The origin and prospects of the New Silk Road

Dhaka,  Sat,  23 September 2017
Published : 10 Jul 2017, 20:15:28 | Updated : 10 Jul 2017, 20:15:35

The origin and prospects of the New Silk Road

OBOR is a work in process, and its execution and ultimate shape will depend on the partnerships that will be forged over time, writes Helal Uddin Ahmed
The origin and prospects of the New Silk Road
Alongside the launching of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), one of the latest examples of Chinese efforts for going global, has been the Belt and Road Initiative. Formally floated by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative covers the ancient Silk Road Economic Belt and the maritime Silk Road of the 21st Century. It seeks mutually beneficial economic growth and integration for around 65 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa; they account for around 65 per cent of the global population, 55 per cent of global income and 75 per cent of global energy reserves. The initiative envisages boosting regional opening-up in the areas of transportation, trade and investment and aims to bring together these countries through overland and maritime communication networks for promoting mutually beneficial regional collaborations.

THE SILK ROAD SPIRIT: The preface to the Action Plan on the Belt and Road Initiative issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce of the Chinese government stated on March 28, 2015: "More than two millennia ago the diligent and courageous people of Eurasia explored and opened up several routes of trade and cultural exchanges that linked the major civilisations of Asia, Europe and Africa, collectively called the Silk Road by later generations. For thousands of years, the Silk Road Spirit - 'peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit' - has been passed from generation to generation, promoted the progress of human civilisation, and contributed greatly to the prosperity and development of the countries along the Silk Road. Symbolising communication and cooperation between the East and the West, the Silk Road Spirit is a historic and cultural heritage shared by all countries around the world. In the 21st century, a new era marked by the theme of peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit, it is all the more important for us to carry on the Silk Road Spirit in face of the weak recovery of the global economy, and complex international and regional situations."

According to an analysis published by the European Parliament in July 2016, OBOR may be viewed as: (a) an alternative to regional trade agreements which do not include China; (b) as a strategy for asserting China's leadership role in Asia in response to the US pivot around Asia; (c) as an economic outreach towards Asian countries for resolving territorial and maritime disputes by exporting China's domestic development policies and resources; (d) as a means of tapping into new sources of growth to check the marked downturn in Chinese economy; (e) as a tool for tackling the socio-economic divide between China's inland and coastal provinces; (f) and, as a platform for addressing security challenges on its western periphery as well as solving energy security issues. 

The initiative has set out five broad areas of cooperation or layers of connectivity. These are as follows: (a) Policy coordination based on established or new bilateral or multilateral mechanisms; China does not see overlapping memberships in cooperation mechanisms as contradictory, but rather, as a way of avoiding the kind of forced choices between different cooperation formats; (b) Facilitate connectivity through building and upgrading overland and maritime transportation, energy and communication infrastructure; (c) Trade facilitation to be accomplished by simplifying customs clearance systems and quarantine processes, improving market accesses and eliminating trade barriers, simplifying foreign investment procedures, and creating more free trade zones.; (d) Deepening financial integration by involving China-supported multilateral financial institutions and promoting the Chinese currency Yuan in bilateral trade; (e) Boosting people-to-people exchanges through various means including cultural and academic exchanges.

At the political level, international cooperation on OBOR has been reinforced by utilising existing regional organisations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) for Central Asia, ASEAN for Southeast Asia, the China Arab States Cooperation Forum for the Middle East, the Forum on China African Cooperation (FOCAC) for Africa, and the 16 Plus 1 format (comprising 11 central and Eastern European countries, and 5 Western Balkan countries alongside China) for Europe. The role of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), however, has been minimal in the OBOR venture till date. 

ORIGIN OF THE SILK ROAD: Originally, the Silk Road referred to a transportation route linking ancient China with the regions of Central and West Asia, Africa, and the European continent. It came into being as early as in the 2nd century BC and was mainly treaded by the silk merchants. It may be of interest to note that the eminent German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen was the first to coin the term 'Silk Road' at the end of the 19th century. 

The original Silk Road emerged from Chang'an (now Xi'an, capital of China's Shaanxi Province). It passed through Gansu and Xinjiang to Central and West Asia and then to the Mediterranean lands. Before that, no communication apparently existed between the ancient Chinese and the Mediterranean civilisations. The ancient Greeks started to learn about an eastern civilisation around the 7th century BC, but knew little about it. Prior to that, an intermittent tSade route existed on the grasslands from the drainage areas of Yellow and Indus rivers up to the drainage areas of Euphrates, Tigris and Nile. But no real communication was developed between China, Central and West Asia, Africa and Europe until the opening up of the Silk Road route. 

It then functioned not only as a trade route, but also as a bridge between the ancient civilisations of China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, and promoted the exchange of scientific and technological knowledge between the east and the west. It served as the main conduit for opening up ancient China to the external world, and also facilitated the entry of fresh impulses and currents from other cultures into China, which, in turn, made significant contribution to the gradual shaping of the Chinese culture. 

Zhang Qian (164-114 BC), a General who served the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), was the trailblazer in the establishment of Silk Road. His two missions in 138 BC and 119 BC to the Western regions during the reign of Emperor Wu (140-87 BC) opened up the road to different countries and cultures in the west. In order to strengthen ties with the Western Regions, Emperor WU adopted a series of measures, including trading activities by Han people there. Soon, trade and commerce flourished between China and Central, South and West Asia, Africa and Europe. Envoys from Rome arrived in Chang'an via the Silk Road in 166 AD, where they set up a mission. 

The road also facilitated trade between India, Southeast and West Asia, Africa and Europe. Exchange of goods and technology from different countries greatly helped the transformation of all connected civilizations. While Chinese culture and technology like papermaking and printing were introduced to the countries in the west, China could also absorb many elements from the art, philosophy and religions of many western lands, which was catalytic in the adoption of an open policy towards other cultures starting from the Han to the Tang dynasties. For example, Buddhism was first introduced to the Khotan Kingdom in the Western Regions during 87 AD. It then gradually spread to the Central Plains along both the southern and northern routes of the Silk Road and had huge influence on Chinese beliefs. Islam was also introduced to China via the Silk Road. Art and culture, such as the murals in Gaochang, Kuche and Dunhuang grottos also left invaluable legacies along the Silk Road, and they still stand as evidence of a spectacular blend of Western and Chinese cultures. 

FUTURE POTENTIAL: The Belt and Road Initiative comprises two main components: a series of land-based economic corridors that China refers to collectively as the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and the Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Many maps depicting the OBOR have been circulating since 2013, some of them originating from the Chinese authorities themselves. These maps reflect the current OBOR corridors as they have been conceptualised by China. Some of the lines on the maps are aspiration-oriented; others are based on real projects in which there have already been investments and construction activities. OBOR is a work in process, and its execution and ultimate shape will depend on the partnerships that will be forged over time. At present, the seven main pillars of OBOR are as follows: 

 Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) aims to connect the coastal Chinese provinces with the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and from there to Eastern Africa, via the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean to European ports. This would be done by means of a network of port infrastructure, including deep sea-ports, industrial zones, oil and gas storage facilities and railway connections from where cargo can be shipped inland. 

 China, Mongolia, Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) which aims to strengthen rail and highway connectivity, advance customs clearance and transport facilitation, and promote cross-national co-operation in transportation. The proposed CMREC route involves high-speed railway and road links, and is divided into two lines: the first one connecting the Bohai Bay Economic Circle including Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei region of China to Russia via Hohhot of Inner Mongolia, and the second from Dalian of China to Chita in Russia via Shenyang, Changchun, Harbin and Manzhouli.

 China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which aims to upgrade the Karakoram Highway that connects Xinjiang with the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, and build the deep-seaport of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. This strategic port will not only allow China to export cargo from its western provinces and cut over 5,600 miles of distance for oil and gas imports from Africa and the Middle East, it would also allow China to bolster its naval footprints in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf.

 Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC) aims to serve as an 'International Gateway to South Asia'. It will essentially be an expressway and high-speed railway link between the Chinese city of Kunming in Yunnan Province and Kolkata of India via Mandalay in Myanmar and the Bangladesh capital Dhaka. In addition to the land bridge, the four countries have also agreed to build air and water ways for connecting each other, as well as power transmission lines and oil pipelines. The corridor would connect a combined market of over 400 million people including India's fourth most populous state -  West Bengal.

 China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CIPEC) aims to connect seven major cities of Southeast Asia - Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vientiane and Hanoi with the Chinese city of Nanning. From there, additional connectivity nodes would be extended to the major economic hubs of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, thus forming a web connecting ten cities with cumulative population of over 50 million. The CIPEC builds on existing economic co-operation mechanisms like the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Economic Cooperation, the Kunming-Singapore Railway network, and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) agreement. 

China Central and West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC) would run from Xinjiang via Alashankou, on the China-Kazakhstan border, to join the existing railway networks of Central Asia and the Middle East. The corridor covers the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan as well as Iran and Turkey. An extension of the line could be added to link Ukraine via Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia.

 New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB) aims to foster uninterrupted railway connection between major Chinese cities like the Jiangsu province's port of Lianyungang, Lanzhao, Wuhan, Chongqing, Xian, and Urumqi and West European cities like Rotterdam of the Netherlands and Duisburg of Germany. Chinese goods would be funnelled into Xinjiang via China's internal railway system and from there the railway route would traverse Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic and all the way to the Atlantic shore. 

A COMPLEX AND TIME-CONSUMING ENDEAVOUR: According to a study by Price Waterhouse & Cooper (PWC) released in 2016, key opportunities of OBOR for foreign players include: Outbound capital projects and infrastructure - especially in partnership with Chinese players; Supply of equipment, technology and intellectual properties; Joint or independent engineering, procurement and construction ventures; Project finance and Joint new client developments; Leveraging Chinese partnerships abroad for accessing Chinese market itself; Leveraging Chinese funding for divestment, fundraising, etc.; Outbound financing and private equity funding; and, better trade with markets possessing improved infrastructure. 

Many challenges exist for China and the other stakeholder countries in the OBOR initiative, which include rough terrains, persistent regional conflicts, thriving corruption, and scepticism amongst some states regarding China's intentions. The sheer volume and variations of challenges will make the realisation of the OBOR initiative a very complex and time-consuming endeavour. It appears that there is a long and winding road ahead for China and the developing nations across South, Southeast and Central Asia and the Middle East before they can reach the enviable position and material prosperity they once enjoyed during the era of the ancient Silk Road.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed, a former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly, is an 'Understanding China' Fellow of the Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing, China.
Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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