A Modern Traders’ Route

The New Silk Road is China’s latest and most ambitious attempt to foster economic relations: two proposed trade routes, one sea-based and one land-based, that seek to integrate Central and South Asian economies with China and Europe. The Maritime Silk Road makes stops in South Asia before it circles over to Nairobi and then, throughout Europe. The land-based Silk Road makes stops throughout Central Asia, allowing countries in the region to exploit their significant energy repositories at a time when there is increasing demand in South Asia. The Road then continues to Europe passing through several countries, including Iran and Turkey. These two separate pathways link three continents and billions of people in developing countries with hundreds of millions in more advanced ones.

The Silk Road Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Silk Road
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Within China, the land-based Road crosses the underdeveloped and unstable Xinjiang region. This area of China has missed out on the economic development that the country’s coastal regions have enjoyed in recent history. Moreover, the people of this region, known as Uyghurs, are majority Muslim and have traditionally been oppressed by the Chinese government and denied the freedom to practice their religion. The New Silk Road is an opportunity for the Chinese government to appease the Uyghurs with increased wealth and development and perhaps quell the civil unrest in the region, even if it still denies the people the right to exercise religion freely.

President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Pakistan, the mission of which was to sell the idea of the Silk Road, also served to remove the incentive of Pakistani funding of Islamist rebel groups in the Xinjiang region. In turn, China is already promising massive investment that would have practical benefits for Pakistani society. This is where the United States and China differ significantly in development aid: China often directs its foreign investment towards projects that benefit the society of the nation in question whereas the United States has historically spent its foreign investment on military and security purposes. The Pakistani military is awash with American investment dollars that corrupt officials often rob and send back to the very terrorist groups that the U.S. military fights in Afghanistan.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, is promising investments in power plants, renewable energy, and infrastructure, as it has already done in numerous African countries. The Unites States’ idea of aid is outdated and counterproductive compared to the refreshing take by the Chinese government. Such investment could also buy China greater influence in Pakistan, a country that the United States considers a necessary ally on the war on terror. Introducing Pakistan into the New Silk Road would therefore be a success for China.

The mechanism for financing this massive project is indicative of another geopolitical success for China. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a proposed financial institution that would provide the funds for the New Silk Road along with other infrastructure projects in Asia. The financial institutions that already exist, like the World Bank, are geared toward Western nations because they were developed by those same Western nations. The AIIB is China’s latest attempt to counteract those institutions’ favoritism although the Chinese government denies that the AIIB is a rival. Scheduled to come into force by the end of 2015, the AIIB already has 57 member countries, many of which are in Asia, and some of which are in Europe and other regions.

China, as a founding member, is apparently prepared to dole out tens of billions of dollars to build infrastructure for a 21st-century Silk Road: high speed railroads, bridges, roads, pipelines, fleets of ships, and more. Of course, the economic potential of the New Silk Road is huge, but the creation and sustainability of the AIIB could be one of the major geopolitical events of the century, especially if it actually delivers on its promise of development in Asia. China, however, could just as easily overplay its hand as the primary founding member and allow corruption to take root, just as it has in the various levels of its own domestic government. The AIIB could also foster an attitude of favoritism among its members, only granting funds to member countries that please China and ignoring others—the same attitude that Western-based financial institutions have. Small countries in South and Southeast Asia, like Bangladesh and Laos, would be vulnerable to an abusive China. Still, China has set the AIIB and the New Silk Road to be mutually reinforcing so that other countries can join in and still benefit.

The United States has not joined the AIIB, even though several of its allies have. The U.S. has expressed support for the New Silk Road but seems to be concerned with only how the project can benefit Afghanistan. In fact, the State Department does not make a single mention of China’s role in the New Silk Road or how it would be relevant to other areas beyond South and Central Asia. This irrational focus on Afghanistan makes sense, considering America’s commitment to the war-torn country, but the scope of the Silk Road is much bigger. The U.S. should focus on the broader picture and tie Afghanistan into that picture rather than the other way around. For example, the U.S. could offer aid in the development of the energy production industry in Central Asia. The U.S. could also use the Silk Road to promote the supremacy of regulations and the rule of law with good governance as well as reward anti-corruption measures.

While the U.S. does not have to be a member of the AIIB, our country should become involved in the New Silk Road, especially as a means to combat Chinese influence in regions that the U.S. deems strategic. The trade routes of the Silk Road could grow Chinese soft power: the appeal and sway that one culture has over others. The universality of products like iPhones, Coca-Cola, and Taylor Swift are examples of American soft power—the kind of power China desperately wants to have but currently lacks. If the New Silk Road were to facilitate trade of ideas and innovation from China, the country could more easily grow that kind of power. The U.S.’s involvement with the New Silk Road could at least contain and balance that influence.

The development and economic rise of Asia is fated to be one of the significant events of the century, and the New Silk Road and AIIB could very well be a culmination of that event or at least part of the road to it. Either way, the route could majorly reshape the geopolitics of the world and benefit millions of people with investment, trade, and more opportunities. It’s a vision that deserves to be pursued.

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