china’s belt and road initiative -- 11/2/21

Today's selection -- from The New Map by Daniel Yergin. China has the ambition of dominating world trade through a program of financing and building international roads, ports, and other infrastructure called the Belt and Road Initiative:

"[China’s ruler Xi Jinping has] unveiled China's new map for the world economy -- 'One Belt One Road,' in which China, historically known as the 'Middle Kingdom,' would become the middle of a re­drawn world economy. The program would tie China together with all of 'Eurasia' -- the continents of Europe and Asia seen as one vast entity -- through infrastructure, energy, investment, communications, politics, and culture. Subsequently, the realm that Xi identified would be broadened to include the Middle East and Africa. China would be the engine of development, the partner of choice, the lead financier, the promoter, and the grand strategist.

"On that day, Xi summoned a figure from the annals of history -- Zhang Qian, who in the second century BC had been the Han dynasty's special envoy to Central Asia. After enduring ten years of imprison­ment by a nomadic tribe, Zhang was able to get back to China and report to the emperor about the potential value of trade with the here­tofore unknown west. Now, more than two thousand years later, Pres­ident Xi grew poetic, even mystical. 'As I stand here and look back to that episode of history, I could almost hear the camel bells echoing in the mountains and see the wisp of smoke rising from the desert.'

"Zhang Qian's reports marked the beginning of the development of trade routes that ran to the west, first to Central Asia and Persia, and then, at least intermittently, as far as the Roman Empire. This trans­continental trade route had no particular name. Only in 1877 was it dubbed Die Seidenstrasse -- 'the Silk Road' -- by Baron Ferdinand von Richthoften, a German geologist and geographer who had been dis­patched to China to scout mining opportunities and a possible route for a railroad to Europe. He chose 'Silk Road' because one of its trades was driven by the passion for Chinese silk on the part of ancient Romans -- at times, apparently, overly passionate, for silk was criticized by a Roman senator for promoting adultery by revealing women's bodies too explicitly.

"The 'Silk Road' was not a single road, but rather a series of trails and paths around the Taklamakan Desert, leading, often perilously, from one oasis town to another, and then over forbidding mountains. But for thousands of years it served as an extraordinary conveyance for goods -- from silk and spices to leather goods and musical instruments­ and for culture, peoples, religion, and vocabulary. By this route, the in­vention of paper made its way westward, first used for wrapping, and only later for writing. And now in Kazakhstan in 2013, Xi described Beijing's grand plan as the 'new silk road.'

"A month after the Astana speech, Xi, in front of the Indonesian par­liament, introduced the second part of the new strategy. This time he recalled the spirit of the Three-Jeweled Eunuch, the fifteenth-century admiral Zheng He, whose voyages had touched down in what is today Indonesia before sailing on to the 'Western seas' -- leaving 'many sto­ries of friendly exchanges,' said Xi, 'many of which are still widely told today.' And now, he said, China would work with Southeast Asian countries 'to build the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century.'

"The Chinese have shortened 'One Belt One Road,' in English, to the BRI -- 'Belt and Road Initiative.' In Chinese, the nuance is a little different -- 'Belt and Road Strategy.' In truth, it is both an initiative and a strategy. For simplicity, it is often just called Belt and Road, or just BRI. And as it has come to be a concept applied to projects around the world, it has also become an all-encompassing brand."



Daniel Yergin


The New Map


Penguin Press


Copyright 2020 by Daniel Yergin


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