On 7 September 2013, at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, China’s president Xi Jinping announced an “economic belt along the Silk Road.” It would connect China with Europe and Russia through Central Asia. A new international political economy would stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. At Indonesia’s Parliament a month later, Xi opened a second phase to this project: a “maritime Silk Road of the 21st century.” It would strengthen China’s links with the Indian Ocean basin with Africa and the Middle East before returning to the former Silk Road entrepôt of Venice.
The two projects, known as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), have progressed speedily. Major Chinese banks and regional institutions, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), have pledged over $40 billion to support this initiative. In 2016, China signed bilateral agreements with Hungary, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkey. China also plans free-trade zones in Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), and Chittagon (Bangladesh). High-speed rail negotiations aim to cover 5000 km along the region’s ancient trade routes. In February 2016, Iran and China inaugurated a cargo train route. Now it takes only two weeks to travel from Shanghai to the Iranian port of Bander Abbas.
It’s another Great Game!, critics charge. OBOR retells an old story: a newly muscular China is contending for hegemony with other great powers like the US, Europe, and Russia. Central Asia and the Indian Ocean constitute the “pawns,” “rooks,” and “knights” on the board. Local “kings” and “queens” may mark the game but only the Great Powers can play it. China’s claim of “mutual complementarity” and “win-win” scenarios under OBOR covers for a Sino-centric division of labor. China acquires what it lacks while selling what it has – none of which helps local development. In fact, critics imply, OBOR is repeating what the West has done to the Rest since the 15th century. We’ve seen this movie before.
But hold on. Why the Silk Roads? What’s the significance of these ancient, segmented trade routes for massive, contemporary investments of labor and capital, concrete and steel? What does it mean for China to revive, both economically and politically, those areas of the globe that have fallen into dusty neglect since medieval Europe re-routed the spice trade?
The Silk Roads, after all, lasted over a millennia. They represented more than a strip of geography, a venue for commerce, barter and trade from long ago and far away. They also enriched our world-of-worlds with exchanges and flows, languages/religions/goods, despite frequent conflicts and contestations. The Roads brought merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, and nomads in contact with princesses, nuns, shamans, scribes, and settlers. The long, arduous, scenic, adventurous, death-stricken, awe-inspiring routes mandated interdependence, and perhaps reverence for wisdom and insight, learning from the signs and the esoteric, and a basic degree of humility and adaptability that led to a non-individualistic, non-predatory approach to living.
Note this tone of cultural intimacy when President Xi refers to the Silk Roads in his speech at Nazarbayev University:
My hometown [Xi’an], in China’s Shaanxi Province, is the gateway to the ancient Silk Roads. Standing here, thinking back on history, I can almost hear the sound of camel bells echoing through the mountains [and] see the lonely swirls of mist from the vast deserts. All of this makes me feel very much at home.
So which is it? Is OBOR a viable, Silk-Road alternative to contemporary globalization? Or does OBOR reproduce the status quo but under a different guise?
A film review from the New York Times serves as a general, cautionary note. It discusses Prakash Jha’s 2010 film, “Raajneeti” (“Politics”). The film indicts politics in India for its violence and greed fueled by unfettered ambition. To understand it all, Jha draws from an ancient resource: the Mahabharata, South Asia’s epic tale of love and ambition, power and loss, from the 9th century BCE. But unlike contemporary treatments of politics in the West, the Mahabharata places power within a moral context. The epic’s most famous episode, the Bhagavad Gita, details Prince Arjuna’s despair on having to war with members of his own family. The god, Lord Krishna, helps him come to terms by reminding Arjuna that one should never expect rewards for fulfilling one’s dharma (duty). One should do what one is born to do. No more, no less. All this jockeying for power, in other words, comes to naught without a cosmic sense of morality behind it.
The New York Times reviewer completely missed it. Because she knew nothing of the Mahabharata, all she could see were Jha’s occasional, filmic gestures to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” series. “Raajneeti” for her thus turns into a cheesy, Bollywood derivative of a great, American classic. Not only is the film misread but, more importantly, we also lose a crucial opportunity: that is, we fail to learn how millions outside the West understand politics. We lose, in short, access to the world.
Let’s not make the same mistake with OBOR.