20 October 2018
China will be the hub of the New Silk Road but its European routes will converge on Venice. Photo: Bloomberg
China will be the hub of the New Silk Road but its European routes will converge on Venice. Photo: Bloomberg

New Silk Road: How it could and could not work

Last autumn, half a year after assuming office as China’s president, Xi Jinping invoked the ancient Silk Road of the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago and called for the forging of contemporary trading routes.

In Kazakhstan, he urged the creation of a modern-day “Silk Road Economic Belt” stretching from China into Europe. The following month, in Indonesia, he called for the building of a “Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century.”

China is pushing these two initiatives — now referred to as “one belt and one road” – to create new platforms for economic growth as well as a vehicle for binding China to other countries in Asia and to those in Europe and Africa.

The initiatives are also linked to Beijing’s desire to stimulate domestic development, especially of the country’s vast western regions.

China is acting to turn its dreams into reality. It has held strategic talks and reached agreements with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Russia which will not only tighten China’s economic relations with those countries but also bind them more closely together as a region. Regional development is very much part of the Chinese strategy.

The online edition of People’s Daily, in a feature entitled “The Silk Road – From Past to the Future”, provides an indication of China’s thinking of what it hopes to achieve through these twin initiatives.

“Not only will China upgrade its own economy,” People’s Daily said, “it will go for an upgraded version of opening-up … and expand its mutually beneficial cooperation with all countries, neighboring countries in particular.”

The official Xinhua news agency released a map showing the “overland Silk Road” and the “maritime Silk Road”. The former begins in Xian and goes on to Lanzhou and Xinjiang before crossing into Central Asia, moving into Iran and Turkey and swinging up to Moscow and traversing Europe, ending in Venice, Italy.

The maritime route also links China to Europe via Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In fact, the “belt” and the “road” meet in Venice, the hometown of Marco Polo, who traveled to China in the 13th century.

China is clearly serious about its ambitious plans to link Asia, Africa and Europe, with itself as the hub.

Xinhua is promoting and publicizing the “belt” and the “road” to show that these concepts have actually been set in train.

Xinhua announced that “a large integrated team” of journalists set off on June 8 from Xian and will cross the Eurasian continent, conducting interviews along the way in a campaign called “New Silk Road, New Dream”. The reporters and photographers are traveling in a 10-car motorcade.

Xinhua announced that a separate team of journalists will travel on the maritime route, beginning with Chuanzhou in Fujian province. It is not clear how long the two events will last.

China expects a substantial increase in trade with its neighbors in coming years. Trade with Central Asia including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, came to US$40 billion in 2013 after several years of double-digit increases.

Trade with South Asia has also risen steadily, from US$35 billion in 2006 to US$100 billion last year. Where Southeast Asia is concerned, trade is even bigger. Two-way trade with ASEAN reached US$443.6 billion last year and the two sides have agreed on a target on US$1 trillion by 2020.

However, Beijing needs to temper its optimism with realities on the ground.

The recent rise in terrorist incidents not only in Xinjiang but in other parts of the country is a strong signal that China needs to revise its policy on ethnic minorities. The self-immolations of Tibetans and attacks by Uighur groups on Han civilians are clear signs the minorities policy is not working.

If Beijing wants the “economic belt” to develop smoothly, it needs to create conditions under which the minorities are happy to be part of China and end the current policy of drowning the minorities in a sea of Han immigrants.

Where the maritime road is concerned, China needs to mend fences with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. The policy of intimidation of smaller countries with which China has territorial and maritime disputes is creating great suspicion of China and what it might do in the future and making those countries look to the United States for support.

Unless China mends its relations with neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, Southeast Asia may well turn into a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone in Chinese attempts to pave a maritime road to India, Africa and into Europe.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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