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The meaning of the Silk Road today

The Silk Road initiative, announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and implemented this year, contemplates so vast an investment in highways, ports, and railways that it will transform the ancient Silk Road into a ribbon of gold for surrounding countries. Multiple new trade corridors could potentially run through Xinjiang, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and many other “Stans” to Europe, although the government has still not issued an official map and no one knows where the roads will actually lead. Officially called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” the project also has the shorter title, “One Belt, One Road.”

One clue to Beijing’s intentions is a map of the five post-Soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—collectively known as the “Stans”—that appeared in the Chinese press before the Foreign Ministry retracted it. The ministry itself simply claims that the new road is open to any country that accepts Chinese investment in its infrastructure. For instance, Hungary was the first European country to sign a formal MOU with China on 7 June this year. Poland has been assured that it, too, is welcome, and a railroad already connects Warsaw with the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province.

What we do know is this: any country that participates in these colossal infrastructural undertakings will enjoy unprecedented Chinese investment and, most likely, real economic benefits. China’s official announcements emphasize the positive connotations of the Silk Road; historically, no conquests, no wars, and no imperialism took place on the Silk Road—at least as most people imagine to be the case. Chinese officials also speak in glowing terms about the initiative as “happy,” “lovely,” and above all else, “win-win.”

There is good reason to be suspicious. If China is investing money—currently, the amounts are estimated to be over forty billion in Pakistan alone—more is involved than simply a “happy,” “lovely” scenario.

Historically, the Silk Road was not just about trade, cultural exchange, and tolerance. On multiple occasions, powerful Chinese dynasties sent troops to Central Asia to fight military confederations and rebellious rulers that threatened their security, including the ancestors of the Turks. They also recruited local forces to join them. Moreover, if Chinese troops were successful in defeating their enemies, they were stationed there in order to help govern conquered territories.

Trade on the Silk Road boomed during periods in which Chinese armies were active in Central Asia. Although the center hoped that the soldiers could farm their own land and feed themselves, they never did. The center sent large amounts of money to pay its armies in Central Asia, and during the Tang dynasty they paid them in bolts of silk, the main currency in use at the time. That’s one reason that so much silk reached Central Asia.

When they were defeated, the Chinese withdrew from the region, which is why maps of China’s territory sometimes show Central Asia as controlled by China, and sometimes not. Between 1000 and 1500, Central Asia—both the “Stans” and the region of modern Xinjiang—Islamicized. That brought real change in the region; rulers who converted to Islam required their subjects to convert as well. This was not true of the earlier Silk Road rulers, largely Buddhists, who had allowed their Christian, Manichean, and Zoroastrian religions to practice their own beliefs as long as they paid their taxes.

So what does the Communist Party hope to gain from the “One Belt, One Road” initiative? The number one goal of the new Silk Road is to open China’s back door. This new door to Europe would take the pressure off the ports of Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, and reduce the vulnerability of China’s current trade routes across the Pacific to America. and through the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca to Europe.

Another stated goal is to help balance the economic inequities between highly developed coastal regions, where most of China’s 650 million middle class citizens live, and its interior, where income levels are considerably lower.

These unstated goals are more worrisome. China is heavily dependent on sea trade; 82 percent of its imported crude oil was shipped through the Straits of Malacca in 2013, a region where the United States maintains control. If China were to go to war—however remote the likelihood, almost everyone envisions a scenario involving the United States as the most likely opponent—then it would have no dependable energy supplies. If China can right the balance and increase overland shipments even by a percentage point or two, even that will help it strategically.

When the Chinese proclaim the “One Belt, One Road” initiative as a win-win policy, more careful analysts will see this as yet another attempt to increase Chinese influence around the world. The Silk Road initiative is aptly named. Just as China used the Silk Road to expand its sphere of influence in the past, it is doing exactly the same thing now.

One Belt, One Road: the modern Silk Road

Explore China’s proposed trade routes in the interactive map below.

The Silk Road in world history

Examine the history of the Silk Road by learning about its most important sites.

Image Credit: A map of cities along the Silk Road in northwest China. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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