The ancient silk road, established around 130 BC, saw the trading of goods between the Han dynasty of the far east, with countries towards its west which includes modern day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria and as far as the Roman empire. It was first initiated by emperor Han Wu Di, who ordered his envoy Zhang Qian, to open up the trade route and following that, saw the prospering of the silk road through its trade among merchants from different countries.
The ancient silk road stretches beyond 6500 kilometres, and passes through a few key points:
- Chang An (长安), which means perpetual peace, the current capital of the Shaanxi province;
- Dun Huang (敦煌), where the world heritage site – Dun Huang Mogao Caves or the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas are located;
- Xi Yu (西域), which includes modern day Xinjiang, extending all the way west;
- Da Qin (大秦), the Roman empire.
The silk road has played an important role in trade, politics, military, history, and culture. Along the silk road, aside from necessities such as cotton and wool were being traded, exotics such as ivory, gold, rare woods were the main contributors to the flourishing of the trade route, with other religions such as Buddhism and Islam arriving into China. Through time, the silk road evolved into a golden path where different cultures and ideas transpire into tangible forms.
The modern silk road, was not until 2013 that it became public was when the Chinese president Xi Jin Ping proposed a plan to revive the silk road during a visit to Central Asia and South East Asia. The initiative is collectively known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Policy or the Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative. According to an article from the SCMP, the OBOR initiative has seen 68 countries signing the trade deal, which will cover 70% of the world’s population, reaching a total of 40% of the world’s GDP at $21 trillion.
This initiative, has the vision of connecting the east to West Asia, Russia, and Europe, and is divided into two parts – the Silk Road Economic Belt which focuses on land, and the Maritime Silk Road, which centralizes on maritime routes. For the Economic Belt, China has placed huge emphasis on capital injection and infrastructure construction such as energy pipelines, railways, and so on. The land route begins from China, extending all the way west and eventually ending in the Netherlands. As for the maritime route, the initiative focuses on joining coastal parts beginning from East China through South East and South Asia, touching parts of Africa and eventually concluding in the Mediterranean.
This initiative, in essence, will integrate most of the technical standards such as the UHV standard, and alongside will see increased connectivity and cooperation among all countries involved in the deal. This allows greater and quicker access to potential funds and borrowings, particularly in countries where the lack of foreign direct investment makes capital difficult to obtain.
Also, through the initiative, trade would be facilitated which allows the free movement of goods and services between member countries which could, potentially, have a reduction in trade barriers such as tariffs and allow members to have a comprehensive access to foreign markets. The construction of the pipeline from Turkmenistan to China would see 55 billion cubic metres of gas being pumped to Shanghai annually and will allow countries such as Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country to open up most of its hinterland for trade and economic development. According to a report from Rand, by constructing railways within the trading partners, total exports within the study area could potentially increase by 2.8%, followed by improvements in transport services.
Through the OBOR policy, there is also greater room for cultural communication and exchange – and it remains a relevant factor for mega powers to assert their influence through soft powers, rather than through conventional methods such as policy and military assertion. This allows the public image of countries to be redefined and could potentially attract more FDI and improve trade.
To revive a forgotten memory of the past is what takes time. For China, it has not been smooth sailing ever since the idea of the Silk Road was proposed. It demands extraordinary vision, exceptional commitment, and most importantly, faith that it will succeed – all of which China has always had from the start.