China’s Silk Road Re­vival

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - By Shashi Tha­roor

The phrase “Silk Road” evokes a ro­man­tic im­age – half his­tory, half myth – of tented camel car­a­vans wind­ing their way across the track­less deserts and moun­tains of Cen­tral Asia. But the Silk Road is not just part of a fa­bled past; it is an im­por­tant fea­ture of China’s cur­rent for­eign pol­icy.

The his­tor­i­cal Silk Road com­prised an over­land and a mar­itime route, both of which fa­cil­i­tated the trans­fer to Europe of South and East Asian goods and ideas, from Chi­nese tea to in­ven­tions such as pa­per, gun­pow­der and the com­pass, as well as cul­tural prod­ucts such as Bud­dhist scrip­tures and In­dian mu­sic. Like­wise, the Silk Road – pri­mar­ily the over­land route, which also passed through the Arab world to Europe – gave China ac­cess to In­dian as­tron­omy, plants, and herbal medicines, while in­tro­duc­ing it to the Bud­dhist and Is­lamic faiths.

Thanks to Chi­nese Ad­mi­ral Zheng He, who steered his naval fleet across the In­dian Ocean seven times in the early fif­teenth cen­tury, the Chi­nese wok be­came the fa­vorite cook­ing ves­sel of women in the south­west­ern In­dian state of Ker­ala.

In 1411, Zheng erected a stone tablet – trans­lated into Chi­nese, Per­sian, and Tamil – near the Sri Lankan coastal town of Galle, with an in­scrip­tion ap­peal­ing to the Hindu gods to bless his ef­forts to build a peace­ful world based on trade and com­merce. Six hun­dred years later, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is es­pous­ing a sim­i­lar goal – only he is ap­peal­ing to po­lit­i­cal lead­ers through­out Europe and Asia to ad­vance his cause.

In Septem­ber last year in a speech at Kaza­khstan’s Nazarbayev Univer­sity, Xi an­nounced the so-called “Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt,” a for­eign-pol­icy ini­tia­tive aimed at boost­ing in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion and joint de­vel­op­ment through­out Eura­sia. To guide the ef­fort, Xi iden­ti­fied five spe­cific goals: strength­en­ing eco­nomic col­lab­o­ra­tion, im­prov­ing road con­nec­tiv­ity, pro­mot­ing trade and in­vest­ment, fa­cil­i­tat­ing cur­rency con­ver­sion and bol­ster­ing peo­ple-to-peo­ple ex­changes.

The fol­low­ing month, the other shoe dropped. Xi, ad­dress­ing In­done­sia’s par­lia­ment, called for the re-es­tab­lish­ment of the old sea net­works to cre­ate a twenty-first cen­tury “mar­itime Silk Road” to foster in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tiv­ity, sci­en­tific and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­search and fish­ery ac­tiv­i­ties.

Chi­nese Premier Li Ke­qiang sub­se­quently re­it­er­ated that goal at the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion sum­mit, and again at the East Asia Sum­mit last year. Since then, the es­tab­lish­ment of a mod­ern over­land and mar­itime Silk Road has be­come of­fi­cial Chi­nese pol­icy, en­dorsed by the Com­mu­nist Party and the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress.

Xi has em­pha­sised that the goal of the Silk Road eco­nomic ini­tia­tive is to re­vive an­cient ties of friend­ship in the con­tem­po­rary glob­alised world. But he un­doubt­edly has a do­mes­tic mo­tive as well, rooted in the grow­ing pros­per­ity gap be­tween east­ern and western China.

The con­cen­tra­tion of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in the ci­ties and spe­cial eco­nomic zones of the east has gen­er­ated en­ergy-sup­ply and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­straints and bot­tle­necks that are ham­per­ing China’s abil­ity to achieve the sus­tain­able, in­clu­sive growth that it needs to at­tain high-in­come sta­tus. The gov­ern­ment hopes that the Silk Road ini­tia­tive will make China’s west and south­west re­gions the en­gines of the next phase of the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment.

Nonethe­less, the ini­tia­tive’s in­ter­na­tional di­men­sion re­mains the most rel­e­vant – and com­plex. Chi­nese diplo­mats have pointed to a con­stel­la­tion

of mech­a­nisms and plat­forms built or strength­ened in re­cent years that could help max­i­mize its im­pact. They in­clude the Shang­hai Co­op­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion; the Bangladesh-China-In­dia-Myan­mar Cor­ri­dor; the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor; the Chi­nese-built Yux­i­nou Rail­way from Chongqing to Ger­many (and on­ward to north Euro­pean ports); and the new and in­cip­i­ent en­ergy cor­ri­dors be­tween China and Cen­tral Asia, as well as Myan­mar.

More­over, China has es­tab­lished the New De­vel­op­ment Bank with its fel­low BRICS mem­bers (Brazil, Rus­sia, In­dia, and South Africa) and the Asian In­fra­struc­ture In­vest­ment Bank – in­sti­tu­tions that will un­doubt­edly ben­e­fit from China’s enor­mous in­vestible sur­plus. Given China’s prom­i­nent role in both, they could eas­ily be used to pro­vide fi­nanc­ing for Silk Road-re­lated pro­grams.

But, though China may not strug­gle to fi­nance its Silk Road am­bi­tions, it is likely to face po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance – es­pe­cially with re­gard to the mar­itime route.

At a time when China’s as­sertive stance in the South and East China Seas is pro­vok­ing anx­i­ety among its neigh­bours – in­clud­ing Ja­pan, Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, and Sin­ga­pore – the Silk Road ini­tia­tive has aroused sig­nif­i­cant geopo­lit­i­cal ap­pre­hen­sion.

Th­ese fears have a strong his­tor­i­cal ba­sis. Zheng’s ex­pe­di­tions in­volved the use of mil­i­tary force in present-day In­done­sia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and In­dia to in­stall friendly rulers and con­trol strate­gic choke­points in the In­dian Ocean. He in­ter­vened in the dy­nas­tic pol­i­tics of Sri Lanka and In­done­sia, ab­duct­ing and ex­e­cut­ing lo­cal rulers. He even seized a tooth relic of the Bud­dha, a sym­bol of Sri Lankan po­lit­i­cal sovereignt­y.

The coun­tries along Zheng’s route there­fore re­call his ad­ven­tures not just as ini­tia­tives to pro­mote trade and es­tab­lish com­mer­cial links, but also as di­rect mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in their af­fairs, un­der the pre­text of ush­er­ing in a har­mo­nious world or­der un­der China’s em­peror. Re­mind­ing them of this painful past may not be en­tirely in China’s in­ter­est.

This is not to say that the mod­ern Silk Road would ben­e­fit only China. On the con­trary, its over­land and mar­itime routes could at­tract con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment to par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries – es­pe­cially from China, as it seeks new av­enues for de­ploy­ing its vast re­serves. But the mod­ern Silk Road’s es­tab­lish­ment will also mark a step to­ward rein­vig­o­rat­ing the an­cient Chi­nese con­cept of tianxia, in which the Chi­nese em­peror was con­sid­ered the di­vinely ap­pointed ruler of the en­tire known world.

Many Asians still re­mem­ber Ja­panese ef­forts be­fore and dur­ing World War II to cre­ate a “Greater East Asia Co-Pros­per­ity Sphere” – a self-suf­fi­cient bloc of coun­tries, un­der Ja­pan’s lead­er­ship – through con­quest. Might China be on a sim­i­lar – al­beit less openly ag­gres­sive – path?

Shashi Tha­roor. Photo: Project Syn­di­cate

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