The New Silk Road

Once immortalized within the writings of Marco Polo, the Silk Road was the center of the ancient and medieval world. It was the beginning of globalization as we know it, connecting peoples, places, ideas, and goods across thousands of miles. The Road was a network of land and maritime trade routes facilitating market growth and idea exchange between Northern Africa, Eastern Europe and China. At its heart, lay Asia. For millennia, Asia dominated international affairs with its technological, scientific, ideological and cultural advancements. The current pivot towards Western European and North American influence is a very recent development; one that is arguably already in decline. Asian civilizations, specifically China have held their cultural traditions and relative influence for thousands of years in world history, making the Western powers’ hegemony appear relatively brief. As such an established state, China’s world view adheres to a far more prolonged and forward-looking timeline, than do the young Western powerhouses. Chinese President Xi Jinping, is seizing the opportunity to reassert China’s historical dominance, recognizing waning American influence. He is embarking upon a grand strategy to shift global orbit back to Asia. In 2013, Jinping introduced the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR). A series of deeply connected economic corridors paying homage to the Silk Road of old, it impacts over 60 countries, encompassing over half the Earth’s population. OBOR is a medium through which China can create renewed regional hegemony through economic partnerships and burgeoning alliances. Supporting China’s immense diplomatic and financial investment into the project is desire for geopolitical ascension. Driving this are the factors of centralized government authority, image and prestige.

Image Courtesy of the Office of the President of Russia, ©2015, some rights reserved.

The Communist Party of China (CCP) is a regime who received its ‘mandate of heaven’, through visible signs of economic growth and progress definitively traced to party leadership. This mandate, justification for authority recognized by the people, gives the CCP the right to rule, so long as the Chinese people are getting wealthier and the country more prosperous. Centralized authority has been key to driving the reforms needed to thrust China out of its financial and isolationist rut and emerge as the rising power it is today. Consequently, the factor of centralized authority can be translated into an economic motivation. OBOR provides China with new commercial opportunities and trading partners, boosting slow domestic growth, with a promised Chinese investment of around £700 billion. Drawing countries such as uranium-rich Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan into the integrated economic community, China will be in an advantageous position to enter beneficial deals involving untapped rich natural resources. China’s population of two billion requires an enormous amount of energy, and the country’s lack of domestic resources forces it to seek imports from elsewhere. Increased access to the minerals required for nuclear power will accelerate the country’s transition from oil. A Chinese movement away from oil will impact the global oil industry dramatically, in turn affecting world economies. OBOR is the largest geo-economic strategy in modern history. Its ability to shape global trade is monumental, and it is a clear threat to any state resisting the changing international order.

As a rising power, China is increasingly concerned with its image. In light of this, Beijing is attempting to soften the perceptions of foreign nations and potential investors using public diplomacy and a reemphasis on the Confucian value system. For 2000 years, the Chinese philosopher Confucius has managed to remain relevant through his universally applicable teachings on hard work, discipline, familial responsibility and harmony. Through this medium, Xi Jinping has stressed the concept of a ‘peaceful rise’ on the world stage, encouraging a benign reputation and a moral realignment within ancient Chinese culture to strengthen the Chinese people’s loyalty to the country. This shift impacts school curriculums, has increased censorship and enacted stricter business regulation. In recent years, the Party has made a concerted effort to tackle foreign and domestic corruption within its territorial jurisdiction, with the goal of attracting foreign investors and maintaining internal order. In keeping with Beijing’s effort to control how others view China, the Party has successfully managed to internationalize their currency, Renminbi (RMB). This past year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) decided to incorporate the Chinese RMB into its SDR basket; a basket of currencies determining the value of the IMF’s reserve asset. This is a huge win for China, who can now boast of joining ranks with the US Dollar, Euro and GBP. Additionally, it may become easier to join bilateral swap agreements with foreign banks due to the RMB becoming a more freely traded global currency. Ability for Chinese economic integration will lead to cooperation within the world market, further enhancing the projection of Chinese peaceful behaviour, despite ongoing hegemonic objectives through the OBOR initiative.

Although linked to the notion of image, prestige holds a unique role in supporting the CCP decision to invest in OBOR. Beijing seeks to correct the historical injustices done unto the Chinese when they lacked military might and diplomatic clout. Physically, OBOR does not interact with any state in America’s sphere of influence, geopolitically excluding the United States from an active role in the initiative. This will solidify Chinese trade routes across the majority of the world in the event that the US and China meet conflict. Russia is another primary competitor for China within the international system. OBOR’s breadth will brush up against Russia’s sphere of influence, likely sparking tension between the two powers. China is clearly testing the limits of its economic gravitas and newfound material capabilities against a country that has been a threat in the past. Russia has already enacted policies disavowing a Chinese attempt to create Eurasian corridors of the Road that fall too close to their sovereign borders. However, increased economic integration between the Russian and Chinese economies may diffuse any violent confrontation. Russia welcomes the increased trade, but Moscow will respond to any perceived physical infringement of their territory and reputation. The prestige of Russia is just as important to Putin as is China’s prestige to Xi. Therefore, if China offers a form of partnership that allows Russia to project leadership from within OBOR towards the international system, Russia may be more inclined to accept a cooperative stance.

China is currently a peaceful rising power, but has yet to encounter direct resistance to it advancement. Whether OBOR’s economic objectives are eventually overshadowed by Beijing’s political aspiration is yet to be seen. Can Xi Jinping adhere to the Confucian values he promotes, or will he retaliate at the slightest military provocation? Will other great powers and Asian states react with hostility to China’s increased influence within their borders? Presently, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore among other Asian countries are supportive of OBOR’s goals because they realize the economic benefits are in their interest. However, should China leverage its financial investment and directorial role within the project for geopolitical gain, Russia and the United States will likely respond to this shift in power. The tide is changing for Asia, and history is known to repeat itself. The New Silk Road will allow a rising China to bolster war chests, create new alliances, integrate within the global economy, and assert dominance in Eurasia. America’s retreat from the world stage and Russia’s lack of leadership within the OBOR initiative serves to support Beijing’s vision for a new global order, creating a system in which Chinese power could thrive unchecked. If unchecked, this imbalance of power is ripe for conflict.