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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Uzbekistan, Torture and the Hypocrisy of the West: from Silk Road Marvel to Repressed State

Amnesty International’s recent report on the systematic use of torture in the judicial process of Uzbekistan is both timely and concerning. With human rights abuses flagged up frequently in various parts of the globe, it is interesting how, in some countries, such violations are allowed to continue without serious censure.

Political prisoners in Uzbekistan are subjected to Spartan conditions Source: RT
Political prisoners in Uzbekistan are subjected to Spartan conditions
Source: RT

Uzbekistan is ruled by Islam Karimov, a dictator in all but name. He has led the Central Asian state since independence in 1991 and was, indeed, the General Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Karimov does not make any serious attempts to hide the gross injustices of the political and judicial systems that he has helped forge. Confessions of ‘anti-state’ and ‘terrorist’ activity proliferate, often drawn from brutal interrogations meted out to opponents of the regime. These forced testimonies are typically accepted by pro-Karimov judges without question, the battered and bruised bodies of the accused simply ignored in court.

Karimov was born in Samarkand, a city historically associated with the Silk Road. In the Middle Ages it became, along with the current Uzbek capital Tashkent, a vibrant centre of commerce, scholarship and religious debate. Even the Mongols – hardly renowned for their patronage of culture – accepted the freedom of thought and expression that had taken root in these great cities.

Gur-e-Amir - the mausoleum of Mongol leader Timur (Tamerlane) in Samarkand Source: Get In Travel
Gur-e-Amir – the mausoleum of Mongol leader Timur (Tamerlane) in Samarkand
Source: Get In Travel

Today, despite retaining vestiges of its glorious past, Uzbekistan is one of the most repressed societies in the world. Yet, as both Amnesty and other charities have been eager to point out, it has become a crucial ally to the West. As such, it is immune to the criticisms so frequently directed by the United States and its allies towards ‘less important’ states who are engaged in similar abuses of human, social and political rights.

Having made his country an indispensable supply route for the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan, and taken a strong stance against Islamic extremists, Karimov can wield disproportionate influence for a leader of a country with limited means. That Uzbekistan is also well within the Russian orbit further restricts the desire of the West to alienate its president with demands for political reform.

Global politics is inherently hypocritical and the case of Uzbekistan and the West is a perfect example. Just as disappointing, though, is how a country with settlements that once stood at the forefront of human civilization can have been reduced to serving one man and his cronies,

When the Afghan adventure finally ends, the US and its allies need to consider what Uzbekistan really has to offer them and whether they would not be better placed agitating for greater freedoms for the country’s industrious people. Otherwise it will be left to China to fill the void, a role President Xi Jinping is rather hoping it will seize.

Xi's 'One Belt, One Road', plans to create a modern Silk Road with China at its heart
Xi’s ‘One Belt, One Road’, plans to create a modern Silk Road with China at its heart