Silk Road Economic Belt: A Dynamic New Concept for Geopolitics in Central Asia
By Pan Zhiping
In the autumn of 2013 two notable opening-up and diplomatic initiatives were forthcoming from China. One was the concept of a “Silk Road Economic Belt” put forward by President Xi Jinping during his visit to the Central Asia, and the other was the convocation of the conference on the diplomatic work towards neighboring countries held in Beijing in October, which, due to the finalization of strategic objectives for China’s diplomatic work towards neighboring countries in the next five to ten years, was of great significance to the realization of the two centenary goals laid down at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, ushering in a brand-new geopolitical situation in Central Asia.
China’s high-speed economic development has registered great accomplishments through the 30-plus years of reform and opening-up. Generally speaking, the eastern part of China has developed at a faster speed, and the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta areas in particular will be the first to realize modernization. The western region, however, is still struggling to build a moderately well-off society. Such kind of uneven development between the east and west is impeding the country’s overall development. From the perspective of opening-up, China’s eastern costal areas have already established close links with the rest of the world via the Pacific Ocean, while its western regions are still in the process of marching towards Central Asia by means of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and have not truly embarked on a journey towards the Atlantic. The concept of a “Silk Road Economic Belt” envisioned by China’s new leadership would provide an unprecedented opportunity for the country’s overall development and its relatively backward western regions.
A Road to Great Development and Great Opening-up
The Silk Road is the name for the ancient trading routes linking the two ends of the Eurasia continent via Central Asia. As a gateway and vehicle for the Western and Oriental civilizations to know and trade with one another, these routes played a tremendous role in the historical development of the world. Today one end of the Eurasia continent is the highly developed European economy and the other the fast-growing Asia-Pacific economy, with the vast less developed middle region in between. The notion of a Silk Road Economic Belt exactly stands for great cooperation in this broad region aimed at connecting the Asia-Pacific and European economic economies.
Central Asia was once the hub of the Silk Road and if a Silk Road Economic Belt is realized it would be so again. The development of this economic area hinges on the development of Central Asia. In this sense, the Silk Road Economic Belt proposed by President Xi Jinping during his visit to the Central Asia would reach the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Although the Central Asian area is rich in mineral resources, it remains an underdeveloped area. And the total population of the Central Asia is only 60 million, almost equivalent to a middle-sized province of China. So, in our push for westward opening-up, it is incumbent for us, on the basis of a good Central Asia development strategy, to include the Mediterranean, the Atlantic as well as the Indian Ocean into a broader cooperation of 3 billion population involving the Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, even dozens of European countries.
As a matter of fact, as soon as the concept of a Silk Road Economic Belt was put forward, the Chinese provinces and cities along the ancient Silk Road responded proactively and put forward their proposals and suggestions on how to forge a modern Silk Road. Such an active posture is valuable, but if these regions are only do so for purely narrow selfish interests they should be nipped in the bud. For example, the ongoing discussions about the original starting point of the ancient Silk Road make no sense. The significance of concept lies in the creation of a Silk Road Economic Belt that links China’s most vigorous Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta and Bohai Sea economic zones to the European economy.
The key to the success of the concept is the development of an unblocked road network. Just like the opening-up of China’s eastern coastal regions, the focus should be on infrastructure construction to better realize this concept. If the infrastructure in the country’s eastern regions is concentrated on developing the traffic and transport systems, such as ports, highways and high-speed rails, then infrastructure construction in its western regions needs to be focused on the establishment of an all-dimensional system, such as modern railways, expressways, energy pipelines, the power grid, telecommunications and a modern capital circulation system that operates throughout the Eurasia continent. Such “great development” and “great opening-up” will help realize the flow of people, goods and capital on an unprecedented scale on the Eurasia continent, and this will provide unprecedented opportunities for the development of China’s western regions, its overall development and even the development of all countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt.
A Road for Political Communication and Cooperation
The Silk Road Economic Belt involves scores of countries and regions in Eurasia, which, due to disparate social systems, cultures and beliefs, have their own choices with respect to their development strategy, development mode and policies and thus the endeavor to establish a Silk Road Economic Belt will encounter various barriers and frictions. The political communication envisioned by President Xi aims at exchanging views regarding the economic development strategy and formulating regional cooperation planning and measures on the basis of consultations. This approach can open a new vista of common development and welfare, as well as peace for all countries included in the Silk Road Economic Belt.
A Civilized Road for Material and Spiritual Development
Such an Economic Belt seems to be a convergence of material civilizations, but it will go beyond the engineering of purely economic activities if coupled with the ancient Silk Road. Actually, it is sourced from time-honored spiritual civilizations and based on ample cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Communication between hearts, as President Xi puts it, is aimed to carrying forward and popularizing the Silk Road spirit, which will offer rare opportunities for active dissemination and expanded exchanges of a Silk Road culture, and enhance mutual understanding and mutual trust among the people of various countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt.
To sum up, the establishment of an unblocked traffic, trade and capital network is the strategic objective of this grand proposition, while policy communication and heart-to-heart links among the various peoples constitute the prerequisite and foundation for the realization of the “great opening-up” strategy.
Challenges to Geopolitics in Central Asia
Historically, Central Asia, a confluence of three major civilizations, sits on the hub of the Silk Road but it has failed to evolve into an independent area or region. In the second half of the 19th century, this region was a scene for struggles and rivalry between Russia and Britain, and ended up with its annexation by Tsarist Russia. For the last two decades, Central Asia has been an arena for the tussle between the Unites States and Russia.
Russian politicians have always taken Central Asia as their back-yard, brooking no outside “interference”. In more recent years, Russia has stepped up its efforts to forge a tariff league with Byelorussia and Kazakhstan in order to construct a Eurasia economic league, by virtue of which it hopes to ensure that Central Asia stays within its sphere of influence.
In the eyes of Russia, the underlying status of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is no more than a security mechanism that Moscow can use as a vehicle to confront the US-led Western countries. Russia and China have deepened their bilateral ties, particularly on the security and political fronts, but that does not mean that Russia is not mindful of China’s expanded clout in Central Asia. In fact, the internal resistance hampering the further economic development within the SCO stems mainly from Russia. Without a positive response from Russia, the concept of the Silk Road Economic Belt will be hard to realize. But it will takes time and wisdom for Russia’s misunderstanding to be so it embraces the idea of a new Silk Road Economic Belt.
As the sole global superpower, the US holds the view that its national interests exist across the world. With the aim of sustaining its superiority and safeguarding its national interests, the US spared no efforts in pushing for the Color Revolution and the Arab Spring. In the last ten years, the US has launched wars against Iraq and Afghanistan and unveiled its Grand Central Asia Plan, Grand Middle East Initiative and New Silk Road Plan for the purpose of acquiring economic benefit while creating obstacles for the China-advocated East-West Silk Road. The US hopes to include this region into its sphere of influence under the pretext of Afghanistan reconstruction. Given that the formation and development of the China-advocated Silk Road Economic Belt will elevate China’s strategic status, the US will inevitably make political, economic and cultural efforts to intervene in its formation.
Central Asia is situated in the heartland of Asia, and its railway network is the wide-gauge railway of Russia, with its three artery railway lines running from Alma Mater and Tashkent northward or northwestward to Russia, joined by the Siberian railway (the First Continent Bridge). The Second Continent Bridge, which was opened to traffic in recent years and goes westward from Alataw Pass, is linked with the old Alma Mate-Petropavlovsk artery line near Astana, which later joins with the First Continent Bridge. But this line is not that convenient as anticipated because of the following three reasons: 1), Russia is not willing to see it replace the first Continent Bridge of the Siberian railways; 2), the rail going through Kazakhstan and Russia is outdated and involves several customs formalities; 3), both China and Europe use standard-gauge railways, while Russia mainly uses a wide-gauge one, so trains have to change rails twice when travelling from one end of the Eurasia to the other.
Despite being a vast country of 3,000 kilometers from east to west, Kazakhstan, has no railway going from its east to west, so it has to rely on Russia to link up with Europe. In 2004, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan put forward a plan for a standard-gauge Pan-Eurasia Rail Artery, proposing a rail line that will go through Kazakhstan to the Caspian Sea, then move southward to Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey and integrate with the European rail network. This plan was vehemently opposed by Russia and the US. The proposal of building a standard-gauge railway in Kazakhstan was utterly intolerable for Russia, while any proposed rail cutting through Iran was unacceptable to the US. Actually, as long as 20 years ago, Europe and the US had already conceived the “TRACECA”, a rail line from Turkey via the Caucasus and Caspian Sea bypassing Russia and Iran, to realize an integration with the east-west rail line planned by Kazakhstan.
On October 29, 2013, the trans-Eurasia undersea rail tunnel was opened to traffic. Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey said during the opening ceremony that the undersea tunnel, which runs through the Bosporus Strait and links the European and Asian parts of Istanbul, theoretically enabled the possibility of traveling to Beijing from London via Istanbul. But this is only a theoretical possibility, the crux of the real passage lies in the opening of the Caspian Sea undersea tunnel, something that will be difficult for Russia to accept.
In 1999, the China-Kyrgyzstan railway line, which was under discussion among China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, needed only 577 kilometers to integrate the rail network in Xinjiang with the TRACECA. According to experts, this constitutes the optimal cost-efficient line. Up till today, no substantive progress has been made to realize this. The main reason is that it is neither accepted nor welcomed by Russia and the US.
Diplomacy on Neighboring Countries
The US’ return to Asia-Pacific strategy targeted at China has resulted in its endless moves aimed at building a circle of containment around China.
Currently, the relationship between China and Central Asia countries is improving on the whole. This is mainly embodied at the governmental level, while non-governmental responses in these countries are rather mixed. Though some are willing to seek common development with China, people are still wary of China’s fast development. The “China threat” theory still has receptive markets in Central Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Quite a few factors are attributed to this state of mind, including the remaining influence of Soviet-era anti-China propaganda. Opposition parties in Central Asian countries are usually intent on accusing the governments of either corruption or betrayal of national interests, and thus the incumbent administrations’ cooperation with China is thus often groundlessly criticized. The negative reports about China by Western media and local mainstream media in disregard of China’s huge achievements have also fuelled the “China threat” tone in Central Asia.
Aside from above-mentioned factors underlying the unfriendly social segments in relevant central countries toward China, there are still two issues that need to be addressed.
First, some people equate energy and resource cooperation with the plundering of resources. In the face of the rich energy reserves in Russia and the Central Asia, some Chinese enterprises hold that cooperation with them should focus on seizing oil and gas resources from them. Many years ago, some Russian scholars asked us the questions: What else were you interested in other than oil and gas? You took away our resources, but what could you do in return to help us?
Second, economic and trade cooperation with relevant countries is regarded as the dumping of China’s goods. It is truly gratifying that trade in Xinjiang has increased 800-fold since the adoption of the reform and opening-up policy. Xinjiang’s opening-up to the outside world started from border tourism and small-volume border trade in the 1980s and this played an important role in boosting the region’s opening-up to the outside in subsequent years. However, the cheap and low-quality products making their way into Central Asian markets has had a negative influence on China’s image there, causing local people to regard Chinese products as synonymous with fake and shoddy products. As a matter of fact, up till today, the majority of Chinese products in Central Asia are cheap and low-end products and thus it is imperative for China to expand its industrial, capital and technological input into this region.
As President Xi stressed in the Seminar on the Diplomatic Work towards Neighboring Countries, China should conduct cooperation with neighboring countries and make great efforts to build a network of close-knitted common interests and raise the scale of converging interests to a higher level on the basis of the principles of mutual benefit and reciprocity. Xi also stressed that it is essential that neighboring countries benefit from the growth of China, and that China can also benefit from their development. In other words, China and Central Asian countries should become a community of shared destiny and a community of shared interests.
It is incumbent on us to answer three questions: First, what can we offer to these countries in return for exploiting their resources? Second, while conducting oil and gas cooperation with these countries on a large scale, what can be done to compensate these countries through cooperation on non-resources projects? Third, economic and trade cooperation is not simply selling Chinese products, how can capital and technology the benefit local residents?
Inasmuch as cooperation in the Central Asia is concerned, the countries involved are mainly underdeveloped ones, and there can be no comparison with Europe and the US in terms of capital and technology. The conventional wisdom of developing border trade at the beginning is necessary and plausible, but it is futile to expect to attract capital and technology in this fashion in the long run. The right modality should be as follows: trade from the “gray area” moves to the regular and standard; economic and trade cooperation gives way to investment; private enterprises giving way to cooperation involving both private enterprises and state-owned enterprises, with the SOEs playing a major role; singular energy and resource cooperation being replaced by the combination of energy and resource cooperation and non-energy and non-resource cooperation.
We should combine the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt with the new diplomatic approach on neighboring countries and actively involve ourselves in geopolitical game playing, though such kind of game playing differs from that of Russia and the US in that we do not seek to create a sphere of influence, and instead strive to construct with the Central Asian countries a community of shared destiny and a community of shared interests. Only in this way can we realize the communication of hearts with Central Asian countries and so create a new geopolitical situation in Central Asia by jointly building a Silk Road Economic Belt.