Man has been Travelling and Goods Traded via the silk road:The Silk Road routes stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, up throughout Mesopotamia, to Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome, and Britain.A network of mostly land but also sea trading routes, the Silk Road stretched from China to Korea and Japan in the east, and connected China through Central Asia to India in the south and to Turkey and Italy in the west. The Silk Road system has existed for over 2,000 years, with specific routes changing over time.
Meridian highway will stretch over 2,000 km from the Belarus border to the Kazakhstan frontierRussian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved the construction of a new tolled motorway across Russia designed to significantly shorten cargo routes, RT.com reported.The massive infrastructure project, the Meridian highway, has won the support of the Russian government, Vedomosti business daily said, citing government officials.
The highway is set to stretch over 2,000 kilometres from the Belarus border to the frontier with Kazakhstan, and it is expected to become part of the fastest trucking route between China and Europe.The motorway will reportedly cost around 600 billion rubles (US$9.5 billion). According to the report, the project’s operator has already bought out around 80% of the land required for the construction of the road.
While the construction will fully rely on investors’ funds without taking money from the Russian budget, the government has pledged to assist with attracting new investment for the project, including from China.However, investors want the government to ensure their minimal revenue of around US$550 million, covering not commercial but political risks such as the closure of state borders.Given that tolls will be charged for trucks and cars, as well as the large capacity of the highway, the project is expected to break even in 12 years.
The Meridian highway falls under China’s ambitious transcontinental trade and infrastructure One Belt, One Road project, which Russia supports, the report said.In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China and took part in the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.At that time he said that the Chinese initiative will strengthen “the constructive cooperation” of the Eurasian states and will ensure sustainable economic development and economic growth in the region.
The ancient Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. It was not a single road but a network of tracts and sea routes on which goods were transported by merchants.Originating in China, the 4,000-mile road followed the Great Wall, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the majestic Pamirs mountains before crossing Afghanistan and then on to the Middle East.
An aid convoy from Europe is headed for Afghanistan. Seven lorries snake along the Silk Road, a trade route steeped in tradition. It wasn’t just merchants, scholars and armies that traveled from east to west and west to east on this ancient web of trade routes, but ideas, religions and even entire cultures, too. A stopover in Baku, the wind-pounded city by the Caspian Sea. In Azerbaijan’s capital you can get a true flavor of the old Silk Road and its legends. One of them is the Maiden Tower. For it is said that many centuries ago, an Emir fell in love with his own daughter but she rejected him. Disgruntled, he locked her up in this tower and, according to the legend, the young girl jumped out of the window. Myths and stories like these keep alive the glory of centuries gone by. The trip continues. The convoy drives through Turkmenistan, the black desert behind the Caspian Sea.
The gateway to the Silk Road – an entrance to the rich and modern Ashgabat. Images of Turkmenistan’s capital city are a rarity as journalists are not normally welcome here. Hustle and bustle in the markets. Rug and spice traders barter with potential buyers. Narrow alleys and bazaars, silk weavers, artisans and traders are everywhere you look.
Afterwards, we make a stop over in Buchara, which was once a hub for caravans from China, Europe, Russia and Persia. To this day, it remains one of the most important cities in Uzbekistan. Buchara’s buildings reflect the historical development of Central Asian architecture. A particular highlight is the 46.5-meter-high Kalyan minaret that was erected in the 12th century.
The trip continues through Uzbekistan. Ahead lies the legendary Samarkand, clean as a whistle and perfectly restored. For many years, the city was an important province under Persian rule, which gained its wealth through trade.
The final stretch on the Silk Road, the destination of the convoy draws near. The Friendship Bridge and Afghanistan – the end of the line for the trucks with their humanitarian cargo. A trans-continental exchange on the Silk Road rich in myths and history.
Beijing draws on flawed history and appropriates modern misnomers to soft sell its Belt and Road InitiativeIf China’s state media and other propaganda organs are to be believed, Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is reopening ancient trade routes around the world once known as the “Silk Roads.” Indeed, the state-owned investment arm overseeing a range of the US$1 trillion BRI’s trade-promoting infrastructure projects is known as the “Silk Road Fund.”The historical term conjures images of desert caravans of silk and other traders crossing from China through Central Asia and on to European markets. It also evokes the travels of 13th century Venetian adventurer merchant Marco Polo, who was among the first European traders to arrive in China and whose reports on his peregrination exoticized China and its silken wares.
BRI’s public relations materials also frequently point to a supposed “Southern Silk Road”, a trade route that reputedly originated in China’s southern Sichuan and wound through present day Myanmar on to the Bay of Bengal and Indian subcontinent.
That historically dubious trade route has been further embellished by a supposed ocean-spanning “Maritime Silk Road”, which reputedly passed through the Indian Ocean during an unspecified period in history.
Few, if any, historians dispute the fact that there was substantial trade between China and Europe dating back to medieval times.Modern day traders on an ancient Silk Road track in Central Asia. But there is no credible historical record of a “Southern Silk Road” connecting China and India, as China’s multiple attempts to penetrate Myanmar miserably failed. Nor did China historically engage in trade-promoting maritime ventures after its only ancient explorer of the seas, Zheng He, sailed across the Indian Ocean in the 15th century.
The term “Silk Road” is in historical reality a Eurocentric misnomer of relatively recent origin. Lars Ellström, a prominent Swedish Sinologist who trekked the length of China from 2009 to 2011 aptly sums the term up in his travelogue book “Road to Kashgar.”“The name ‘Silk Road’ has probably stuck in the West because it has an – incorrect – impression that it was [China’s] trade with Europe that was most important and partly because it is exotic and interesting.” That is also the reason, Ellström contends, “why it is used in China today: it is good marketing for the nation and contributes to tourism.”
It has also helped Beijing to soft sell its otherwise controversial BRI concept, now under rising criticism for causing sovereignty-eroding “debt traps” in recipient nations, to a wider global audience.“Silk Road” is not by any account an originally Chinese term. Indeed, it was likely first officially used in China in 1989, when Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press published a book by Chinese author Che Muqi entitled “The Silk Road: Past and Present.”
Che’s volume fails to mention that the term “Silk Road”, Seidenstrasse, or rather Seidenstrassen (Silk Roads) in the German language plural, was coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, a 19th century German geographer. Von Richthofen used the term in his academic reports from Central Asia, which were first published in Berlin in 1877.
However, the term did not gain mainstream usage until one of von Richthofen’s students at Berlin’s Humboldt University, a Swedish explorer named Sven Hedin, began using it in his studies in the 1930s.
A man in Chinese costume walks next to a camel during the Silk Road Cultural Journey ceremony in Jingyang, Shaanxi province, China. Photo: Twitter. Hedin followed literally in von Richthofen’s footsteps with travels in Central Asia and in 1936 published a book entitled “Die Seidenstrasse” in German and “Sidenvägen” in Swedish. It was then translated into a number of other languages, including English in 1938, and became known as “The Silk Road.”
Exactly why von Richthofen and Hedin settled on the term “Silk Road” is not entirely clear, as a variety of goods were traded between China and Europe at the time. Indeed, in the ancient Roman Empire, silk was widely frowned upon because it was considered an inappropriate luxury item due to its sexually suggestive smooth and glitzy surface.
Warwick Ball, an Australian-born archeologist, has in his writings referred to the term “Silk Road” as a myth of modern academia, as the spice trade between India and Arab countries was far more important for the economies of both the Roman Empire and medieval Europe than the silk trade with China.
Moreover, if there ever was anything resembling a “Southern Silk Road” connecting southern China to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar, it would have been limited to Chinese imports of jade, then as now considered a “heavenly” stone in China, from mines in what is now known as Kachin state.
Few Chinese merchants were known to venture beyond the northernly jade mines and down to Myanmar’s central plains, where there was little of trading interest at the time.
Verifiable historical facts do not always factor into Beijing’s BRI-related propaganda, as state spinmeisters are now busy inventing various “New Silk Roads” based on past ones. In addition to the “new”, “southern” and “maritime” Silk Roads, plans are now afoot to forge an “Ice Silk Road” connecting China with northern Russian ports in the Arctic Ocean all the way to Europe.
The Arctic project also foresees Chinese and Russian companies seeking cooperation on oil and gas exploration in the opening maritime area. China has not yet claimed any historical basis for its “Ice Silk Road”, as any such claim would be even less plausible than its other fanciful “Silk Roads.”
But it’s not clear yet that Beijing’s “Silk Road” revisionism will necessary pave the way for the BRI’s modern China-centric vision of a new global trade order. Indeed, resistance is growing on various tracks of the “New Silk Roads.”
One important component of the BRI’s “Southern Silk Road” is the envisioned Bangladesh-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Myanmar is in the middle of Beijing’s “New Silk Road” vision of the supposed old “Southern Silk Road”, with plans for high-speed railroads, highways and a deep-sea port, but concerns of a possible “debt trap” have scaled back previous big-ticket schemes.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which more credibly runs along ancient “Silk Road” routes, connecting the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang to Pakistan’s port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, is not consistent with that historical vision of free movement of people and goods.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has routinely dodged questions about China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, where over one million are being held in detention camps which border on his country. When questioned by the Financial Times about his stance on the issue, Khan said that “I don’t know much about that.”
To be sure, China’s new-age vision of “New Silk Roads” is re-writing history, as Beijing reaches outside of its borders in unprecedented ways to build trade-promoting roads, trains and ports. But Von Richthofen likely never would have expected to what extent his Seidenstrassen would come to be used and misused for political purposes.
Like the original “Silk Road”, Xi’s BRI is driving rivalries for control of valuable trade routes, pitting China against the United States, European Union, India, Japan and others that seek to resist Beijing’s rising hegemony. But unlike the ancient era when camels carried silk and other wares from China across the sandy steppes of Central Asia, the competition today is as much geo-strategic as it is commercial.
The Meridian Highway is a new commercial route that will connect Europe with Central Asia. Stock image by Getty
It won’t be the world’s most leisurely road trip but the new Meridian Highway will provide a sort of modern-day, Marco Polo-style adventure behind the wheel. Cutting through dramatic destinations and scenery, from high-altitude landscapes and windswept steppes to rolling summer pastures, the route will stretch almost 1250 miles (2000km) to improve access to Central Asia from Europe by car and serve primarily as a new trade corridor between the two regions.
Running westward from Russia’s border with Belarus to the border with Kazakhstan, the four-lane Meridian Highway will improve connectivity between these countries, as well as central Asian republics like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Ultimately the route will form part of a more ambitious and expansive network, the Russia-Western China Highway, that connects Hamburg in Germany with Shanghai.
The route will make it easier for visitors from Europe to visit central Asian republics like Kyrgyzstan. Image: Shutterstock
The Meridian Highway portion of the network has just been given the go-ahead by Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, according to Russia Today. Construction will soon get underway and there are plans to revive some periphery towns in deprived areas along the route into tourist resorts and logistics hubs. The project is still way off completion though with an estimated timeline of between 12 and 14 years.
The new route comes as China attempts to revive the ancient Silk Road (the road that enabled Marco Polo to make his famous 24-year round-trip to China) with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The project, launched by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013, oversees the development of road networks, railways, pipelines, ports and ferry routes, in over 152 countries across Europe and Asia.
You’ve probably heard of the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that once ran between China and the West during the days of the Roman Empire. It’s how oriental silk first made it to Europe. It’s also the reason China is no stranger to carrots.
And now it’s being resurrected. Announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, a brand new double trade corridor is set to reopen channels between China and its neighbours in the west: most notably Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
According to the Belt and Road Action Plan released in 2015, the initiative will encompass land routes (the “Belt”) and maritime routes (the “Road”) with the goal of improving trade relationships in the region primarily through infrastructure investments.
The aim of the $900 billion scheme, as China explained recently, is to kindle a “new era of globalization”, a golden age of commerce that will benefit all. Beijing says it will ultimately lend as much as $8 trillion for infrastructure in 68 countries. That adds up to as much as 65% of the global population and a third of global GDP, according to the global consultancy McKinsey.
But reviews from the rest of the world have been mixed, with several countries expressing suspicion about China’s true geopolitical intentions, even while others attended a summit in Beijing earlier this month to praise the scale and scope of the project. The project has proved vast, expensive and controversial. Four years after it was first unveiled, the question remains:
Why is China doing it?
One strong incentive is that Trans-Eurasian trade infrastructure could bolster poorer countries to the south of China, as well as boost global trade. Domestic regions are also expected to benefit – especially the less-developed border regions in the west of the country, such as Xinjiang.
The economic benefits, both domestically and abroad, are many, but perhaps the most obvious is that trading with new markets could go a long way towards keeping China’s national economy buoyant. Among domestic markets set to gain from future trade are Chinese companies – such as those in transport and telecoms – which now look poised to grow into global brands.
Chinese manufacturing also stands to gain. The country’s vast industrial overcapacity – mainly in the creation of steel and heavy equipment – could find lucrative outlets along the New Silk Road, and this could allow Chinese manufacturing to swing towards higher-end industrial goods.
A new global superpower :
Some Western diplomats have been wary in their response to the proposed trade corridor, seeing it as a land grab designed to promote China’s influence globally, but there’s little evidence to suggest the route will benefit China alone.The scheme is essentially a “domestic policy with geostrategic consequences, rather than a foreign policy,” Charles Parton, a former EU diplomat in China, told the Financial Times.
There’s no doubt that China is growing into a geopolitical heavyweight, stepping into the breach left by the United States on matters of free trade and climate change.“As some Western countries move backwards by erecting ‘walls’, China is contriving to build bridges, both literal and metaphorical,” ran a recent commentary by Xinhua, a Chinese state-run media agency.
Bridges are key to China’s strategy, says Kevin Liu, Chairman of Asia, Partners Group. He explains: “The superpower status the US has achieved is to a great extent grounded on the security blanket it offered to its allies. Geopolitically, China decided a long time ago that security was too expensive an offer to make. Instead, this new superpower may offer connectivity.”
If combined with enhanced global connectivity, China’s enormous gravity could become an even more meaningful engine for the global economy,” Liu adds.
Which countries stand to gain?
Sixty-two countries could see investments of up to US$500 billion over the next five years, according to Credit Suisse, with most of that channelled to India, Russia, Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, the Philippines and Pakistan.Chinese companies are already behind several energy projects, including oil and gas pipelines between China and Russia, Kazakhstan and Myanmar. Roads and infrastructure projects are also underway in Ethiopia, Kenya, Laos and Thailand.
Pakistan is one of the New Silk Road’s foremost supporters. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the trade route marked the “dawn of a truly new era of synergetic intercontinental cooperation”. Unsurprising praise perhaps from a country that stands at one end of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where it is poised to benefit from $46 billion in new roads, bridges, wind farms and other China-backed infrastructure projects. Support has come from further afield as well, with Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, predicting the route would “pave the way for a more inclusive, equal, just, prosperous and peaceful society with development for all”.
Who’s against it?
Perhaps the route’s most vocal critic so far has been India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Vehemently opposed to the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through a part of Kashmir claimed by India, he has called the route a “colonial enterprise” that threatens to strew “debt and broken communities in its wake”. He even boycotted the recent One Belt One Road summit in Beijing.
Modi wasn’t the only leader notably absent from the gathering. No officials from Japan, South Korea or North Korea made an appearance, and of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations, the only representative to attend was Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.“While countries welcome Beijing’s generosity, they are simultaneously wary of its largesse. China’s growing influence is a concern for nations whose political interests do not always align with Beijing’s,” explains Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy.
While China’s growing influence is a concern for nations whose political interests aren’t aligned with Beijing’s, Chinese spokespeople have repeatedly denied charges of a play for global dominance.
The New Silk Road is “not and will never be neocolonialism by stealth”, China announced recently in state media.
Who’ll foot the bill?
The One Belt One Road project already has $1 trillion of projects underway, including major infrastructure works in Africa and Central Asia.
Ahead of the Beijing summit earlier this month, the China Development Bank had set aside almost $900 billion alone for more than 900 projects. China’s Big Four state-owned banks extended an estimated $90 billion in loans to the economies related to the initiative last year alone.The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was launched in January 2016, has authorized capital of $100 billion. $20 billion will be paid-in capital from 80 shareholders, of which China is the largest with a 28% share.
Despite this largesse, though, the AIIB has provided less than $2 billion in funding over the past year. The bank’s president, Jin Liquin, told the World Economic Forum summit in China last year: “We will support the One Belt, One Road project. But before we spend shareholders’ money, which is really the taxpayers’ money, we have three requirements.”What were these? The new trade route would have to promote growth, be socially acceptable and abide by environmental laws, Jin said. How well the project fares against these three criteria has yet to be seen.
Recognising that neither governments nor the private sector could deliver on the full potential of trade facilitation on their own – the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation, a collaboration of international organisations, governments and businesses, was launched by the Forum in December 2015 at the WTO’s 10th ministerial conference in Nairobi.
The Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation is a public-private partnership for trade-led growth, run by the World Economic Forum, the Center for International Private Enterprise and the International Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.
Since it was founded, the Global Alliance has made cross-border trade simpler, faster and more cost-effective. It is the first initiative to provide a global platform to leverage business expertise and resources to implement customs and border reforms.“This (Alliance) was the first time we have worked with the public sector in this way – not just responding to consultations but sitting around a table with the public sector, other businesses and my head of ocean freight and head of road freight to really deep-dive into the weighing process in Morocco, the issues are we facing and our ideas for addressing them.” Christelle Fadel, General Manager – DHL Morocco
Worldwide, more than 50% of trade is subject to some form of red-tape at borders, with the average customs transaction involving 30 parties, 40 documents and 200 data elements. There is a pressing need to remove trade barriers worldwide. When trade is easier, more trade happens – unlocking investment and growth benefits for all.
“Getting engaged in the trade facilitation discussion is very important for business. In many cases business has the solutions that government needs, business knows what will work and also has the technical capacity to help deliver change.” Victor Ogalo – Director of Policy & Programmes – Kenya Private Sector Alliance
The Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation is helping governments in developing and least-developed countries to implement the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.
The Alliance is funded by the governments of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Denmark with businesses contributing resources and expertise in-kind. It creates an environment where businesses can trade more easily, with predictable procedures, streamlined regulations and modern automation. This leads to increased trade and investment, which unlocks inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction.
To date, the Alliance has contributed to the implementation of one of the greatest global trade agreements in two decades, new understanding of trade facilitation needs across the world and ongoing border management reform activities in over a dozen developing country trade hubs.Initial concrete outcomes include a reduction in unnecessary inspections, faster processing times and legal and administrative improvements in international trade.
“The Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation is supporting developing-country governments. It is driving both top-down and bottom-up reforms aimed at positioning their economies to capitalize more widely on international trade and investment opportunities. The private sector can play a vital role in helping to shape policy and other improvements in an enabling environment so that they have the greatest real-world impact.”Richard Samans, Managing Director; Head of Policy and Institutional Impact, World Economic Forum
The Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation is part of the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Trade and Global Economic Interdependence. This Platform modernizes international rules, national policies and behind-the-border trade facilitation strategies with the aim of strengthening trade and investment flows globally, in a rules-based system for the benefit of all.
Companies can join our initiative as partners and contribute their resources, actively participate in projects run by the Alliance, and share their expertise.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the most ambitious infrastructure project in modern history. It spans over 60 countries and will cost over a trillion dollars. The plan is to make it easier for the world to trade with China, by funding roads, railways, pipelines, and other infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa. China is loaning trillions of dollars to any country that’s willing to participate and it’s been a big hit with the less democratic countries in the region. This makes the BRI a risky plan as well. But China is pushing forward because its goals are not strictly economic, they’re also geopolitical. To truly understand the international conflicts and trends shaping our world you need a big-picture view. Video journalist Sam Ellis uses maps to tell these stories and chart their effects on foreign policy.