One Belt, One Road: Barking Next Stop for China’s ‘New Silk Road’

‘One Belt, One Road’. This is the slogan of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark development strategy to create a new, twin-pronged ‘Silk Road’ between China and Europe.

One Belt, One Road as initially conceived
One Belt, One Road as initially conceived

It resurrects the halcyon early days of Eurasian integration when overland routes were established between the Spice Islands of present-day Indonesia and the capitals of Europe, passing through multiple cities whose fortunes prospered as trade flourished.

Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Kandahar, Tehran, Baghdad, Palmyra, Lanzhou. All these names once threw up images of medieval wealth, with their fabulous spires, learned universities and libraries, powerful overlords and multicultural marketplaces. Alas, most are now known for wholly different reasons.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The originator of the Silk Road of antiquity was the Han Dynasty, who traded the eponymous luxury (in addition to many other goods) across its vast empire and beyond from the 2nd century BC until its fall in the 3rd century AD. Whilst it survived in various incarnations, the route best known to history was at its strongest during the so-called ‘Pax Mongolica’ and here it is worth quoting at length from the eminent J.H. Parry:

In the great days of the Mongol Khans much Chinese merchandise destined for Europe had travelled overland on the backs of camels and donkeys by many different caravan routes, to termini in the ports of the Levant and the Black Sea; and European merchants, not infrequently, had themselves travelled with their goods by these routes. Flourishing Italian merchant colonies had grown up at the principal termini, at Constantinople and Pera, its commercial suburb; at Tana (Azof); at Caffa in the Crimea and at other Black Sea ports. In the fourteenth century Pegolotti’s safe route to Peking became exceedingly unsafe and European travel to the east came to an end. The overland routes in general declined in importance, not only because of political disturbance, but from the same physical causes which kept the predatory nomads on the move. Progressive desiccation in the lands of central Asia made pasture unreliable. The flow of merchandise overland diminished, and the ancient towns through which the caravans passed became impoverished. (Parry, 1963, p.56)

The Silk Road of the Middle Ages
The Silk Road of the Middle Ages

The final death knell in the coffin of the Silk Road was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with European states and merchants no longer able to possess a foothold in the Middle East, let alone a launchpad for Asian trade.

Now, the Barking Rail Freight Terminal in London is waiting to become the 15th destination on the ‘New Silk Route, a Chinese freight train expected in the coming days. Overland trade is being re-popularised, a cheaper alternative to air freight, a safer and quicker alternative to the sea. It forms one strand of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the other to create a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ between China, India, the Middle East and Africa.

For the countries of Central Asia, decimated by first the Russian Empire and then the ravages of Soviet rule, it is an opportunity to reinvent themselves and potentially recapture some of their past glory. Simultaneously it offers China a chance to increase both its economic and political influence in regions where the US footprint is light at best. What Russia thinks is another matter.

It is unlikely that China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ will captivate the popular imagination in the same way that the Silk Road of old does, yet it is nevertheless a proactive step by the Chinese government to integrate a giant landmass in a way not seen for centuries.

Xi's seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted
Xi’s seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted

What the geopolitical consequences of this bold venture will be cannot yet be known, but it certainly goes some way to undermining critics who view China as an insular power unwilling to responsibly use its ascending role on the global stage.

Source

Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance (1963)

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Tajikistan Well Placed to Exploit Russo-Iranian Competition

Russia is often seen by the West as a barrier to putting further pressure on Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions. Whilst this may be true, both for economic and political reasons, Russia and Iran remain strategic competitors in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Russo-Iranian ties have strengthened despite regional competition
Russo-Iranian ties have strengthened despite regional competition

Both countries have hosted enormously influential dynasties throughout history which have courted dominance over the strategic resources and communication networks of the region. At the end of WWII, Soviet troops occupied Iran before being forced to vacate by a UN-backed resolution. The Iranians, under the rule of the Shahs, retained close relations with the West during the Cold War until the 1979 revolution.

There is evidence to suggest that Soviet bullying in the post-WWII era – particularly in relation to border incursions and oil embargoes – was aimed at turning Iran into a client state. Support from the Western powers meant the Iranians could afford to stand in defiant opposition to such a desire.

Tajikistan, on the other hand, became a republic within the Soviet Union and retained the authoritarian communist model until the Cold War ended. Since that time, Tajikistan has undergone a brutal civil war and been ruled only by the Soviet strongman Emomalii Rahmon.

Russian troops intervened on Rahmon's side in the civil war - ensuring future loyalty
Russian troops intervened on Rahmon’s side in the civil war – ensuring future loyalty

That said, Tajikistan has an undeniable cultural and ethnic link with Iran. Part of the ‘Greater Iran’ region of history, it does not share a border with Russia and has a population which is 80% Persian. It formed a part of many of the great Iranian dynasties, including the Sassanid, Samanid and Safavid. 

The Samanid dynasty is regarded as the founding of the Tajik state - Amir Isma'il ibn Ahmad is commemorated in Dushanbe
The Samanid dynasty is regarded as the founding of the Tajik state – Amir Isma’il ibn Ahmad is commemorated in Dushanbe

All of the Central Asian states have retained strong ties to Russia since independence, a loyalty and dependence hearkening back to the Soviet days. However, Tajikistan, in particular, is well placed to rediscover its old Persian heritage and let the two large powers on either side of it compete for its patronage.

Economic ties between Tajikistan and Iran are increasing and the two nations are close to agreeing a security agreement based on information exchange to help combat criminal activity and terrorism. With Kazakhstan continually developing closer ties with Europe, Russia needs to become aware of the potential change in the balance-of-power in Central Asia. Its de facto overlordship is no longer guaranteed.

For the Tajik people, it offers a chance to reintegrate with a culture that they were wrenched away from over a century ago.