In 2013, China announced a massive $1 trillion international transportation and trade infrastructure construction program known as the Belt & Road Initiative. This program, which is well underway, aims to finance, build, and supply material for roads, bridges, tunnels, railway lines, sea ports, and airports for over 100 countries in the world. China is billing this as a modern version of the ancient Silk Road. Join Active Minds as we explore the history of the Silk Road as it informs an understanding of this contemporary effort.
Key Lecture Points
- The ancient Silk Road was a series of trade routes that grew up over time and linked China, Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, Turkey and Europe. It was not so much one road, as a series of connections between various points along the way. The Silk Road also a maritime component, which was particularly important to the spice trade that originated in both the spice islands of Asia, as well as the Arabian Peninsula.
- While the origins of the ancient Silk Road were in trade, many cultural touchstones also traveled along these routes. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam spread across the Silk Road in different eras, bringing these four religions to the vast majority of present-day Asia. Information and technology moved along the same paths.
- When the Mongols consolidated power along much of the route, their system of authority, law, and religion strengthened trade. It was the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan, who invited the Venetian Marco Polo to advise him for many years. After the Mongol decline, there was a period of Chinese naval expansion until a new emperor halted those activities. With this decline and the rise of European exploration, the Silk Road retreated into history.
- Until 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping revived the allure of the ancient Silk Road and repackaged it into a multi-continental network of trade, finance and influence to advance China’s strategic goals, under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
- BRI projects satisfy many of China’s goals: bringing energy and control into its Muslim West; by-passing the oil shipment chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca; building influence and dependency in smaller states around its borders; opening trade routes to Central Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas; and countering the dominance of the United States and the West.
- However, many of the projects have demonstrated downsides to the recipients: unsustainable debt, political corruption, forced use of Chinese finance, companies, labor and materials; and Chinese interference in local politics.
- As one of its largest trading partners, Chinese power and values have sometimes clashed with European interests, who are negotiating the path between receiving desirable infrastructure financing; seeing China buy controlling interests in major European; and securing adherence to EU standards and norms.
- The United States has led resistance to the BRI, but with attention focused elsewhere and withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, so far has had limited influence on China’s initiatives.
- Why did the ancient Silk Road emerge as a key network of trade and cultural exchange and what led to its abandonment?
- What has brought China to the point where it can seek to expand its power and influence through mechanisms like the Belt and Road Initiative?
- Why has China linked its current Belt and Road initiative to the ancient Silk Road? Is the analogy accurate?
- What do you think are China’s true intentions behind BRI?
- What should be the stance of the United States and the West?
More to Explore
- NY Times articles and pictures Click here
- Summary and implications of BRI Click here
- The Sri Lanka cautionary tale Click here
- Review of China-India relations Click here
Books for Further Reading
- Frankopan, Peter. The New Silk Roads. Vintage, 2020. 336 pages. Having previously written Silk Roads, a New History of the World, Frankopan now explores the new relationships emerging from Asia, from China’s rise to the emergence of the former Soviet “stans,” to the strategic efforts of Russia, Turkey, and others. All against a backdrop of enormous natural resources and changing geo-political relationships around the world.
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- Elverskog, Johan. Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. While we most often hear of conflict between these global religions, the history of Buddhist-Muslim interaction is a rich and complex one with profound cross-cultural exchanges that enriched and transformed both. Elverskog explores this history from the eighth century through the end of the Qing dynasty.
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- Wasserstrom, Jeffrey and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2018. Offers a framework for understanding China's meteoric rise from developing country to superpower through discussion of historical legacies, Chinese culture, and Chinese-American relations.
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