‘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.
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.
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 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.
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)