Centuries ago, China was the major world power. China and Europe were linked by what became known as the “Silk Road.” China’s silks, porcelain and technologies like printing, chess, the compass and gunpowder traveled west along this road to change the West and the world.
Today, a new plan will add six routes to the West. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, is reviving that overland road for both economic and geopolitical reasons, according to a Stratfor article by lead analyst Thomas Vien and other contributors entitled, “The Grand Design of China’s New Trade Routes” (June 24, 2015).
Based on the article, establishment of those six routes will include the building of port facilities, roads and railroads, the creation of maritime routes and the construction of pipelines. Xi is creating this “Grand Design,” called the Belt and Road Initiative. It involves 60 countries and is gigantic in scope.
One route already goes through Mongolia to Russia using the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Other routes transit to the ocean through the Southeast Asian peninsula, India-Myanmar-Bangladesh, and a third through Pakistan. Two overland routes go through Central Asia to Europe: one is planned to go through Iran and Turkey; the other goes through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus.
China’s massive government capital reserves are its strength. This Belt and Road Initiative will cost trillions of dollars over decades. China has the cash gained from three decades of being a cheap labor country in order to be able to afford Xi’s vision.
The second motivation for such an extensive and expensive program is based upon China’s geopolitical weaknesses. Ninety percent of China’s current export trade is maritime. Eighty-two percent of its imported petroleum travels through several strategic choke points which are controlled by island nations that ring and enclose eastern and southeastern China, from Japan to the Philippines to Indonesia. American allies and the U.S. Navy control most of these island nations and choke points.
In case of a war between the U.S. and China, these sea routes would be restricted by the U.S. That’s not something China wants. Creating these alternate routes gives China options in its struggle with the United States for dominance. It will force the U.S. military to spread its resources over a greater geographic area.
Russia also will not like to see its dominance over former Soviet republics challenged. Russia’s influence in the region will likely wane with building of roads and rails and the increase of Chinese commerce and presence.
Part of China’s concern comes from its slowing economy and the end of its cheap labor era. The Chinese must create new products to employ China’s teeming masses. These massive projects will not only add construction jobs and develop China’s interior, but also will also create new, high-tech products like locomotive and train cars. The new routes will also add new customers for Chinese products.
This Belt and Road Initiative will cross contested areas where insurgents would threaten construction crews’ security and safety. Going through Pakistan, for instance, would require at least 10,000 Pakistani soldiers to protect Chinese workers from Muslim insurgents.
These additional routes will also mean that drugs and people can travel more easily into China, potentially increasing crime. China’s dissident minorities, like Muslim Uyghur, could be supplied with both insurgents and weapons. Chinese intelligence-gathering methods and personnel would have to be expanded. Increased Chinese presence could threaten transit countries with the fear of Chinese influence and loss of their sovereignty.
Some of what Xi Jinping’s Grand Design intends has already been done but in a haphazard manner. His strategy ties many economic and geopolitical ideas together into a unified plan. If Xi and his successors can succeed in finishing these six routes, many of the issues that have held China back for hundreds of years will have been solved, creating a new and more powerful China. Her years of geographic and geopolitical isolation may come to an end. China may again take center stage in the world as it has done for most of its history.