In the fabled spice trade, pepper outranked even nutmeg and cloves in importance. Bales of Chinese and Persian silks, Indian cottons, Chinese rhubarb and precious stones supplemented the exotic traffic which aroused the envy of all Europe.
–Douglass North, The Rise of the Western World.
Five hundred years ago, Portuguese mariners opened sea routes from Europe to east Asia, and the Silk Road was doomed, another loser in the history of globalisation. The Silk Road had long been failing due to banditry and rebellion as the Mongol empire disintegrated, and later from protectionism as the Ottomans rose in Constantinople. Before long the Khanates of the dusty fortress towns along the road were swallowed up by imperial Russia. The modern world and its sailing ships simply bypassed Central Asia.
China's revival of the Silk Road is not only evocative of a mythic history but says much about the country's strategic orientation. Perhaps anticipating trouble at sea, China is covering its back. With its population huddled on its eastern seaboard, China has started turning inwards to secure development, stability, access, and energy in its continental interior; it is China's 'own counterbalance'.
Beijing proposes an alphabet soup of initiatives: the new AIIB development bank, the CICA security architecture, and corridors through Pakistan (CPEC) and Burma (BCIM) to the Indian Ocean. All this augments the existing SCO partnership, which binds most Eurasian states to a power order nominally co-led with Russia but increasingly under Beijing's sway. Under Xi Jinping, China 'will prioritize relations with neighbors', if necessary at the expense of Sino-US ties.
China's pivot to Eurasia is smart, necessary and urgent.
The US subtly threatens China's sea routes, whereas the Eurasian 'heartland' is a landlocked space occupied by weak countries. China offers them investment, trade and security assistance, and in return gets a lock on Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas. Beijing cherishes the goal of 'breaking through' to the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and Europe, bypassing its Malacca dilemma. Washington stands by; its own 'New Silk Road' program is flailing and its main focus is to leave Afghanistan. It should welcome Beijing's initiatives. The truth is, China has far more to offer the region than distant America.
China proposes three broad systems as part of its new Silk Road: a northern railway to Europe which eventually converges on the Trans-Siberian, the pipelines to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and possibly beyond to Iran, and the southern highway corridors.
Three hundred freight trains have so far plied between Europe and China, a journey of 14-16 days; ocean-going ships take twice as long. But although an express train to Hamburg sounds nifty, it moves only a couple of hundred containers at a time and can get held up at any of the seven borders it must traverse. Container ships carry up to 18,000 boxes on a daily service at one-third of the cost. That's the first of China's challenges. It turns out that those 16th century Silk-Road-killing laws of economics still rule. There is no escaping the scale and efficiency – but also vulnerability – of marine transport.
The second issue is that central Asia is a tinderbox – corrupt, repressive, suspicious and ethnically riven. A superb recent French study debunks the 'Chinese invasion' claims, but tensions over migration, wealth and influence do mirror China's expansion elsewhere. The publics in each of the 'Stans are highly ambivalent about their thrusting, resurgent old neighbour. On my travels there, I've heard repeatedly that 'even the Russians are better.'
That's the third and perhaps most fateful problem: the question of residual Russian influence. The recently-deceased Alexandros Petersen noted that 'China has partnered if not (already) over-run' Russia in their 'joint hegemony' over the region. Xi and Putin today share a common objective of expelling Western influence, but it is not clear how Moscow – or the locals for that matter – will acquiesce as the Chinese inevitably assert their grip over the Silk Road. Russia's own clumsy attempts to draw central Asian economies into its shabby Eurasian Economic Union has foundered on the blood-spattered cobblestones of Maidan Square.
China can and will do better. The whole world benefits from its grand Silk Road endeavour to open new transport lanes, to bring stability and prosperity and to unlock stranded inland energy reserves. Outsiders can only watch and wish the Chinese luck. I suspect they will need it.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.