Suzanne, my wife, and I have been on the old silk road in Kazakhstan. If there is a “middle of nowhere” this had to be it! The photo below is a caravansary which was a welcome place to stay on the way to and from China to the Middle East on the old silk road. Its origins dated to the second century BCE and was an important trade route until the end of the 14th century. While it was known for the transport of silk, it had other purposes as well.
As important and exotic it may have been, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is much more sweeping in its purposes and connections. As the map here shows, its Belts (actually the roads) and the Roads (actually the sea routes) connect multiple cultures and nations, 71 by recent count. It encompasses over half of the world’s population and a quarter of the global BDP. It meets China’s needs for markets to its excess capacity while open for trade from many nations. China has already invested $210 billion in it, chiefly construction of infrastructure and will amount to at least $340 billion for those purposes.
It has proved controversial since a number of the impacted nations now owe half of their foreign debt to China. The list includes Djibouti, Kyrgystan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. This “debt trap diplomacy” understandably worries many about Chinese economic imperialism. In response, China has forgiven substantial amounts of that debt perhaps to curry favor. There have also been concerns that the belts for trade could also be belts for the Chinese military though China has yet to exhibit much interest in doing so outside of developing a port/base at Djibouti.
So, what is China up to? Much of it is Xi’s vision for China. He has been heavily influenced by studies of the rise and fall of the Qing Dynasty. Its crises came to a bloody height in the 1860s rather like the U.S. has been so influenced by its own Civil War. That era included a series of “unequal” treaties begun with Great Britain’s successful efforts to force China to accept the importation of opium. China had a huge army and a decent sized navy with cannon, but the British cannon outranged the Chinese.
Gunboat diplomacy worked and China paid the price. Xi is not about to have China give in to any more unequal treaties. Instead, his vision for China’s return to greatness is hinged on the Belt and Road Initiative. It is more than about hard infrastructure. It includes China setting up international courts to resolve commercial disputes relating to this Initiative based on models established by Dubai and Singapore that have been accepted. Will those courts indeed be independent of Beijing?
As an example of its importance, the map makes clear that Iran is essential for the initiative’s success. Hence, China has become Iran’s main weapons provider and co-conspirator in finding ways to evade Trump’s sanctions on Iran. It does not appear that President Trump is sufficiently aware of Xi’s motivations and goals. How should the U.S. deal with this Initiative in your view?