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.


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


Xi Takes on the PLA: military reforms could turn toxic

With almost 2.3 million personnel, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. The largest army in the world, the PLA has taken advantage of China’s vast population to maintain a standing force unsurpassed in the modern era.

China's military is unsurpassed in size
China’s military is unsurpassed in size

Despite this, it is has only been in recent years that the PLA has begun to close the vast technological and logistical gap that exists between its military and those of its rivals, which include the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, the Russian Armed Forces and the United States Army, though it still has plenty of catching up to do with the latter in particular.

In theory, the announcement in September by President Xi Jinping that 300,000 men and women would be trimmed from this monstrous force was unsurprising. As China embraces its rapid economic growth to improve the capabilities and efficiency of the PLA, fewer conventional forces should be required.

However, this view does not appear to be shared by elements within the PLA and the wider public, forcing the Beijing government to use its main news mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, to warn people not to ‘speak nonsense, make irresponsible comments, have your own points of view, act as you see fit or feign compliance’ over this issue.

Indeed, a large army is a source of both pride and success in recent Chinese history. Having fought the nationalist Kuomintang for the best part of two decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was only eventually able to seize power after amassing a force of almost 4 million men by 1949.

During the Korean War, Chinese forces scored historic victories over the vastly more experienced and better-equipped troops of the US Army and its international colleagues, largely because of the sheer weight of numbers the PLA could send into battle. Indeed, Mao Zedong was content to sacrifice many thousands of his soldiers to prove to his then Soviet benefactors that he was a crucial ally in their Cold War struggles, and he would use the leverage gained by his country’s involvement in Korea to secure nuclear secrets from Moscow.

PLA troops pursue remnants of the routed 25th US Infantry Corps during the Korean War
PLA troops pursue remnants of the routed 25th US Infantry Corps during the Korean War

Likewise, after centuries of foreign invasion and internal conflict – particularly during the ‘century of humiliation‘ – the vast size of the PLA has been credited with securitising China’s borders and preventing ‘separatist’ counter-revolutions by the country’s myriad ethnic minorities.

What is more, for many thousands of China’s downtrodden peasants, the army offers an escape from a life of drudgery and poverty. To deprive unskilled and uneducated people of this traditional right – which Xi’s cut is likely to do – could serve to provoke unrest amongst the civilian population.

With the PLA generals also unlikely to look kindly upon the downsizing of their prestigious force – many officers are set to lose their jobs in the restructuring – there is the potential for a toxic combination of military and popular pressure to take hold which, if harnessed by one of his political foes, could lead to a significant challenge to Xi’s rule.

That his government has felt compelled to issue a public warning against dissenting this historic decision shows that its implementation is likely to prove difficult, with potentially powerful opposition voices certain to resist the upending of their convenient status quo.

If there has been one consistency in the history of the People’s Republic of China it is the influence of the armed forces. To be seen to ‘weaken’ this powerful institution, however reasoned such a decision may be in seeking to modernise the PLA, could prove Xi’s undoing.

Xi must modernise China's military structure without alienating allies in the PLA
Xi must modernise China’s military structure without alienating allies in the PLA