For the last five years, talking about China has meant talking, whether explicitly or not, about the “New Silk Road“. The Belt and Road Initiative is the great project (but it would be better to call it a “system”) that Beijing is working on to relaunch the infrastructural and commercial connectivity of the great Eurasian continental mass and create a new economic-commercial architecture.
Announced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping and promoted from the outset by Prime Minister Li Keqiang on various trips around Europe and Asia, the New Silk Road is being presented by the Chinese government as the first step to “reinforce regional connectivity and build a radiant shared future”, as stated in March 2015 by Xinhua news agency.
The New Silk Road’s name evokes the golden age of trade across the vast Eurasian spaces, the age of caravans wending their way through Syria, Iran and Central Asia to foster trade between the Mediterranean basin and China. At the same time, it is a strategy, a paradigm shift and, in its own way, a hope.
China has repeatedly issued more or less official maps of the expected projects under development to materially build the New Silk Road. However, as reported by The Diplomat, they are more useful for drafting a road map than outlining the real program of Beijing’s political decision-makers.
It is more interesting to point out that from the very start, China has clearly distinguished the design of the land-based section of the project (Silk Road Economic Belt) from its maritime counterpart (Maritime Silk Road), complementing the former but developed with a different logic.
The first is understood as the sum of a series of road or rail land bridges meant to function as trade routes and links between the countries involved, from Russia to Myanmar. All are members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which distributes loans and financial resources. Among the most important “links” are the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the New Eurasian Land Bridge to connect China and Germany through Russia and Kazakhstan.
The latter has a more nuanced configuration, as it is superimposed on China’s steady naval projection worldwide. Its development coincides with Beijing’s desire to protect its energy supply routes, endangered by bottlenecks, while some US and Indian strategists say that the Chinese interest in the ports of the countries linked by the New Silk Road, from Gwadar in Pakistan to Malé in the Maldives, underpins military ambitions.
Xi Jinping’s China has made the Belt and Road Initiative the transmission belt for a new global strategy by which the Middle Kingdom is seeking to significantly increase its population’s affluence and its role and to amplify its international projection. It aims to realize the Chinese Dream that Xi described as “a dream of history, the present and the future” in his speech to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th congress.
The congress rubber-stamped the raising of the president to absolute master of the country’s ruling party and its institutions, now completely projected towards the ambitious goals set by the government. The first is the eradication of absolute poverty in the coming years; then by 2035 the achievement of a stage of generalised and military development equal to the US; finally, by mid-century, the realization of a “modern and prosperous socialist country” and reunification of the motherland with Taiwan.
Mi Chunshan wrote in the January 2017 issue of Limes that the New Silk Road “is not just about a projection towards foreign countries. It’s also about internal development, acquiring colossal dimensions.” It “aims, for example, to accelerate the development of western China and to promote the economic transformation of the east coast”, as a “grand strategy of economic development involving the whole country. Through the BRI, the Chinese economy will be able to shake off the problems caused by thirty years of accelerated growth”.
In any case, the New Silk Road will have to cope with numerous obstacles if it is to be fulfilled. China is developing a strategy destined to change the international balance. The countries that have least to benefit from it, the United States in the first place, are eyeing it balefully. The Trump administration has stoked up its opposition to Beijing and inherited Obama’s pivot to Asia, recently amplified on the initiative of the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who aims to build an anti-Chinese coalition of Indo-Pacific powers.
The main US ally in criticising the New Silk Road is Narendra Modi’s India, who fears Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations and its closeness to India’s enemy Pakistan. At the same time India can hardly help keeping a channel open for dialogue with its leading commercial partner and the proponent of a development strategy for the whole of southern Asia.
The European Union, for its part, is focusing on legal issues. EU countries fear that China might dominate infrastructure procurement by curbing free competition and is asking Beijing for greater transparency.
A further issue to consider is the impact of major infrastructure projects on the lives of local communities in different parts of Eurasia. Two significant examples are the independentist guerrilla war in the Pakistani region of Balochistan with the port of Gwadar, and the continuing tension in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China. Here the central government is in conflict with the Muslim minority of Uighurs, who feel threatened rather than benefited by Beijing’s activism.
On January 26th, the Chinese government published its first “white paper” on the Arctic, a new promised land Beijing is hoping to open up for commercial and economic purposes. “Sailing from Tokyo to Europe via the Arctic Ocean will allow a time-saving of 40% over the other route. The time-saving is reduced to 27% starting from Shanghai,” Michele Geraci, Undersecretary for Economic Development in the Conte government, told Agi. This gives some idea of the extent of Chinese interests in the area.
Expanding the New Silk Road beyond the Northeast Passage would enable China to gain a further strategic advantage in connectivity and give Beijing a leading role in the sustainable exploitation of local gas and oil reserves, which largely remain undiscovered. It will also open up substantial reserves of fish that could be essential for the future dynamics of fishing in the world and the development of tourism in the Arctic.
As Giorgio Cuscito wrote in Limes, an Arctic projection of the New Silk Road “would be shorter and less expensive than the existing route through the Suez Canal to Northern Europe. From Qingdao (China) to Narvik (Norway) the former is 6,800 nautical miles long, the second 11,800.” China wants to further shrink trade routes in Eurasia by passing through the Arctic. But, at the same time, it risks amplifying the economic and political problems involved in the construction of the BRI. The New Silk Road, fundamentally, is also a big gamble, on which China has staked a large part of its future destiny. A great everyday challenge, which will take decades to play out.