poorer western regions, and in the process ease simmering tensions amongst the ethnic minorities that live there. But not everyone agrees. China is one of the world’s ‘Top 5’ Oil and Gas producers, thanks largely to these ‘ethnic-minority’ provinces, and many indigenous leaders claim that as natural resources are unlocked, so the demand for autonomy/independence will increase. Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians are still the majority in their own lands, don’t forget, even if it is by ever-decreasing margins. If separatist voices in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Tibet and Inner Mongolia grow louder, Beijing may find that political problems cannot be solved with economic carrots.
Similarly, not all of China’s neighbours are welcoming OBOR with open arms. Pakistan has had to station 15,000 troops to protect its China Pakistan Economic Corridor, but that is nothing compared to India’s concerns. Relations between the Delhi and Beijing have long been strained, and India views OBOR with deep suspicion – this month its army chief even warned of the need to prepare for a simultaneous war against China and Pakistan combined. Similarly, Delhi fears the proposed Maritime Silk Road could lead to their ‘encirclement’, with the various port developments becoming ‘dual-use’ facilities for the Chinese navy. As the proposed maritime route will impact on China’s growing claims in the South China Sea, Vietnam, The Philippines and Malaysia are also alarmed.
Eurasia’s ancient trade routes were the product of a symbiotic relationship, a delicate balance between the steppe-nomads and city-dwellers of Central Asia. If historians are arguing that continued promotion of an ancient ‘Silk Road to China’ renders Beijing guilty of cultural obfuscation (if not appropriation), should we be surprised if President Xi’s critics warn ‘One Belt, One Road’ might be better remembered as ‘One Belt, One Trap’?
by Paul Wilson is the author of The Silk Roads guide book (Trailblazer), and The Alphabet Game (Hertfordshire Press). He is an advisor to the UNWTO’s Silk Road Project and regularly speaks at the Open Central Asia Literary Festival.