In 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech titled “Promote People-to-People Friendship and Create a Better Future” at Kazachstan’s Nazarbayev University.
Xi said that the ancient Silk Road was increasingly “becoming full of new vitality with the rapid development of China’s relations with Asian and European countries”, adding that “the 2,000-plus-year history of exchanges had proved that countries with differences in race, belief and cultural background can absolutely share peace and development as long as they persist in unity and mutual trust, equality and mutual benefit, mutual tolerance and learning from each other, as well as cooperation and win-win outcomes.”
Xi made a reference to Zhang Qian, an imperial envoy during China‘s Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD), who was sent by Emperor Wu (156 BC – 87 BC) to Central Asia “to open the door to friendly contacts between China and Central Asian countries as well as the transcontinental Silk Road linking East and West,” Xi said.
Xi’s speech was the beginning of his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which has now become one of the pillars of his geopolitical strategy.
From May 14 to May 15 China hosted in Beijing the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) which was attended by representatives of 29 countries from across the globe. At the summit, Xi Jinping put forward “five proposals” for his initiative.
First, the Belt and Road Initiative should establish a “road of peace” that creates a peaceful, stable environment and a new type of international relationships based on “co-operation and mutual benefit”, in order to promote “dialogue instead of confrontation” and “partnerships instead of alliances”.
Second, the initiative should create a “road of prosperity”. Xi stated that development is the “key to solve all issues”, and that the Belt and Road should focus on “setting free the development potential of each country and realize a great economic harmonization.” He said that the Belt and Road should help to set up a “stable, sustainable financial system” that can “contain risks” and bring about innovative methods of investment and financing. He further emphasized that infrastructure is “the basis of co-operation and development”. The Belt and Road Initiative should promote the construction of land, see, air and internet links.
Third, the Belt and Road must be a “road of openness”. Xi argued that “opening up leads to progress, isolation leads to decline.” He said that a country that opens up is like “a butterfly that breaks free from its cocoon, a process that is painful for a while but it is the beginning of a new life.” The Belt and Road should create a platform for openness and co-operation, as well as facilitate liberalization of trade and investment.
Fourth, the Belt and Road should be a “road of innovation”. Innovation is an important force of development, Xi said, stressing that the initiative should fulfill the ideal of “green development” in order to create “an ecological civilization”.
Fifth, the Belt and Road should be a “road of civilization” aimed at overcoming “cultural barriers through exchange, conflicts of civilization through mutual learning, hegemony through co-existence, so as to advance mutual understanding, respect and trust between countries.”
Can Xi’s ‘New Silk Road’ Succeed?
Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has drawn praise as well as criticism. Countries with a vested interest in maintaining authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Turkey have welcomed the project because it focuses solely on economic co-operation, state-to-state partnerships and stability. Xi’s “five proposals” make it clear that democracy and free debate will be a taboo in a Beijing-led world order.
Countries in need of financial support, too, have embraced Xi’s vision. Greece and Italy, for example, would like to see their embattled, cash-stripped economies propped up by China’s financial assistance. “Italy can be a protagonist in this grand scheme that China so much values,” said Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in Beijing. “This is a great opportunity for us and my presence here underscores how important it is to us.”
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also travelled to China and met with Xi Jinping to discuss Sino-Greek economic co-operation. The two sides signed economic agreements on infrastructure, telecommunications and energy. Tsipras emphasized China’s role as an investor in the important ports of Piraeus near Athens, Greece’s largest port, and Soufli in the Evros region.
Tsipras said that the two ports are symbols of Sino-Greek co-operation. Piraeus because it is the “head of the Dragon” in Europe, and Soufli because it was “the first European ground touched by the two monks who centuries ago travelled on the Silk Road and brought to Europe the first silkworm eggs hidden in their canes,” a reference to the famous episode of the two Byzantine monks who smuggled silkworm eggs from China during the reign of Justinian I (c. 482 – 565 AD). As a result of the expedition, the Byzantines developed their own silk industry and established a monopoly position in Europe.
However, the Belt and Road Iinitiative has also met with scepticism regarding its cost and political implications.
India decided to skip the BRF, warning of an “unsustainable debt burden”. China has pledged to put $100 billion in Belt and Road projects, a sum that will likely rise over the years for the development of the colossal Eurasian infrastructure network envisioned by the Chinese President. Germany’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy expressed concerns over lack of guarantees on free trade and fair competition. According to Credit Suisse Group AG, China may pour $500 billion in the initiative, whose scope and duration are still unclear.
There are also worries that China’s initiative is a way for Beijing to promote its geopolitical interests. For instance, Chinese media have indicated that Beijing intends to use the Belt and Road Initiative as a means to isolate Taiwan and force the government in Taipei to accept the ‘1992 consensus‘.
Even from a historical point of view the idea of a new ‘Silk Road’ appears contradictory for a number of reasons.
First of all, the term ‘Silk Road’ was coined in 1877 by the German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. The Chinese themselves never referred to the Eurasian trade route as ‘Silk Road’ until the phrase was popularized in the West (see Hansen 2012, p. 6).
Second, the Silk Road was not a concerted effort by the Chinese imperial government to create a commercial network. Rather, it was a rudimentary trade route that never achieved the level of efficiency and the trade capacity of maritime and land commerce established by Western powers from the 16th century onward.
As Valerie Hansen points out, “a hundred years of archeological investigation have revealed no clearly marked, paved route across Eurasia, nothing remotely like the Appian Way of Rome, but instead a patchwork of drifting trails and unmarked footpaths” (ibid., p. 8).
Third, the Silk Road wasn’t a “road of peace.” The first written reference to the Silk Road concerns Zhang Qian, whom Xi Jinping mentioned in his speech in Kazachstan. Zhang was a Chinese envoy who lived in the 2nd century BC. He was dispatched to Central Asia by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (reigned 140–87 BC).
Emperor Wu wanted to forge an alliance with the Yuezhi, a nomadic people living in present-day Uzbekistan, against the Xiongnu tribes that inhabited parts of Mongolia. Zhang Qian had to travel through Xiongnu territory to reach his destination. He was captured by the Xiongnu and held prisoner for ten years. After his escape he continued his journey and when he returned to China he gave the Emperor an account of the regions and peoples he had encountered. Zhang was surprised to discover that in the markets of Bactria, in modern-day Afghanistan, there were bamboo and cloth goods manufactured in China’s Sichuan (ibid., p. 14).
Perhaps, the symbolic appeal of the Silk Road for Xi Jinping may lie in nostalgia for a world of kingdoms that accepted China’s supremacy and centrality. Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), the capital of China during the Han, Sui and Tang dynasties, was one of the largest cities of the pre-modern era and the commercial centre of the Silk Road. At its height in the 8th century, Chang’an had around 2 million inhabitants, of whom 5,000 were foreigners. It occupied an area of 30 square miles, far larger than imperial Rome’s 5.2 miles. The Silk Road was also the main route of China’s tribute system, a recurrent theme in Chinese nationalist discourse.
In the book The China Dream, Liu Mingfu, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel, described the tribute system in the following way:
China was the superior state, and many of its neighbouring states were vassal states, and they maintained a relationship of tribute and rewards … The appeal and influence of ancient China’s political, economic and cultural advantages were such that smaller neighbouring states naturally fell into orbit around China (quoted in: Miller 2017, introduction).
Although China has experienced phenomenal growth rates in the past 40 years and has lifted millions of people out of poverty, Xi’s top-to-bottom approach to economic policy bears risks.
China’s per capita GDP is about US$8,000, lower than that of developed countries such as Germany (US$41,178) and the United States (US$56,115). China is also an extremely unequal country, where the top 1 percent of households owns one-third of the nation’s wealth. Meanwhile China’s debt to GDP ratio rose to 277 percent in 2016. It appears questionable whether a country that needs to spread wealth among its people should spend trillions to finance global infrastructure projects instead of promoting higher wages and social welfare within its own borders.
But even recipients of Chinese investment should not be all too enthusiastic about the outcome of economic co-operation with China. As the experience of countries such as Tanzania have shown, Chinese economic aid has often resulted in trade surpluses for Beijing and economically unprofitable infrastructure projects.
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