China and the New Silk Road

This article could have been written totally differently. As soon as one starts to read about the Silk Road it becomes apparent that this topic inherits multiple layers of historical significance which all add up to a complexity that cannot be addressed in one article. Stating this, the article just focusses on one aspect: Chinas’ New Silk Road. However, it starts not on the Silk Road in Kashgar, Samarkand or Baghdad – but with a visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Duisburg, a city located in the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region in Germany.

Construction of the New Silk Route /OBOR is going to be a global game changer and China has become a local infrastructure power. Image (Chinese workers building an elevated railroad in Kenya. from news.163.com.)

Connecting East and West – then and now

Big artificial Chinese paper dragons welcomed President Xi Jinping in the harbor of Duisburg on a chilly afternoon in March 2014. In the background of shaking hands and flying Dragons the name of a cargo train reveals the main reason for his visit: Yuxinou (渝新欧). The name is a coinage where the Yu (渝) stands for the Chinese city Chongqing, xin (新) means „new“ and the ou (欧) can be translated as Europe. Thus, this train symbolizes a new established connection between east and west. Today the train leaves Chongqing in central China up to four times a week, crosses six states and travels more than 10.000 Kilometers in just 16 days – one quarter of the time a cargo ship would’ve taken – until it enters the port of Duisburg. Notwithstanding, this train is just one small aspect of a development which is about to shape the 21st centuries’ economy and which was launched shortly after Xi Jinpings’ visit to Germany: the One Belt, One Road/Yidai, Yilu  (一带一路) –  strategy or simply put the New Silk Road.

More than 2000 years ago, China’s Han Dynasty launched the “old” Silk Road and linked South and Central Asia with the Middle East and Europe. On first sight, the initial Silk Road was a sprawling network of commerce, where the appearance of one popular commodity helped to develop a trading system: Chinese silk. The demand for the luxurious texture ravished and perturbed contemporary writers. For instance when Chinese silk appeared in the Mediterranean region, carried by merchants from China via Samarkand and Palmyra to Rome, the writer Pliny the Elder resented the high cost of the luxury material simply to “enable the Roman lady to shimmer in public”. Furthermore he complained “100 million sesterces per year were being pumped out of the Roman economy and into trade markets beyond the frontier”. Why is this anecdote important besides clarifying the etymological origins of the Silk Road? It illustrates a globally connected world more then 2000 years ago. This connectivity encompassed all Eurasia from the people of the steppes over Central Asia to the people of Persia and the Roman Empire. Therefore, the historian  Peter Frankopan writes in his book “The Silk Roads”, one has to take into account that silk and other goods like jade, ivory and furs travelled side by side with much more – namely ideas. As a consequence, the Silk Road has to be pictured as a “neural system” where not only commodities flew yet much more sprawled along its nerve fibers and impacted the people along the way.

Whats the (sur)face of the New Silk Road and who benefits? 

2000 years later, China aims to establish an intercontinental infrastructure network composed of an overland (rail)road system, directly connecting China with Europe and the Middle East and a maritime belt, linking China with the Indian Ocean and Africa. The train to Duisburg is just one railway service in a number of established routes. On December 1, 2016, the newest addition – a cargo train loaded with 500 tonnes of commodities – left the Chinese province Yunnan for Karachi, Pakistan. Earlier this year the first train from China arrived in Iran. Overall, more then 65 states shall take part and to some extent benefit from the OBOR initiative. For the financial backing China founded the New Silk Road Fund administered by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In 2015 the overall sales volume of the OBOR was calculated 1.100 Billion USD – 21 times the size of the Marshall Plan. Thus, part of the strategy encompasses bilateral economic agreements to improve transport infrastructures like railroads, airports, roads and harbors in participating states, for instance in Kazakhstan or aforementioned Pakistan. Moreover, in 2015 the EU established with China the so called “connectivity platform” in order to attune Chinese ambitions with EU states.

Obviously, Chinas OBOR strategy impacts China itself. Especially the western province Xinjiang acts as a pivotal point, thus causing confrontation with the largest ethnic minority in the region – the Muslim Uyghurs. Around 11 million Uyghur’s residing in Xinjiang and the bordering Central Asian states Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Ethnically they are Turks, thus they are culturally stronger affiliated with their brethren in Central Asia and Turkey.

Already since 2001, in the framework of the so-called “Develop the West Campaign”, the Communist Party seeks to instigate economic development and international trade in the region by transforming Xinjiang into China’s portal to Central Asia. Where China is arguing on the one hand the Uyghur’s will benefit from economic development, the Uyghur’s see their cultural heritage and identity endangered. As a matter of fact, the PRC took several measures to draw the Uyghur’s closer to China with for example language programs, where all students have to learn mandarin or the resettling of Han-Chinese to Xinjiang. The international representation of the Uyghurs, the World Uyghur Congress – located in Munich, Germany, – blamed therefore China for implementing an  “assimilation campaign” and called up on the international community. Moreover, these initiatives caused a number of upheavals and even stimulated separatist movements. Overall, many Uyghur’s do not feel a trickle-down-effect of Chinas’ development initiatives. By following the OBOR project, the relation between China and the Uyghur’s can become even worse, since regional stability is central to the projects existence.

The New Silk Road: A two way street

While pushing the global integration of the OBOR strategy forward, Chinese officials like Foreign Minister Wang Yi use rhetorics like “China’s Belt and Road initiatives are not its solo, but a symphony of all relevant parties”.  Keeping the sheer dimension of Chinas’ New Silk Road and the idea of the Silk Road being a “neural system” in mind, the OBOR strategy serves China in two ways: First, in another article for InPRA I argued that Chinas’ strategic island building in the South China Sea is to create leeway in order to counter the US “pivot to Asia” strategy. The implementation of the New Silk Road helps to create on the one hand economic leeway towards US initiatives like the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) and on the other hand geographical leeway by securing an open gate to the West – in its final extent to Europe. Secondly, the PRC can fortify its regional yet also globally position by knotting participating states – via transport infrastructure and via economic development – to China. Or to think Wang Yis’ rhetoric a bit further: whenever the strings in China are being pulled, the vibrations can be felt and heard by who is attached to it. Nevertheless, this is a two way street where every pull on the other side can be heard and felt in China. Yet, by orchestrating the OBOR China has to proof that it can attune itself with others and their values.

With designated US President Donald Trump “making America great again” Europe appears to be a more reasonable partner in the western hemisphere. The New Silk Road offers therefore not only an opportunity to build an Eurasian bridge to exchange goods, yet also to exchange ideas and to learn from each other. The new intensified connection with Europe lays the necessary foundation to manifest the Chinese-EU partnership and to keep communication about all topics open – in both ways.

Michael Lehmann

Michael Lehmann

Michael Swen Lehmann was born in Germany and lived in Vietnam and Austria. After he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Popular Music and Media Science, he decided to pursue a stronger international focus. In order to do so, he enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies Master at the Universities of Vienna and Leipzig. Since Micha already wrote his Bachelor thesis on blogger-movements in Vietnam, he decided to center his research on non-state actors in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Additional fields of interests comprise conflict transformation and the democratization process in Myanmar. Micha already worked as a Journalist for the German news agency Deutsche-Presse Agentur (dpa) and the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).
Michael Lehmann

Latest posts by Michael Lehmann (see all)