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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A Far Cry: Middle Eastern Peace Under Mongol Rule

Lebanon appears to be the latest Middle Eastern country making an interminable slide into chaos and social upheaval. The clashing of heavily-armed supporters of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah (by this I mean support of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime) and anti-Syrian government forces on the streets of Beirut and Tripoli threatens to return Lebanon to the horrific days of civil war that engulfed the country between 1975 and 1990.

Martyrs’ Square – symbol of the horror of the Lebanese Civil War

The Syrian Crisis and its many offshoots, the never-ending violence between Israel and Palestine, sectarian brutality in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, the nuclearisation of Iran; these are just the latest problems besetting a historically fragile region. For the majority of the Middle Eastern population, peace is an alien concept. Yet it has existed in the region.

After the destruction wrought by the three main Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries in the Holy Land, the Middle East underwent a century of unprecedented social stability, cultural exchange and, most significantly, relative military dormancy. The cause? The Mongol invasions set in motion by Genghis Khan at the turn of the 13th century and continued by his successors down to the reign of his grandson Khubilai.

Under Khubilai Khan, the Mongol Empire stretched from Southern China to Siberia, from Korea to Hungary and to Syria, encompassing almost the entirety of what we now deem the Middle East. A series of vassal states had been established, paying tribute to the Mongol Great Khan whilst maintaining a degree of control over internal affairs. The system was an effective one. Having subdued every civilization in their path, the Mongols had rendered military conquest of one’s neighbour by an ambitious state obsolete. Any attempt at territorial expansion would be deemed an affront to Mongol predominance and result in a timely annihilation at the hands of the masterly Mongol army. With a cavalry prowess nurtured on the Steppe grasslands of home and an uncanny ability to adopt and enhance the siege and explosives technology of conquered vassals, the 13th century Mongol army was the finest the world has ever seen. Such a monopoly on the use of force, and the ruthlessness to subdue the smallest uprising, served warning to states to keep their peace.

The Mongol cavalry set the basis for a unique peace

Not only was there a military deterrent to war in the Middle East but a commercial one too. The Mongols greatly improved the trade routes between east and west ushering in a period of great cultural, religious and mercantile exchange. Merchants, so often despised elsewhere in the Middle Ages, grew prosperous and the Mongol system of sharing tribute amongst all families of the tribe became mirrored across their empire. These benefits negated the need for expansionist warfare.

The Pax Mongolica made the Middle East a region of cultural and mercantile exchange

Although the Mongol Empire eventually severed into various factions that became too short-sighted to recognise their common ancestry, the Pax Mongolica was a momentous period of history. Many of the great philosophers, physicians and scholars of the time originated in the Middle East. The Mongol Peace allowed them to flourish and for their theories and works to find their way west, having a direct impact on the coming of the European Renaissance.

Such is the historical importance of a stable and prosperous Middle East. Were some miracle to provide the region with comparable conditions today, who knows what advantages it could bestow on the rest of the globe? Unfortunately, such advantages are likely to remain in the domain of theory.