China’s objectives in reviving the Silk Road

Dr Farish Noor talks to Theano-Damiana Agaloglou

President Xi Jinping’s focus on a New Silk Road makes the debate on the matter lively. Xi’s “one belt, one road” initiative  is a development strategy that refers to the New Silk Road Economic Belt which will link China with Europe through Central and Western Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which will connect China with Southeast Asian countries, Africa and Europe.

The first time President Xi referred to the New Silk Road was in a speech he delivered in September 2013 at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University aiming to highlight a world of mutually beneficial trade and economic relations focused on China. The “One Belt and One Road” initiative does not seek to further China’s “regional hegemony” according to Xinhua news agency. The news agency explains that the road is open to all countries by attempting to achieve win-win situations rather than a regional hegemony. That is why comparisons with the “Marshall Fund” of the United States should be avoided.

Dr Farish Noor

Dr Farish Noor

Several opinions have been expressed on the origins of the Silk Route, the “One Belt and One Road” initiative and the reasons why Chinese leaders are concentrating on the project. This initiative is the continuation and development of the spirit of the ancient Silk Road. The most famous highway of antiquity, the Silk Road, has never lost its importance as one of the most strategic areas in the world. Dr. Farish Noor, Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, offers his interesting insights on

What is the Silk Route?

The silk route was so-called because it was the passage via which silk and other goods from China were brought from the East to the West in the premodern, precolonial period. It should be noted that there was never a single route, but rather several land-based and maritime routes, and generally these were the trading networks that existed all across Asia up to the age of colonialism when the colonial powers began to colonise parts of Asia and disrupt the open networks of trade, migration and settlement that had been around for hundreds of years. K. N. Chaudhuri was one of the first (and best) scholars who wrote about this in his book ‘Asia Before Europe’ (Cambridge University Press, 1992) where he speaks about how the vast Asian continent was one that was not circumscribed and defined by modern political frontiers and borders as it is today.

This was reflected in the writings and maps of the first European cartographers as well: Sebastian Munster, in his 16th century works The Cosmographia and The Geographia, presented the first maps of Asia that were entirely borderless, and where it is clear that there was much fluid traffic (of peoples, goods, ideas, languages) across the Asian continent.

During this period China was already a trading power, but is political stance was silkroadIIisolationist and it did not have imperial ambitions. Today some western analysts tend to present China as if it was the next global hegemon, but that would not be in keeping with China’s history where it has tended to avoid direct intervention in the affairs of other states and kingdoms, even smaller and weaker ones.

Why is China talking about the Silk route today, and what does it want?

Ironically when the leaders of China talk about the silk route today, they are doing so in the context of an entirely modern and globalised world with more mobility and movement that ever since the end of colonialism. We have created a global communications architecture that includes everything from the internet to cheap airline travel, and note that since the end of the Cold War there are more Chinese tourists, travellers, entrepreneurs and students leaving China than ever before. China wishes to ‘rediscover the world’ and this also happens to be the dream of the newly emerging Chinese middle class. During the Cold war they were not allowed to leave the country, and other countries did not accept them either- But today the phenomenon of the Chinese expatriate and student is not unique, and will likely increase.

China dreams, perhaps, of returning to a borderless Asia where the movement of goods, services and resources will be unimpeded. This is necessary for the country’s growth, but also for its survival in the long run, as the core interest if the ruling Chinese Communist party is to manage the rising socio-economic expectations of its people, who will, by 2021 be living in a China that it designated ‘a prosperous country’, (and an industrialised economy by 2049).

I think that the talk about China having imperial ambitions is out of date and incorrect- There is too much paranoia about China now simply because its growth and development have been unprecedented and faster than anticipated. But China also has to deal with real logistical, resource and environmental concerns that are crucial to the survival of its political system, and as such needs to have an open global economy to succeed.

Thus the talk of the silk route may be surrounded by exoticism and historical nostalgia, but it is fundamentally a pragmatic and real yearning for economic mobility and connectivity for the sake of economic development and political survival too. In this process, China seeks cooperative partnerships, and that is why Xi Jinping does not use the term ‘ally’, because to have allies also means having enemies. China seeks the best possible outcome from its now positioning and posturing, but it seeks also a stable international environment where its silk route ambition can be fulfilled with minimal problems and resistance. Hence rather than identifying states as potential enemies, the new leadership regards piracy, terrorism and economic blocs as the real obstacles to progress.

If you are interested in reading the previous interview with Dr. Noor on President Xi’s book please click here.