More than two thousand years ago, China’s Han Dynasty launched the Silk Road, a sprawling network of commerce that linked South and Central Asia with the Middle East and Europe. Today, the idea of a “New Silk Road,” an intertwined set of economic integration initiatives seeking to link East and Central Asia, has taken hold. By 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping was assertively articulating his own vision for a China-led Silk Road that would streamline foreign trade, ensure stable energy supplies, promote Asian infrastructure development, and consolidate Beijing’s regional influence.
The original Silk Road came into being during the westward expansion of China’s Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), which forged trade networks throughout what are today the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan, as well as modern-day Pakistan and India to the south. Those routes eventually extended over four thousand miles to Europe.
Central Asia was thus the epicenter of one of the first waves of globalization, connecting eastern and western markets, spurring immense wealth, and intermixing cultural and religious traditions. Valuable Chinese silk, spices, jade, and other goods moved west while China received gold and other precious metals, ivory, and glass products. The route peaked during the first millennium, under the leadership of first the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, and the Tang dynasty (618–907) in China.
But the Crusades, as well as advances by the Mongols in Central Asia, dampened trade. By the sixteenth century, Asian commerce with Europe had largely shifted to maritime trade routes, which were cheaper and faster. Today, Central Asian countries are economically isolated, with intra-regional trade making up just 6.2 percent of all cross-border commerce. They are also heavily dependent on Russia.
China has multiple reasons for pursuing the New Silk Road. Xi has promoted a vision of a more assertive China, while the “new normal” of slowing growth puts pressure on the country’s leadership to open new markets for its consumer goods and excess industrial capacity. Promoting economic development in the troubled western province of Xinjiang, where separatist violence has been on the upswing, is another major concern, as is securing long-term energy supplies.
China’s strategy is conceived as a two-pronged effort. The first focuses on overland infrastructure development through Central Asia—the “Silk Road Economic Belt”—while the second foresees the expansion of maritime shipping routes through the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf—the “Maritime Silk Road.”
In 2013, Xi told an audience in Kazakhstan that he wants to create a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, toward Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Such a network would also expand the international use of Chinese currency, the renminbi, in transactions throughout the region, while new infrastructure could “break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity,” according to Xi. The Asian Development Bank, highlighting the need for more such investments, estimates that the region faces a yearly infrastructure financing shortfall of nearly $800 billion. Xi subsequently announced plans for the maritime silk road
The New Silk Road Strategy should be expanded to include aviation and other supply chain innovations as well. BTW, here’s Thomas Sowell: “Freeman Dyson has called the 1433 decision of the emperor of China to discontinue his country’s exploration of the outside world the ‘worst political blunder in the history of civilization.’ The United States seems at this moment about to break the record for the worst political blunder of all time: Iran.” China is fixing its problems while the USA is making its own problems much worse, and completely unnecessarily.