China’s Silk Road Illusions

National Geographic Creative/Bridgeman Images

A painting by Hong Nian Zhang showing Ming dynasty mariner Zheng He with his fleet of trading ships, late twentieth century

The singular contribution of the man now vying for a place next to Mao in the pantheon of Chinese leaders, Xi Jinping, is the One Belt, One Road project. It was a public relations triumph: Mao destroyed the old order, Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations of a modern economy, Xi is making China great again.

This plan, now more often known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to use China’s money and know-how to develop relations with a host of developing countries across Eurasia and to the coasts of Africa has proved a political masterstroke at home and abroad. For foreigners, China appears to be extending a hand of friendship, economic development, and trade across half the world. A huge infrastructure investment comes with the promise of commerce, without any of the US-style strings of democracy and human rights attached.

For a domestic audience, it is an expression of new-found pride in the nation’s power and wealth. Here is China remaking the famous Silk Road that connected it to Central Asia and to Europe, and the maritime Silk Road, that linked Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to Arabia, Africa, and beyond. In a speech to a BRI forum earlier this year, Xi hailed the feats of Zheng He, the Ming dynasty commander whose vast fleets sailed the southern and western seas in the early fifteenth century, receiving submission from what are now Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia and Kenya via Sri Lanka, India, and Yemen. Once again, China is positioning itself as a benign master, receiving tribute from lesser neighbors in return for protection and friendship.

The government’s marketing of the BRI has thus played upon myths and half-remembered facts about China’s past—“the glory of the silk routes,” in Xi’s words. At the same time, the narrative gives credence to the notion that, until the age of Western aggression, China always was the master of the region. From this perspective, its current claims to ownership of almost all the South China Sea is founded on a history of Chinese presence and of tribute to the emperor and the overland Silk Road as a mighty highway of Chinese commerce with the world.

The reality is rather different. Few subjects in history have attracted so much writing about so little as the ancient Silk Road. In The Silk Road: A New History, Valerie Hansen writes that the road was actually “a stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains.” Travel from China to Samarkand, the biggest hub of Central Asia, was slow and treacherous, and the volume of goods was actually quite small. Much of the traffic was local and silk was just one of several commodities.

The legendary road’s interest today lies partly in the remarkable archaeological finds, but above all, the road owes its reputation to having been the conduit for ideas and technology to travel between China and Central Asia in one direction and the Indus Valley in another. Buddhism in particular went east, paper and silk went west. Trade within Central Asia and between China and India and Persia flourished along roads extending south and west, eventually reaching the eastern Mediterranean or the Black Sea, but little of this involved goods originating in China, let alone Europe, and long-distance trade was always dependent on political conditions.

The first Roman known to visit China, in 166 CE, arrived by sea, landing in what is now northern Vietnam. The beginning of this trade underlined the fact that transport by sea was a fraction (one-seventh, according to the Romans) of the cost of going by land, and was far less subject to wars and frontier taxes. Thus, overland trade was mostly confined to very high-value items. Silk itself was sometimes used as currency.

What does this have to do with China’s promises in the twenty-first century to invest billions in road, rail, and other infrastructure linking it to central Asia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Europe? Steam and internal combustion engines have drastically lowered the cost of land transport over the past one hundred and fifty years. The cost gap with water-borne freight has been narrowed—but not by much. Railways between northern China and Western Europe have existed for more than a century, and the Soviets built an extensive network through their Central Asian and Caucasus republics. Still, for most traffic from the eastern heartland of China to Turkey and Iran, let alone Europe, rail is a poor compromise between high-speed air and low-cost sea. Nowadays, long-distance human traffic usually has the option of going by air at a fraction of the time and even cost.


Central Asia itself is less important than it was a thousand years ago and the combined populations of five ex-Soviet “stans” is only about seventy million. Of course, their mineral and oil exports need pipelines and railways, but these resources mostly have limited lives. Rail gauge differences remain a problem, and so do actual or potential border disputes that have shut down at least one international rail link in the Caucasus. As ever, overland trade needs extensive political stability more than sea routes.

Looking at the map, the same argument may not apply to Pakistan. In a straight line, it is only about eleven hundred miles from Kashgar in the far west of China to Karachi and the Indian Ocean. But the road twists and turns up to more than fifteen thousand feet above sea level and down again through almost uninhabited country until it reaches the Indus Valley. The great knot of mountain ranges and deserts that separate China from India and Central Asia is, relatively, as much of a barrier to land transport today as it was to travelers two thousand years ago. Kashgar itself, once the caravanserai where roads to south and west divided, is two and a half thousand miles from Shanghai, half of that distance through very sparsely populated country. It is hard to see China getting anything other than short-term political return from the $57 billion it has promised for this and other infrastructure in Pakistan.

The sea route to global influence has the merit of appealing to Chinese national myth: namely, the Ming dynasty’s fifteenth-century seven-voyage program of Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch of Mongol heritage. His numerous ships with their complement of thousands of soldiers spread knowledge of Chinese power as far as the coast of Africa, changing regimes and forcing numerous rulers to submit to the emperor. The voyages did awake China to its southern seas, with more Chinese settling in the region. Support for Malacca as a major entrepot assisted the gradual spread of Islam. But otherwise, the Chinese did little to develop trade, which was growing fast for other reasons, and contributed nothing to navigational knowledge. The voyages were a triumph of logistics, but they were also inordinately expensive and did nothing to mitigate the security threats to China, which came from the north and west. Sensibly, the voyages were abandoned.

Yet, they have now come back in a new form. Illusions about the size of Zheng He’s ships and the scope of his “peaceful” achievements have become the standard fare of contemporary Chinese nationalism. The Zheng He story speaks to an assumption of Chinese cultural, if not ethnic, supremacy over the darker-skinned inhabitants of the southern seas who were seen as dependent on China’s trade and goodwill. This story fits neatly into the BRI propaganda.

The one advantage that China enjoys now, as in the past, is not so much technology, superior though it was in some ways, but political unity. Southeast Asia was a patchwork of lively but competing states and religions, as was the Indian subcontinent, at least until the establishment of the Mogul empire in the sixteenth century. Then, as now, small states were often trade-dependent, and much of the trade involved China. Thus China came to see these distant neighbors as dependencies of a sort, prospering thanks to China’s favor. Yet this is at odds with the fact that China has had, despite trade, remarkably little cultural impact on Southeast Asia’s predominant maritime region compared to India, Islam, and the West. Its political influence was negligible.

It was outside forces that caused Chinese people, not the state, to play a larger role in the affairs of Southeast Asia. Despite Zheng He’s voyages, China discouraged its citizens from engaging in overseas trade. But trade was growing anyway, thanks to demand from the Ottoman empire and an expanding Europe. More Chinese settled overseas to take advantage of this. Then, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a huge influx of Chinese labor for the mines and plantations that boomed under colonial rule with the demands of Western industrializing economies for raw materials. The basis for ethnic Chinese domination of so much Southeast Asian commerce was laid. But this had nothing to do with the Chinese state, which only now is trying to capitalize on the legacy.

The ethnic Chinese business communities are now seen by China as an important building-block in many BRI countries in Southeast Asia. Yet the perception of China as a would-be hegemon can also be dangerous for these communities, which historically have endured anti-Chinese riots and killings. Xi’s combination of the BRI and the pushing of bogus claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea against a background of latent anti-ethnic Chinese sentiment could end badly. It also makes scant strategic sense. US power in the region will wane naturally. So why incite informal defensive alliances among countries from Japan and India to Indonesia and Vietnam?


Perhaps the time for China to rival the past influence of Indian culture and Western power in the region may now have arrived. More likely, however, China’s dependence on trade, and particularly its interest in Middle East oil, may fall almost as fast as it has risen over the past thirty years. China’s current economic superiority will probably fade as a consequence of its very low fertility rate compared to those of its neighbors to the south. The demographic pressure that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sent Han Chinese to colonize Manchuria and parts of Mongolia, Turkestan, and settle in Southeast Asia, is no more.

Zheng He’s ventures were resisted by Chinese ministers because of their exorbitant cost. Their successors may likewise soon begin to argue that the BRI is not just a vast waste of money, but detracts from challenges elsewhere. Look west and north where, as in the fifteenth century, bigger dangers lurk. The BRI may buy some time by increasing the economic dependence of the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, but these have no more interest in being servants of Beijing than of Moscow—indeed, less. Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Turkic peoples in Xinjiang rankles all the way to Istanbul, whatever may be said in public about economic cooperation and fighting terrorism. The colonization of Xinjiang by Han Chinese since 1949 has stalled. The social gap between the Han and indigenous peoples was wide enough a decade ago and has been driven wider by Xi’s oppression. The issue of Tibet, once a nation able to challenge China, will not go away. China’s western frontier has been in flux for more than two millennia, and will remain so.

China’s unnatural Russian friendship may not survive the Putin era. This current miniature replay of the Cold War’s Sino-Soviet alliance, at a time when China has totally changed the world power balance, is puzzling. From a long-term perspective, the Russians should be far more worried about their eastern border than with Ukraine. The Russians are suspicious of the BRI and know that Chinese nationalism could easily see Beijing resurrecting the issue of nineteenth-century so-called “unequal treaties,” by which China surrendered parts of its Manchurian and Turkestan territories to Russia (some of which have been inherited by Kazakhstan).

The US massively overplayed its hand after the collapse of the Soviet Union, engaging in futile wars in the Middle East, an area where it had few long-term interests, and naively underpinning China’s re-emergence as a great power by offering capital, know-how, and markets, and getting nothing in return but failed hopes of liberal democracy. Now it is China’s turn to overplay its hand, encouraged by its sudden wealth, and by a floundering US. Nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles may seem to have made regional relations less important, but the more countries that have these weapons, the more it will be regional, not global, issues that take precedence. China has enough potential problems on its own borders without the BRI and dreams of Zheng He.

Xi Jinping has a grand idea that will buy him space for his domestic agenda and ensure his prominence when the annals of the Communist Party dynasty come to be compiled. But look at the reality of the Zheng He experience, not the myth. Where will the BRI be in 2030?

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