China’s Building a New Silk Road. Should We Be Worried?

News Abroad
tags: China, Silk Road

Valerie Hansen is Professor of History at Yale and author of The Silk Road: A New History.

The Silk Road initiative announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and implemented starting this year contemplates so vast an investment in highways, ports and railways that it will transform the ancient Silk Road into a ribbon of gold for the surrounding countries. Multiple new trade corridors are contemplated through Xinjiang, Pakistan, Afghanistan and many other “Stans” all the way to Europe, although the government has still not issued an official map, and no one knows where the roads will actually go. (Officially called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” the project also has the shorter title, “One Belt One Road.”)

One clue as to Beijing’s intentions is a map of the five post-Soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (collectively known as the “Stans”), that appeared in the Chinese press before the Foreign Ministry retracted it. The ministry itself simply claims that the new road is open to any country that accepts Chinese investment in its infrastructure. Hungary was the first European country to sign a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China on June 7 this year. Poland has been assured that it, too, is welcome; and a railroad already connects Warsaw with the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province (but the post-Ukraine EU embargo on trade with Russia means that most of the trains run empty).

This we do know: Any country that participates in these colossal infrastructure undertakings will enjoy unprecedented Chinese investment.

The official pronouncements from China emphasize the positive connotations of the Silk Road. It’s one of the few terms that people remember from high school history classes that doesn’t involve hard power: there were no conquests, no wars, no imperialism on the Silk Road, at least as it exists in most people’s imaginations, and it’s precisely those positive associations that the Chinese want to emphasize.

Chinese officials speak in glowing terms about the Silk Road initiative as “happy” and “lovely” and definitely “win-win.” They will invest large amounts of money in infrastructure – highways, railroads, container unloading docks – and the recipients will see real economic benefits.

There is good reason to be suspicious. If China is investing money – and the amounts are large, estimated to be over forty billion in Pakistan alone – more is involved than simply a happy, lovely scenario.

Historically, the Silk Road was not just about trade, cultural exchange, and tolerance. On multiple occasions, powerful dynasties based in China sent troops to Central Asia to fight military confederations, including the ancestors of the Turks, that threatened China’s security and to conquer rebellious rulers in Central Asia. The Chinese also recruited local forces to join them. Sometimes the Chinese troops succeeded and defeated their enemies; in those cases, they stationed troops to govern the conquered territory.

The Silk Road trade boomed in those periods in which Chinese armies were active in Central Asia. Although the center hoped that the soldiers could farm their own land and feed themselves, they never did. The center sent large amounts of money to pay its armies in Central Asia, and during the Tang dynasty they paid them in bolts of silk, the main currency in use at the time. That’s one reason that so much silk reached Central Asia.

When they were defeated, the Chinese withdrew from the region, which is why maps of China’s territory show Central Asia as sometimes controlled by China, sometimes not. Between 1000 and 1500 Central Asia – both the Stans and the region of modern Xinjiang – Islamicized. That brought real change in the region: rulers who converted to Islam required their subjects to convert as well. This was not true of the earlier Silk Road rulers, largely Buddhists, who had allowed Christians, Manicheans, and Zoroastrians to practice their own beliefs as long as they paid their taxes.

China has some twenty million Muslim citizens, about half of whom identify as Uighur and live in Xinjiang. It’s striking that the One Belt One Road initiative does not mention them even though they would be natural ambassadors to the Islamic region of Central Asia.

So what does the Communist Party hope to gain from the One Belt One Region initiative? The number one goal of the new Silk Road is to open China’s back door. This new door to Europe would take the pressure off the ports of Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong and reduce the vulnerability of China’s current trade routes across the Pacific to America and through the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca to Europe. Another stated goal is to help balance the economic inequities between the highly developed coastal region, where most of China’s 650 million middle class live, and the interior, where income levels are considerably lower.

The unstated goals are more worrisome. China is heavily dependent on the sea trade; 82 percent of its imported crude oil was shipped via the Straits of Malacca in 2013, a region where the US maintains control. If China were to go to war – however remote the likelihood, almost everyone envisions a scenario involving the US as the most likely opponent – then it would have no dependable energy supplies. If China can right the balance and increase overland shipments even by a percentage point or two, that will help it strategically.

When the Chinese proclaim the One Belt One Road as a win-win policy, more careful analysts will see this as yet another attempt to increase Chinese influence around the world. The Silk Road initiative is aptly named. Just as China used the Silk Road to expand its sphere of influence in the past, it is doing exactly the same thing now.

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