The problems and promise of the new Silk Roads

In a time when it seems we are constantly being divided from our common humanity, the symbolism of the new Silk Roads is important in and of itself.


In early May, we learned that the General in charge of American forces in the country’s longest running war, in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, was requesting a ‘mini troop surge’ and that NATO has asked other nations in the alliance to provide more soldiers as well, mostly to train the country’s corrupt and ineffective army.

This is part of a little-noticed story amid the glut of coverage of the Trump Administration over the last few months: the ramping up of the militarization of American foreign policy. This isn’t to say his predecessor (and the ridiculously dishonest George W. Bush administration before him) don’t deserve a lion’s share of the blame for leading the country in this direction. They and successive U.S. Congresses, who have cravenly abdicated their role in declaring war, helped create the conditions for what amounts to a military takeover of the foreign policy of the most powerful country in the world.

While gutting the diplomatic corps, Trump has made it clear that he’s put his Generals in charge of his foreign policy.

In fairness to the press, covering this presidency in terms of Trump’s gaffes and the rumors that constantly swirl around him and key players in his administration, is both easy and profitable. Trump only receives praise when he talks tough or actually signs off on bombing another country, a sad testament to the moral turpitude of most mainstream English-language journalism.

While gutting the diplomatic corps, Trump has made it clear that he’s put his Generals in charge of his foreign policy. This is convenient for the already notoriously lazy Chief Executive, who can then take credit for any success and easily assign blame for failure. Emboldened, the military brass, seemingly unaware of the potential trap directly in front of them, are calling not only for another 3000 to 5000 troops to be deployed to Afghanistan, but a greater role in the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia.

It also appears that they are reneging on one of the President’s only rational campaign promises, which was to not seek regime change in Syria. This could mean the Balkanization of one of the Middle East’s most culturally and religiously diverse countries, likely to the long-term detriment of the minority populations still left there.

Also all but unreported, fierce fighting continues nearby in western Mosul, Iraq, including artillery barrages and intense aerial bombing. The city, one of the world’s oldest, is being flattened to remove what are estimated to be about 600 ISIS fighters. In the end, it will lie in ruins like Ramadi, Fallujah and other Iraqi and Syrian urban areas before it, most of its people displaced, injured or killed by the fighting.

At the same time, the world is facing an unprecedented degree of food insecurity.

In an era when there is so much paranoia over security it seems like there is very little of it to go around, especially in Africa and the Greater Middle East. Although the actual threat of terrorism is statistically minimal outside of these actual areas of conflict, especially in the West, it’s hard to argue that the anxiety being spread by the media and many politicians hasn’t created a real hysteria that has now, to a certain extent, been extended to countries like North Korea and Russia without a care in the world about the possible consequences.

At the same time, the world is facing an unprecedented degree of food insecurity, and almost every wealthy country is failing to meet its obligations in this regard, for its part, “The Trump administration has pledged no new funding to the emergency famine relief appeals this year, instead announcing plans to dramatically cut foreign aid expenditures and voluntary contributions to UN programs like the World Food Program (WFP).”

The isolationist rhetoric emanating from the President and the far right of the Republican Party in the United States obscures the fact that they are just fine with the practical garrisoning of the world with military facilities funded by American taxpayers, who are at the same time watching much of their own infrastructure crumbling around them.

China’s very different strategy

Meanwhile, across the Pacific in Beijing, on Sunday, May 14th, China and the heads of state of 29 partner nations, along with representatives from another 100, including a delegation from the United States, held a major two-day summit to discuss the country’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative that aims to connect the fast rising power with the rest of Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa by land and sea through widespread infrastructure projects.

OBOR has been touted as a new Silk Road, after the ancient series of overland routes for bringing the commodity it was later named for and other items from Asia to the Mediterranean and points in between. Although its real importance in terms of trade is disputed, the Silk Roads have long symbolized the coming together of vastly different cultures.

According to UNESCO, which made a 5,000 km (3107 mile) part of the original route crossing from China through Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, the Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor, a World Heritage Site in 2014, “the constant movement and mixing of populations also brought about the transmission of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs, which had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Travelers along the Silk Roads were attracted not only by trade but also by the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the Silk Roads, many of which developed into hubs of culture and learning, Science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies were thus shared and disseminated into societies along the lengths of these routes, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other.”

The new Belt and Road initiatives, to be jump started by Chinese state-run banks and other government funders, are being advertised as a uniquely Eurasian version of globalization. In some ways, it can be seen as a possible final blow to the long-held dominance of Trans-Atlantic trade mainly focused on Europe and North America.

As explained by Li Yong, director of the the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), by linking these projects into new Silk Roads, China, “aims to build communities of political mutual trust, economic integration and cross-cultural learning through peaceful and active development and collaborative economic partnerships along the Belt and Road.”

While it’s true that the initial funding for these projects at present is just U.S. $40 billion, or less than Donald Trump has promised in increased funding to the U.S. military, the plan is for it to eventually span as many as “65 nations, 60% of the world’s population and a third of global economic output.”

While in the end the investments probably have as much to do with opening new markets to Chinese goods and securing resources for its slowing economy, the ambition being shown in developmental terms in an age of austerity should be applauded and has been greeted enthusiastically, not only in poorer countries, but also by most of southern Europe, where harsh economic policies imposed by Brussels have led to widespread discontent.

The state capitalism that China champions is far from ideal as an economic model and should be viewed critically.

Some commentators have even referred to OBOR as a kind of new Marshall Plan for countries still reeling from the financial meltdown of 2008. To take the case of long-suffering Greece, Beijing has already made large investments in the Port of Piraeus and airports in Athens and Crete. One of the already visible benefits to the Greek economy from this increasing cooperation was reported by The Diplomat last year, “Chinese travel to Greece has meanwhile surged, rising 70% in 2014 alone, to 100,000 visitors.

The state capitalism that China champions is far from ideal as an economic model and should be viewed critically, especially when it’s accompanied by a such a distinctly top-down ideology. The worry that the Chinese model of development is being exported alongside the billions in contracts and aid to many governments, including repressive regimes and unstable countries, could become a serious one for the international community in the years ahead.

For its part, the government in Beijing has made it clear that it will not interfere in the internal affairs of partner governments, both a noble sentiment and a recipe for disaster, depending on the government in question.

However, when we take into account the fact that Chinese officials have an expansive, 30 or more year view in terms of these new Silk Roads, the kind of vision that is certainly easier to achieve in a one-party state, the potential for OBOR to reshape the world as we know it in both positive and negative ways can’t be denied and should be the subject of more study in the mainstream English language press.

Bumps along the new Silk Road

In an increasingly divided world, even if Beijing has only the best of intentions, it will still face many obstacles to its ambitions, some the direct result of its own repressive political system and others beyond its control.

The problem is that the main route goes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

An early sign of the latter is already happening in terms of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which “involves construction of roads, railways and power plants” linking “China to the Gwadar port on the southwestern coast of Balochistan in Pakistan on the shores of the Arabian ocean, something Pakistan built with significant Chinese assistance.”

The problem is that the main route goes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, long claimed by neighboring India, which led to that country refusing to participate in the summit. Besides the fact that both China and Pakistan fought wars with India during the latter half of the 20th century, and all three are now nuclear powers, the potential loss of another fast-growing country and a key member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economic block has got to strike Chinese officials up to President Xi as problematic.

Other potential issues, from cultural and economic ones to questions of national sovereignty in Pakistan and other participating nations were revealed when a 231-page planning document for the CPEC was made public.

Besides making use of the infrastructure improvements, as Canada’s national daily, The Globe and Mail reported, according to the document, “China also wants to export its surveillance-heavy security model, deliver content from its state-controlled media and gain privileged access to foreign agricultural lands and mineral deposits for its corporate giants.”

An argument can be made that these efforts are a kind of soft colonialism on the part of the People’s Republic (and powerful partners like Russia and Turkey). Train links being built in Africa will likely bring untapped resources to ports built as part of the initiative. This will have to be closely monitored by regional and international bodies but it’s pretty hard to argue against creating transportation infrastructure, including high-speed rail systems in many of these developing countries, so long as it can also be used by and benefits the people who live in them.

The cooperation between the nations involved in OBOR could also yield some very positive results, even in the short term, in terms of encouraging dialogue between rival nations. Although the U.S. did send a delegation to the talks, it complained about the inclusion of North Korea (DPRK) at the summit. This argument seemed to fall on deaf ears in Beijing, with China’s government insisting that any country that wants in is welcome to participate in the initiative.

President Xi seems to recognize that isolation, threats and sanctions haven’t changed the DPRK’s behavior and that it might be time to take a different tack. With the U.S. government making it clear that it will not engage in dialogue, taking Washington out of the equation in favor of a regional solution relying on the newly elected pro-peace president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in and other neighbors, may be the best path forward.

How successful the One Belt, One Road initiative will be is impossible to predict.

As Laura Zhou of the South China Morning Post noted in an editorial the day before the summit began, on the sidelines of it there may have been opportunities for quiet meetings between representatives of North and South Korea, a very important first step towards reducing tensions between the two countries.

In a time when it seems we are constantly being divided from our common humanity, the symbolism of the new Silk Roads is important in and of itself. How successful the One Belt, One Road initiative will be is impossible to predict, but it does seem on balance to make more sense in terms of international relations to build rather than destroy, to talk instead of fight and to try to understand rather than judge other nations and cultures, the kind of thinking that seems entirely absent in the majority of Western capitals, most dangerously at present in Washington, DC.


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