Lessons to be learned from ancient silk route

Updated: 2016-01-01 08:16

By Peter Frankopan(China Daily Europe)

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The key to Belt and Road Initiative is to manage expectations - and make good on them

The word of the year for 2015, according to Oxford Dictionaries is "emoji". The wide prevalence of the Internet and the way we use our mobile devices is changing the way we communicate - including how we express ideas and emotions.

If Oxford Dictionaries could have chosen more than a single word, however, it would have been hard to bet against "Silk Roads". Over the last 12 months, it has been all but impossible to open a newspaper, read a financial report about the global economy or flick through a glossy travel magazine without the Silk Roads being mentioned. In the fashion world, they say things always come back into fashion; but even the most diehard follower of Vogue's advice would be surprised to see how a network of trade and communication that is over two millennia old has suddenly captured the imagination and become the zeitgeist. The sudden attention owes much to China.

Lessons to be learned from ancient silk route

Lessons to be learned from ancient silk route

In Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2013, President Xi Jinping announced plans to create what was initially called a Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road, and is now simply referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative. The aim was to improve relations with China's neighbors as well as with countries beyond - both in Asia, but also in Africa, and perhaps even further: the terms of the initiative are deliberately vague, precisely to allow for inclusivity and expansion. As both the European Union and NATO have learned, creating membership criteria can be divisive and counter-productive, creating an "us" and "them" mentality that can be highly problematic.

Since President Xi's announcement, serious thought - and considerable resources - have been put into expanding ties that are mutually beneficial to China and its neighbors. Investments into major infrastructure projects such as high speed train links to connect with the Malaysian peninsula, new international air routes fanning in all directions and deep water ports such as at Gwadar in Pakistan have followed alongside oil and gas pipelines that deliver much-needed resources that will (literally) help fuel growth. Southeast Asia is being knit together, while Central Asia and beyond too are feeling the benefits of friendly relations with Beijing.

And then, of course, there is Africa, where at last month's Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, announcements on debt relief, preferential loans and $60 billion of Chinese assistance were greeted by South African President Jacob Zuma as a "win-win" scenario - not surprising given the scale of opportunities on offer: 40,000 training opportunities in China, 30,000 scholarships and a commitment for instruction programs for more than 200,000 African technicians.

Lessons to be learned from ancient silk route

A familiar pattern is emerging, backed up by mellifluous language that emphasizes opportunities, cooperation and mutual benefits. China is keen to tell all who are part of the Belt and Road Initiative - and to those who would like to be part of it - that it is listening and learning, that it is keen to work together and to find out more about peoples and countries that have hitherto received little attention.

It was a similar story 2,000 years ago, when the great historian Sima Qian set out to inform the powers that be about what lay beyond China's frontiers. Working out who was who, what they had to offer, and what opportunities and challenges the court might face in the future was vital at a time when horizons were likewise expanding, where there was growing awareness that there was much to be gained from working with those with goods that were in demand at home - and who might equally do well from trade and good relations from large, sophisticated markets across China.

Despite what many commentators claim about globalization and its impact and effects on the modern world, even during Sima Qian's time, it was possible to talk of international - and intercontinental - trading networks, a time when goods and indeed ideas were exchanged between Asia, Africa and Europe. And exchange is an important element to understanding the past, as well as the present, for when it comes to trade, business works both ways: textiles, ceramics, precious metals go one way; and products of other kinds come in the other direction.

It is easy to forget that this is part of the equation of the Belt and Road Initiative. For while it is certain that China has an eye on improving its position with its neighbors and beyond, it is also keenly focused on where the maximum benefits lie, and where the resources it wants and needs come from - whether oil and gas, minerals and metals, even foodstuffs and water supplies. The initiative is not about charity, but part of a long-term agenda to ensure that growth and prosperity bless China in the next four decades in the same way that they have blessed it in the last 40 years.

Since 1970, China's share of global GDP has quadrupled, rising from around 3 percent to just over 12 percent. In the same period, the United States and Europe's share of global GDP has fallen by nearly a fifth, from 60 percent to less than 40 percent. The dramatic shift in the balance of economic productivity has helped propel China to the forefront of international affairs, and lies behind not only development of the Belt and Road Initiative but its transformation from a regional to a global power.

As Sima Qian realized, and as did his successors during the Tang (AD 618-907) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the downside of globalization is that fortunes of one piece of the jigsaw depend on those of another. The same is true today, as stagnation and recession in Europe and the US have a direct impact on China's development - just as China's slowdown in recent months has affected the flickering embers of recovery in the West. This is why the slump in the commodities markets, which means that resources are cheaper today than they have been for years, is not all good news for Beijing. In other words, we either all win together, or we all lose together.

This is where the greatest challenge lies for the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016. Expectations from China's neighbors have been high since President Xi's initial announcement in Astana, and have only grown since as a result of major investments with promises of more to come. The language of cooperation and mutual benefits was already music to the ears of those who stand to gain most from large-scale projects - and now even more so at a time when many governments across Asia and Africa are feeling the pinch because of the downturn in the global economy.

As with all promises, the key now is to manage those expectations - and to make good on them. The longer China's own slowdown lasts, the more difficult that will be to do: it is not easy to help others when you need to help yourself, too. But the way that the initiative now actually takes shape is also crucial. For it to really work, it is important to build long-term relations - not with individuals and governments, but with peoples. In practice, that means insisting on good governance and not turning a blind eye to where that investment money goes, and to whom it goes.

Initial signs suggest more thinking needs to go into planning for the future. At FOCAC, President Xi was at pains to underline that China would play no part at all in "interfering" with African politics - drawing an unspoken distinction with how the West has dealt with many parts of the world.

The most important thing, though, is that in foreign policy, like in business, you learn from your mistakes: 2016 will not be perfect as far as the Silk Roads are concerned, and much of what happens in the Belt and Road countries will be out of China's control during a time of great political upheaval. What matters is how China reacts to change, and how it learns from the experience of getting things wrong. That - I think - is a reason to be hopeful.

The author is senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. His best-selling book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, is published by Bloomsbury. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily European Weekly 01/01/2016 page11)