The New Silk Road, the emerging network of economic corridors stretching from China to Europe, is often referred to as a Chinese undertaking, Chinese economic diplomacy and geopolitical positioning — something that Xi Jinping and Co are selling to Eurasia. But is this really the case?
In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping introduced the world to something that was called the One Belt One Road (later changed to the Belt and Road) — an interconnected series of enhanced overland and maritime economic corridors that would be used to facilitate and bolster increased amounts of outbound Chinese investment and trade. While this grand initiative was posited in the international media as being virtually synonymous with the New Silk Road and including that the entire east-west, north-south melee of new land and sea ports, highways, rail lines, logistics zones, and new cities, what this actually looks like on the ground is a little different.
The terms Belt and Road, One Belt One Road, etc. are basically only used by the Chinese government, the international media, and academics. The people who are actually on-site building this massive political, economic, and infrastructural undertaking tend to call it by the name they’ve been using for over a decade: the New Silk Road.
The New Silk Road is a project that predates Xi Jinping by more than an entire cycle of Chinese politics. China and the countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe have been laying the groundwork for this network since at least the early 2000s. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been talking about reconstructing the Silk Road for a good chunk of his 26 year reign, Azerbaijan held a Silk Road revival conference in 1999, Belarus is now claiming that it was actually their idea first, and the mayor of Terespol municipality in the east of Poland, a prime overland Silk Road junction, has been printing maps showing his town connected by a bold red line to Beijing for the past twenty years.
Most major projects of this Silk Road network also commenced long before Xi branded it as a Chinese initiative. China-Europe cargo trains have been experimented with all through the 2000s. China and Kazakhstan’s joint cross-border free trade zone got started in 2011.
Construction on the Western Europe-Western China Highway, which stretches from the Yellow Sea coast of China to the Baltic Sea coast of Russia, began in 2009. The building of Gwadar Port in Pakistan got underway in 2002. Construction on Sri Lanka’s Chinese-funded Hambantota deep sea port began in 2008. Even Colombo Financial City, which had a big commencement celebration featuring Xi Jinping in 2014, had actually been in planning since 2011 . . .
The countries, companies, and development banks involved in New Silk Road related projects are also international, and span across the entire Eurasian theater:
The Port of Singapore is building a logistics zone in Chongqing, a prime Belt and Road terminus, as well as recently buying a 15.33% stake in China United Int’l Rail Containers, which operates 18 inland rail container terminals strategically spread across China.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, a vital link in both of the main China-Europe rail routes, is still Russian.
Poland, Belarus, and Germany are building key Silk Road Economic Belt-related dry ports and corresponding industrial zones without much in the way of Chinese funding or direction.
Georgia chose an American-led consortium to build their Silk Road-connected deep sea port rather than a Chinese-led one.
Azerbaijan is building a new port, highways, rail lines, and other trans-Eurasian transportation infrastructure with their own oil money and loans from the World Bank.
The World Bank is also funding the Kazakh portion of the Western Europe-Western China Highway, the largest single investment in the fund’s history.
European freight forwarding companies, like DHL, Hatrans, Essers, Wagenborg, and Trans-Eurasian Logistics, are attracting the cargo volumes which make the New Silk Road actually amount to something.
Ronald Kleijwegt, from the Netherlands, and HP, from the USA, almost single-handedly made trans-Eurasian rail transport sexy again.
So far, nearly all of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s investments have been in partnership with other international investment funds, such as the Japan-led ADB, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction.
The internationalism of Silk Road projects often looks something like this: Khorgos Gateway is in Kazakhstan and is a government project administered by the national railway, it was built up and developed by a company from Dubai, had a Belgian CEO, and will soon be 49% Chinese owned. Projects of the New Silk Road are often carried out with multiple layers of international partnerships, bi-lateral or even multi-lateral governmental support, a mix of companies from a variety of countries, and people working on the ground who are from all corners of the world.
If we only look at Silk Road projects that have direct Chinese governmental participation, what we’re left with isn’t much of a belt or a road. It’s the tying-in of projects that are being delivered by a multitude of international players that makes the Silk Road a functioning network.
That said, the fact that China is now playing the leading role in Silk Road development cannot be downplayed — they’ve already committed over a trillion dollars to the endeavor — and the country is without doubt the beating heart of the initiative, but this isn’t enough to brand the entire 60+ country undertaking as Chinese.
When we talk about the New Silk Road what we’re talking about is a network, and delineating the boundaries of any type of network is often a vague pursuit. Where the Silk Road network begins and ends is unclear, when it actually got started is debatable, and inquires into what countries it even includes are often inconclusive. It is perhaps easier to simplify the issue and just label the project as a “Chinese” initiative and look at it through the lens of the Belt and Road — and I’ve been guilty of this as well — but it just isn’t correct: the New Silk Road is no more Chinese than the ancient trans-Eurasian trade routes it’s modeled off of.
I'm the author of Ghost Cities of China. I'm currently traveling the New Silk Road doing research for a new book. Follow by RSS.