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The Modern Silk Road: How China Is Growing as a Key Player in Trade

History of the Silk Road

Throughout history, human beings have always moved from place to place, trading with their neighbors, exchanging goods, ideas, and skills. Communication routes and paths of trade have always crisscrossed Eurasia, which slowly linked up to form what are today referred to as the Silk Road. These are routed across both land and sea along which not only silk but many other products were exchanged between people from across the world.

These vast networks didn’t just carry merchandise and precious commodities but also the constant mixing and movement of different populations aided in the transmission of ideas, knowledge, belief and culture. This formed such a profound impact on the civilization and history of the Eurasian people.

Trade was a major attraction for the travelers along the Silk Road, but the cultural, and intellectual exchange majorly contributed to the development of cultural and educational hubs. Along the lengths of these routes, art, craft, literature, science, and technology were shared and disseminated into societies. These exchanges greatly developed and influenced religions, languages, and culture. The term “Silk Road” is relatively new since the ancient roads bared no particular name but in the 19th Century, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German Geologist named the communication and trade network Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road).

Silk Production and Trade

Silk, a textile woven from the protein fiber usually produced by silkworms to make its cocoon is of ancient Chinese origin, developed around 2,700 BC. It was regarded as an extremely high-value item, hence reserved exclusively for the Chinese Imperial Court to make banners, drapes, clothes, and other prestigious items. Silk production was a top-guarded secret within China for almost 3,000 years, with the Imperial Court decreeing death for anyone who revealed to a foreigner its production process.

Despite the Chinese monopoly on Silk production, it wasn’t restricted to the Chinese empire but was used as a diplomatic gift and extensively traded initially with its immediate neighbors before becoming one of the chief Chinese products under the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

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During the first Century, Silk was introduced into the Roman Empire where it grew very popular and was considered an exotic luxury. Throughout the Middle Ages, silk’s popularity continued, and the manufacturing of silk clothes was governed by Byzantine regulations which emphasized its importance not only as an essential royal fabric but also as an important revenue source. It thus became one of the impetuses in trading route developments from Europe to the Far East.

Silk production knowledge becomes very valuable and despite Chinese emperor’s efforts to keep it as a closely guarded secret, eventually it did spread beyond China to India and Japan, then to the Persian Empire before finally reaching the West in the 6th Century AD.

A diverse route and cargo beyond silk

Even with silk being at the center of the earliest catalysts for trade routes across Central Asia, it was just but one of the many products traded between the west and east. Goods ranged from spices, textiles, vegetables, fruits, and grain to woodwork, artwork, animal hides, precious stones, and much more.

Silk roads were extremely popular and increasingly well-travelled from the middle ages up to the 19th Century, which cements the fact that they are not only useful but also very flexible and adaptable to the changing demands of the society.

The merchants had a wide choice of different routes going through several regions of the Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Middle East, and the Far East. Additionally, the traders had maritime routes for transporting goods from China and South East Asia via the Indian Ocean to India, the Near East, and Africa.

Throughout history, these routes have developed and in accordance to the shifting geopolitical contexts. For instance, the Roman Empire’s merchants would try avoiding the territory of Parthians (Rome’s Enemies) and would take routes across the Caucasian region and over the Caspian Sea.

The rising and falling of water levels in rivers also had a similar effect with traders looking for alternative routes. Maritime trade was huge and was famous for the transportation of spices hence the moniker Spice Roads which supplied markets with ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, as well as so many other good.

These routes which stretched over 15,000 km from the west coast of Japan, past the Chinese Coast via Southeast Asia, through India to the Middle East were also used by merchants trading textile, metalwork, woodwork, saffron, incense, and timber.

There was a wide variety of routes available to merchants traveling from different parts of the world and bearing a vast range of goods. Most often than not, the merchant caravans would cover specific sections of the routes with occasional pausing to replenish the supplies and rest, or just stop to sell their cargo at various points throughout the roads which led to the growth of lively trading ports and cities.

The Silk Roads were porous and dynamic. Local products were added to the merchants’ cargos and throughout their journeys, the goods were traded with local populations. The whole process was enriching not only by the merchant’s material wealth but also the incredible exchange of ideas, languages, and culture.

Silk Roads for dialogue

Silk roads left the unbeaten legacy of playing a major role in bringing people and cultures in contact with each other and facilitating the exchange between them. To be more practical, the merchants had to learn the customs and languages of the countries they traveled through so as to successfully negotiate.

For the material exchange to take place, cultural interaction was vital, and merchants who ventured onto the Silk Roads were able to engage in cultural and intellectual exchange. One of the most famous technical advances that have been propagated worldwide by the Silk Road includes paper making techniques, as well as printing press development.

General Zhang Qian, the man often credited with founding Silk Roads which opened up the first route from China to the West in the 2nd Century, was more on a diplomatic mission than a trading expedition. Han Emperor Wudi sent him to the West in 139 BC to ensure alliances against the Xiongnu (enemies of the Chinese). However, he was captured and imprisoned by the Xiongnu. He escaped 13 years later and found his way back home.

The Emperor was very pleased with the wealth of accuracy and detail of his reports so he sent him on another mission to visit several neighbors, hence establishing the earlier routes from China to Central Asia in the Middle East in 119 BC.

The quest for knowledge and religion was another result of trade along the routes. They were very instrumental in the dissemination of religion throughout Eurasia such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. For instance, Hinduism and Islam were introduced into Malaysia and Indonesia by the Merchants using the Silk Roads from India and Arabia.

The Modern Silk Road

In many fundamental ways, the New Silk Roads are different from the historic trade routes. The historical ones majorly served as connectors for cultural exchange and trade but was less politically significant. On the other hand, the New Silk Road is quite an obvious expression of China’s power ambition in the 21st Century, focusing on refashioning the global geopolitical landscape. General Qiao Liang, during a speech at the University of Defence once said that the countries “One Belt, One Road” initiative are “ a hedging strategy against the eastward move to the US.”

President Xi stated that the interests of the Asian countries had become intertwined, and a community of common destiny has increasingly taken shape. This implied that under the Chinese leadership, the New Silk Road has emerged as a critical thread binding the Asian Community. He added, “Being a big country means shouldering greater responsibilities for regional and world peace and development, as opposed to seeking a greater monopoly over regional and world affairs.”

In essence, this means that China is trying to demonstrate how ready it is to shoulder the responsibilities in the development of the region by putting in $40 billion Silk Road fund and also $50billion for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The massive Chinese initiative is the factor distinguishing the New Silk Road from the old. The Chinese government, in partnership with the private sector, has taken the initiative to develop trade and transportation networks. Leaders are now seeking newer pastures to invests their reserves and capital, as well as to discover new energy sources and markets since the Beijing’s investment-led growth model is approaching its limit.

Just as Theresa Fallon would put it “ Like the silken strands on a loom, these drivers will weave together to create a fabric of interconnected transport corridors and port facilities that would boast trade, improve security, and aid strategic penetration”. There is great enthusiasm reported from the political government and business people who are looking forward to the prospect of new opportunities.

Xi’s big idea

The New Silk Road is set to become the largest program of economic diplomacy since the US-led Marshall Plan for postwar reconstruction in Europe which will cover dozens of countries with the population totaling to 3 billion people. This scale demonstrates huge ambition but even against the rising strength of China’s military and the backdrop of a slowing economy. This project’s focus is of huge significance as a way of defining the countries place in the world and its relations (at times tense) with its neighbors.

Experts are digesting on how Beijing is planning to economically, militarily, and diplomatically use the project to assert its regional leadership in Asia. To some, it’s analogous to the 19th Great Game where Russia and Britain battled for control of central Asia and spelled out the great desire to establish a new sphere of influence.

The grand vision for a New Silk Road is said to have begun in the bowels of China’s commercial economy as a way of dealing with the overcapacity menace in the steel and manufacturing sector which is a plan to increase exports. The president announced the New Silk Road in 2013 during a visit to Kazakhstan after receiving a top level endorsement.

The “One Belt, One Road” initiative is a land route linking central Asia, Russia, and Europe. With a dramatic increase in trade between China and other five neighboring Asian states such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, China is on the frontline in building the roads and pipelines necessarily for smooth access to the resources it needs for the development. As Professor Kerry Brown Puts it, ““It’s a relatively easy way of China demonstrating more regional importance without people leaping up and down and saying, “this is China being too domineering.” It stresses reciprocity.”” This project has so many things that the partners would embrace.

Investment partners

The biggest question a midst the mystery of the New Silk Road is who will pay for what. Fifty-seven countries have signed as founding members of the new china-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China has taken the forefront, and it is looking for reciprocity partners and shared risk which is more sustainable since it cannot afford to be just a big giver of charity. Just because it is China’s initiative doesn’t necessarily make it bad for other countries. Other participating countries can probably get a lot from this engagement if they are clear on what they want. It is quite a challenge for China juggling between a changing domestic economy as well as pushing the Belt and Road initiative outside its borders, but it is the key to joint projects and increasing trade volumes.

China has become such a powerful source of funding for projects both domestically and around the world. There is so much activity in the Asia Pacific Region. Hence, there is a great potential that the Australian infrastructure investors will partner with their Chinese counterparts as well as build on each other’s relationships and experiences to successfully deliver infrastructure projects along the New Silk Road and beyond.

Germany is not the only company welcoming rail service from the middle kingdom since cities such as Madrid are also embracing them.

Broader horizons, cautious neighbors

The historical trade routes in traditional geographic confines are now expanding as they reach towards Latin America and Africa. Although China still has misgivings on the inclusion of Latin America in its “One Belt, One Road” initiative as its thought to be under the influence of the US, this has not stopped them from giving it a go. Africa is definitely on the project with Kenya’s capital Nairobi being a stop for the New Silk Map. Officials in Beijing are also planning on a $3.8 billion railway that would connect Nairobi to the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

The main challenge for China’s development is not in dollars and cents but rather in hearts and minds. There is palpable enthusiasm and excitement amongst Chinese enterprises and private investors who are in contrast to the anxiety and reticence of their expected foreign partners. The disconnect cannot be disregarded hence the Chinese scholars warning against backlash from nationalistic neighbors. Professor Shi YInhong of Renmin University wrote that it was vital to engage fully the countries on whose sovereign land the infrastructure systems are to be built, and that included conducting far more international consultations than what had been the case.

He reminded them to be inclusive, urged them not to repeat the disastrous mistakes made by the Western universalism, and not to assume that growth through huge investments was welcomed by all. He also pointed out that some nations may have worries and doubts about long-term issues including autonomy, sovereignty, and the distribution of the prospective benefits from such huge infrastructure projects.

He said that China’s deeds and words should amount to effective soft power with a widespread and profound positive influence which “moistens all things softly, without sound” as one Chinese poet Du Fu would have put it.

The United stated is keeping a close eye on the Chinese initiative since their American ideas on free trade and global economic factors are directly contrasted by Beijing’s state-controlled investments and trade flows.

The modern Silk Road initiative is barely three years old, but the first building blocks including the pipeline from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar and Kunming, and the train from Beijing to Duisburg are already in place. The Chinese government spares no expense when it comes to modernizing China and seems to move with speed. The same zeal and ambition are demonstrated when it comes to projects outside its borders and anything that is of economical importance. Since trade is key to President Xi’s manifesto, the bringing to fruition of the New Silk Road will be his bragging rights and legacy.

The Modern Silk Road: How China Is Growing as a Key Player in Trade
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