The New Silk Roads Will Shape the 21st Century

The New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are the most wide-ranging, far-reaching, multinational, multicultural economic development project of the 21st century, spanning Eurasia and beyond. There are no alternatives in the market – any market. The West, especially the US, has not even begun to understand the tectonic geopolitical and geoeconomic game-change embodied in BRI.

From Washington’s perspective, BRI may be interpreted as “contentious” or a “made in China, for China” project only because the United States government, as I have detailed, made a strategic choice to antagonize it instead of trying to profit from it. That’s a stark contrast to no less than 152 – and counting – nations and international organizations that have formally endorsed BRI as of March 2019.

BRI amassed over $410 billion

A relentless demonization campaign, as acute in some EU latitudes as in the US, derides BRI as “debt imperialism” or a “debt trap” scheme. Facts spell otherwise. Only over the initial 2014-2018 period, BRI amassed over $410 billion in Chinese investment. It’s always essential to remember that BRI, according to the original timetable, is still in the planning stage, up to 2021. Only then “implementation” starts, all the way to 2049.

Western myopia, focused at best on corporate quarterly gains or the next election campaign, is incapable of grasping how BRI is open – not limited to nations across the Ancient Silk Road but to everybody; flexible, drawing partnerships beyond Eurasia and Africa all the way to Latin America and the Pacific; and inclusive, respecting different modes of development and favouring what amounts to a true dialogue of civilizations.

It’s inevitable that BRI, due to its complexity, moves more like an icebreaker in the Arctic than a runaway high-speed train. At least six economic corridors are in play; the New Eurasian land bridge; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor; the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor; and two corridors linked to the Maritime Silk Road, the China-Indochina Peninsula and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar.

Top Chinese scholars such as Peking University Professor Wu Bingbing tend to concisely describe BRI as a “network of partnerships (and) projects“. Underlying this network is the key geoeconomic concept; infrastructure building supporting economic development across vast swathes of the Global South.

Infographic by Alberto Bellotto

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the northern part of which I have recently visited, is BRI’s flagship and most ambitious project. The logic underneath CPEC is to create a solid basis for troubled Pakistan to become a middle power around 2035. The basis, once again, is the building of indispensable infrastructure, including industrial parks, ports and power plants.

The same applies to the economic corridor from the southern Chinese province of Yunnan to its “extension” in mainland Southeast Asia; that will soon translate, for instance, into rail travel from Kunming to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, in three hours instead of three days.

The Jakarta-Bandung railway to be developed as a BRI project could not be more pregnant with meaning; Bandung was the setting of a landmark conference in 1955, already in the post-colonial era that set the stage for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Iran, India and Russia are to be linked via the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), with Iran also partnering with Russia via a trade agreement under the framework of the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU).

Syria, whose post-war reconstruction will be essentially managed by China, Russia and Iran, is also considered by Beijing as a future key BRI node

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently visited Iraq and clinched myriad deals, one of them concerned a railway from the Iran-Iraq border at Shalamcheh, across Iraq, all the way to Latakia, Syria, in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is all about the Iran node of the New Silk Roads. Syria, whose post-war reconstruction will be essentially managed by China, Russia and Iran, is also considered by Beijing as a future key BRI node.

President Putin, years ahead of BRI, proposed to the EU the concept of a free trade area from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Now, inspired by BRI, Russian analysts at the Valdai Club have proposed the concept of Greater Eurasia – where Russia develops as a “civilizational bridge”, linked with BRI even as Moscow continues to cultivate its myriad trade relationships with Europe.

The best and brightest independent analysts in China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan agree that in terms of Eurasia integration, it’s all interconnected: BRI, Greater Eurasia, EAEU, INTSC, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the expansion of the BRICS, known as BRICS Plus; and ASEAN.

Ivo Saglietti, Albania, Vlorë, 1999

I have been tracking BRI in detail since the concept was first unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013, in Central Asia (Astana) and then Southeast Asia (Jakarta). Mirroring what happened to Made in Italy, BRI by now is imprinted worldwide as the essence of brand China. That’s inevitable, considering that, geopolitically, BRI will be the organizing Chinese foreign policy concept for the foreseeable future.

Wang Yiwei, director of the Centre for EU Studies at Renmin University, and author of the indispensable China Connects the World: What Behind the Belt and Road Initiative, has shown, in detail, how Beijing, through BRI, has launched what could be defined as Globalization 2.0. Or 3.0. And even 4.0.

The contrast with the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the push for color revolutions and regime change in different latitudes, and the tearing up of international treaties could not be more glaring.

BRI’s emphasis is of course on the Global South – which badly needs technology, capital, infrastructure, and jobs for skilled workers; China abounds in capital, technology, and infrastructure know how, but it lacks markets. At the same time BRI’s expansion may also work for the developed West.

The fatuous controversy about Rome signing a memorandum of understanding as a partner to BRI overshadows a key dynamic.

Revamping and upgrading ports from Venice and Trieste to Genova and Ravenna translates into Italy channelling supply lines from China via the Mediterranean towards Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia and Hungary, in parallel and in competition with the northern super-ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg, which are also BRI-linked.

But the beauty is in the implicit “win-win”; the new maritime corridors are bound to turbo-charge the export of Made in Italy to China.

French geographer Christian Grataloup, among others, has shown in detail how Eurasia should be interpreted as a geo-historic entity, “the hard node of world history”.

BRI, developing as the 21st century New Silk Roads, re-institutes the historical importance of the “hard node”. Or what geopolitics defines as the heartland. A massive paradigm shift is in progress, leaving behind the world we’ve known for the past half millennium. Eurasia is back. With a bang. Get used to it.

Cover photo by Marco Negri, Brazil, Sertao do Araripe, 2010