On November 18th 2014 a train departed from the city of Yiwu in China’s Zhejiang province. It was starting a journey of almost 13 000 Kilometre’s, heading west through China, into Central Asia and across the Eurasian landmass. It’s destination? Europe, arriving 21 days later on the 9th of December in Madrid, Spain. The cargo? 82 Tons of Chinese exports. This was the first cargo train to travel on the new Eurasian Land Bridge; the first step on what can be called a new era in Eurasian economic integration and the beginning of a new silk road.
Recently, Western media have focused intently on the economic woes and troubles of China. The Chinese stock market crash in the summer of 2015, the infamous housing bubble that just seems to grow with no end, a growing debt problem and a slowed growth rate. These are just a few of the problems that seems to face the Peoples Republic as of late. But there is one topic regarding China that has for the most part slipped under the radar; the silk road. In September 2013 newly elected (as of 2012) Chinese president Xi Jin Ping held a famous speech in which he announced the plan for what he called the Belt and Road initiative, or “One belt, One Road” translated from Chinese. The initiative consists of two parts: 1) the “Silk road economic belt” and 2) the ocean based “Maritime Silk Road”. The general aim is to restore what was once the main link of trade and exchange between Europe and China, the famous Silk Road.
Crowd in Hotan, Xinjiang. Photo: Flickr.
Ever since the fall of Constantinople and start of Western sea trade in the 15th century it has been a dream for many Chinese to restore this famous route. Not just for economic purposes, but also for cultural and historic reasons, harking back to a golden age in Chinese history.
So why should we care about the transportation of some goods?
Contrary to what you may think, a new route linking Europe and China over land could shorten the time it takes for goods to be transported by as much as 30%, not counting air transport. The current route for many goods is by boat and it takes a minimum of 27 days, often more, for a ship to travel just one way.
Hong Kong – Strait of Malacca – Golf of Aden – Suez Canal – Mediterranean Sea – Europe
Ships have been using the same route for well over a hundred years, ever since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. But it is a route that as of recent years has become perilous. With threat of pirates and hijackings on the increase, it could give many shipping magnets a feeling of unease every time a ship leaves port.
It could therefore potentially be quite lucrative to open up alternatives via land. Not just for Chinese and European manufacturers of goods, but also for the central Asian republics, which could benefit greatly from such a scheme in the long run. One could easily be fooled to think that the initiative is merely a new way for goods to be transported between Europe and China. Looking at it in the long term this is not the case. From the start it has also been packaged as a development strategy. Investment in infrastructure, tourism, energy and banking are just a few of the areas that are seen as potential targets. The development strategy is supposed to start in the western parts of China and then stretch into Central Asia and towards Europe.
Urumqi, Xinjiang. Photo: Flickr.
The new Silk Road can be seen as a way for China to drag much of it’s own underdeveloped western provinces, and its Central Asian neighbours out of its slumber. The sum of investment being talked about has been in the range of $40 Billion dollars.
What drives China to invest such staggering amounts of resources into this region? The returns of such an investment is not guaranteed to be a success, but perhaps that is of secondary importance to China. To start understanding China´s motivation, a good point of origin is to look at the western Chinese province of Xinjiang and its recent troubles, where civil unrest is threatening China´s rule
China is hoping that the growth the Chinese coast and interior have experienced in the last 30 years due to foreign investment and the Chinese miracle, can be replicated in other regions, just this time -with Chinese money. The goal is to “pacify” the poverty stricken western provinces, and especially Xinjiang, by more than military means and instead use economic incentives, with big investments in infrastructure, jobs and tourism to win the minds and hearts of the people.
Will it work?
Many question whether it will, being seen by some as a risky project simply used for PR purposes rather then real development benefiting the people. If this is the case or not, time will tell, but there is no doubt that with big money there are big changes ahead for both the Chinese themselves, its Central Asian neighbours and in the long run the whole Eurasian continent.