One Belt, One Road, One Driver: China commandeers the New Silk Road

One Belt One Road: On August 3 2015, a ferry carrying more than 80, 20-tonne  containers laden with caustic soda eased into the moorings Baku International Sea Trade Port. Bound for industrial manufacturing plants across Europe, the containers were the first shipment to complete a new intermodal trade route between the western Chinese province of Xinjiang and Azerbaijan that has cut the traditional journey time across Central Asia from 30 days to under a week. By 2020, some 300,000 such containers are expected to make their way along this route on an annual basis – the equivalent of ten trains the size of that original ferry-load for each and every day of the year.
Welcome to the logistical realities of the New Silk Road, the confluence of several international initiatives aimed at creating a transport network along the highways and byways of the legendary East-West trade route. Already the recipient of substantial international investment over the past two decades, the New Silk Road is now in danger of being subsumed into the One Belt One Road initiative, Beijing’s vision for a trillion-dollar economic zone enveloped by a land route running from Xi’an to Rotterdam via Moscow, Tehran and Central Asia to the north and a sea route from Fuzhou to Venice via Kolkotta, Colombia and Nairobi to the south.
The Xinjiang-Baku
service was neither the longest nor the first nor the longest East-West freight rail route to have come on stream in recent years. Both those accolades go to the 1,179- km Yuxinou International Railway service that runs between the river port of Chongqing in southwest China and the German steel town of Duisburg on the intersection of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers (the first) and its 1.874km extension that links the Chinese coastal town of Yuwi to Madrid (the longest).
So forget the images of robed merchants leading spice-laden camels across undulating sand dunes that have come to be associated with the original Silk Road; the icons of its 21st-century equivalent are more likely to be its container ships, freight trains and articulated trucks. Put aside, too, the iconic tents of the caravanserais and the sandstone towns with names steeped in romance, intrigue and adventure like Samarkand, Trebizond and Tyre; today’s logistical and commercial hubs bear defiantly functional names like the Khorgos-Eastern Gate Free Economic Zone and Iletsk1, where the marketplaces are the shiny new industrial units sprouting up alongside windswept border posts rather than the bustling souqs beloved of Hollywood.
Even the stark One Belt One Road slogan seems to reflect the more prosaic nature of the new Silk Road – but on the other hand somehow fails to do justice to the scale and ambition behind China’s plans to revive what was described in a recent UN report as both ‘a river of connections’ and ‘the greatest global supply chain in history.’
If it lives up to expectations, the New Silk Road is likely to match and maybe even surpass its predecessor’s billing. If everything goes according to plan, its 80,000 km of network of interconnecting roads and railway lines will spawn a free trade area with a GDP that the IMF last year calculated at somewhere between $292bn and $1trillion, depending how many (if any) of China’s western and old Silk Road provinces are factored into the equation.
China’s motives for championing this initiative are both parochial and global, economic as well as political. In order to counter rising labour costs in its eastern coastal regions, its production centres have been systematically relocated to its inland western provinces, most notably Xinjiang and the ‘megapolis’ of Chongqing in the south west of the country.
It is no coincidence that the first two rail routes to have been completed under the One Belt One Road initiative begin here and end at the markets where they hope to sell their competitively priced laptops, flat-screen TVs, clothes and toys – nor that Beijing has also recently unveiled its new Made in China 2025 strategy which aims to improve productivity and so give China a competitive edge in 10 chosen sectors, including high-end computerized machinery and robotics, aerospace equipment, renewable-energy cars and biological medicine.
Conversely, the new Silk Road and Economic Belt are integral parts of China’s long-term drive to secure access to the natural resources on its doorstep that it needs to fuel its own economic resurgence. Today, China imports oil, natural gas and uranium from Kazakhstan; yet more gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; and operates gold mines in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where it is also looking for rare earth minerals.
In the first 13 years of the new millennium, trade between China and Central Asia grew from $1bn to $50bn, and since then China has signed deals worth a further $20bn across the region – with yet another $20bn recently penciled in with Kazakhstan alone. Again, it is no coincidence that many of the road, railway and pipeline projects concerned lead back to China.
The gap between China’s economic policies and its political strategy is, as Confucius might have said, thinner than a butterfly’s wing. Its interest and involvement in the region go back 2,000 years to the Han dynasty and it consequently sees the region as much its birthright and natural stomping ground as Russia’s; when Xi first unveiled the One Belt One Road initiative in Astana two years ago he pointedly invoked the memory of Zhang Qian, the diplomat who who helped open China’s trade with the world over 2,000 years ago. “As I stand here and look back at that episode of history,” he said, “I could almost hear the camel bells echoing in the mountains and see the wisp of smoke rising from the desert.
The failure of the Soviet experiment will have only reinforced China’s conviction that Central Asia is its by right, and – despite the recent launch of the Eurasian Economic Union trading bloc – there is not much Moscow can do to stem Beijing’s increasing influence over its former satellite states. China’s determination to reassert its hegemony over the region also reflects Beijing’s intention of reasserting its diplomatic influence on the world stage. By drawing the ‘stans’ of Central Asia closer into its orbit, it believes it can shift the centre of geopolitical gravity eastward in its favour.
“He who wants success should enable others to succeed,” Confucius actually did say nearly 2,500 years ago; and although Beijing rarely stands accused of altruism, pragmatism is quite another matter. In the long term, the enormous sums that it is committing to the development of Central Asia’s infrastructure is expected to fuel exponential growth in a number of sectors including energy, mining transportation, logistics, agribusiness and tourism; it should also fuel intraregional between the countries along the New Silk Road as well as just between China and Europe. In the short term, however, the immediate winners are most likely to be the construction and civil engineers who secure the contracts to build this new river of networks and the logistic centres that will help realize this truly global supply chain – as well, of course, as their Chinese sponsors.