By Shazia Anwer Cheema
There is a saying that “All Roads Lead to Rome”. This saying is in reference to the ancient world but today “All Roads Lead to Peking” (Beijing).
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China and Iran signed the much-awaited Iran-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement on March 27 after more than five years of deliberations.
Since the year 2016, this possible Partnership was in the headlines of international media.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives would stretch from East Asia to Europe and even as far as to Africa, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.
The original Silk Route or Silk Road was western side trade ways emerged during Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), which forged trade networks throughout what are today the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as modern-day India and Pakistan to the south. Those routes extended more than four thousand miles to Europe.
Central Asia was thus the epicenter of one of the first waves of globalization, connecting eastern and western markets, spurring massive wealth, and combining cultural and religious traditions. Valuable Chinese silk, spices, jade, and other goods moved to the West while China received gold and other precious metals, ivory, and glass products. Use of the route peaked during the first millennium, under the leadership of first the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, and the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) in China.
In 2013, President Xi announced the initiative during official visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. The initiative is two-pronged: the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. The two are collectively referred to first as the One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR) but eventually became the Belt and Road Initiative.
Xi’s vision included creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia.
China links with Europe through Central Asia
China got BRI operational via Central Asia and Russia to Germany and goods trains are carrying Chinese products to Europe through this route since the year 2019.
DHL Global Forwarding and Xi’an International Inland Port Investment & Development Group Co. Ltd launched the fastest rail service from Xi’an in China to Hamburg and Neuss in Germany, cutting transit time from 17 to between 10 and 12 days. This significant lead time reduction was made possible by travelling through the Mamonovo-Braniewo railway border between Russia and Poland.
According to official data, the new rail service takes an approximate 9,400-km route through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania to Kaliningrad Oblast (Province), on the south coast of the Baltic Sea, before entering the European Union via the Mamonovo-Braniewo crossing. The final stretch of the route crosses Poland into Germany to the port city of Hamburg, and to Neuss which an important logistics hub on the Rhine River across Düsseldorf.
CPEC and its importance in BRI
BRI is sequential and having different routes as well as different projects while China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being the shortest possible passage to the Persian Gulf from the Himalayan steppe that is why it became the Flagship of BRI. Given scenario indicates that China has more than one option to reach Europe and Persian waters and one can understand that BRI is like an octopus and the United States cannot control it for reaching the world.
Unfortunately, Pakistani politicians used China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) for their domestic consumption, and the former government of PMLN used it as its success story while former opposition (PTI) tagged it with corruption and continued to such behavior even after coming into power. This scenario created a perceivable lull of communication and got CPEC slow downed after the early harvest phase.
The political scenario of Pakistan helped the United States and India to launch a massive propaganda campaign against CPEC as well as the Chairman of CPEC Authority in an attempt to halt the work and for sabotaging the entire project.
Our self-centered mindset puts us on the edge where CPEC is becoming a victim of domestic politics and western propaganda. CPEC is important for all stakeholders of BRI because one incomplete stretch will be a burden for the entire initiative. Negative discussions over CPEC sends a message to the world that we for sure will guard the project against terrorists and agitators and we are very good in that but development and betterment are not our expertise.
Regional Connectivity minus India
In the regional scenario, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh are part of BRI and only India has excluded itself under the pressure of the United States. Iran has a direct land link with China via Central Asian road and railway networking and China has already sending its cargo via Central Asia to Afghanistan and Iran is working on an all-weather railway track from Afghanistan to Iran.
In 2019, Bangladesh received the highest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from China that is also aggressively involved in important infrastructure projects including the Padma Multipurpose Bridge. Bangladeshi Development observers claim that India put pressure on World Bank to withdraw from this very strategic project and then China came forward to help Bangladesh with this multipurpose road-rail bridge across the Padma River.
It connects Louhajong, Munshiganj to Shariatpur and Madaripur, linking the south-west of the country, to northern and eastern regions. Padma Multipurpose Bridge is considered to be the most challenging construction project in the history of Bangladesh. The two-level steel truss bridge carries a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single-track railway on a lower level. Padma Multipurpose Bridge, when commissioned, is expected to boost the GDP of Bangladesh by as much as 1.2 percent.
Maritime Silk Road
Now look at the map of the Maritime Silk Road and you will find that China has consolidated its presence all over the way to Persian waters. Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and now Iran.
A report title “THE 21ST CENTURY MARITIME SILK ROAD Security implications and ways forward for the European Union” published by STOCKHOLM INTERNATIONAL PEACE RESEARCH INSTITUT indicates that the BRI initiative will expand China’s maritime strategic space far beyond its adjacent waters. The Road, alongside the Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt), intends to bridge a vast global terrestrial-maritime connectivity gap and may indeed lead to positive development and cooperation spin-offs.
The report further says:
The Maritime Silk Road (the Road) contributes to China’s maritime renaissance and serves China’s core interests. These include expanding its $1.2 trillion blue, or maritime-based, economy, improving food and energy security, securing sea lines of communication, and furthering its international discourse power. The initiative will expand China’s maritime strategic space far beyond its adjacent waters. The Road, alongside the Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt), intends to bridge a vast global terrestrial-maritime connectivity gap and may indeed lead to positive development and cooperation spin-offs. However, some stakeholders are concerned about the political leverage China may gain through Road investments. In the South China Sea, the Road rekindles some pre-existing strained relations between China and regional states. Tensions within the region aggravate an arms build-up but are simultaneously eased by the development of the blue economy and shelving of territorial disputes. In the Indian Ocean Region, the Road stimulates competition over development–support and connectivity but also precipitates greater militarization and maritime rivalry in an already complex region. The Road could, in association with the Belt, reshape the nature of the Indian Ocean Region as a more interconnected global common in lieu of its previous role as a relatively enclosed security space. On balance over the medium and long term, the Road in its current incarnation may pose more security challenges than solutions for the European Union (EU). This has more to do with preexisting maritime issues and tensions, the multi-stakeholder nature of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Region, and some of the security implications of the Road to date than its stated objectives. Still, the Road overlaps with some EU maritime security interests.
Now one can understand how much Maritime Silk Road is important for China and how much high expectations countries have with it.
People to People Contact
BRI like the old silk route may not open mysterious new lands for the travelers but it can surely provide people to people contact. In this internet age, we tend to know almost everything, but the actual physical touch is missing. Via old silk route culture, traditions, knowledge travelled on a vast scale, skills and techniques reached one place to another and a huge number of the population get the advantage of newness. Belt and Road Initiative will create possibilities to reach across regions not just for trade purposes but also to understand different methods and systems.
I always emphasize people-to-people connection for the prime reason of breaking the crafted and negatively propagated myths. It will minimize the scope of controlling media which is controlled by a limited number of power-hungry to speared rumors. Take the example of Iran or even Pakistan, their hundreds of years’ history replete with gems of art and culture will get an audience, their food, festivals, colors, the folk tale will get an audience. Electronic media especially hostage electronic media purposefully present bleak pictures of target regions to change people’s perception.
If we study exclusively the old silk route and new silk route already have common values and norms, new word order had changed the geopolitical dimensions, but central Asia South Asia, and Asia Minor have many many years of friendships as well as animosity. That was the time when art, politics, trade reached to its pinnacle, this region has something majestic and magical, rich with mysticism, if we get that all back, we can get rid of the aftermath of totalitarianism and capitalism. The race to run after the material was never our tradition, the silk route encompasses lands of scholars and intellectuals.
If first-world countries are afraid of the new silk route, they are right in their way, they don’t want to evade the monopoly which they have created via colonialism and take it to as far as the unipolar world.
China, South Asia, Central Asia, and Asia Minor (Faris) all possess hundreds of years’ worth of wisdom and history. Connecting these regions again via BRI could create the same situation as Western Dark Age. I do not claim either do I want West to be in the dark age again, or it is possible, my point is, these regions have left far behind from where they started enlightening the West. It’s time to stop running after borrowed knowledge, imposed art, and maneuvered trade.
China was the originator of the old silk route and it will be the center of new silk route, logical reason is, China initiated the first one and dare to dream it the second time. Neither then it tries to manipulate the entire trade route, nor it seems likely now. History is an excellent teacher, Chinese not only provided infrastructure for the old silk route but also created a system of micro-level management, without any intervention and intrusion. For thousands of years, the Chinese had been separated wars from business. Besides having ultra-rich culture, they never tried to create cultural hegemony because all the areas linked by the silk route are an extravaganza of culture and heritage. Without any foreign intervention, artists created their inspiration on their free will which made the art even richer. An amalgamation of four rich empires truly created fascinated work. That is what I meant by people-to-people connection, where there is no hegemony, no compulsion just inspiration.
The idea of understating has to revive, mere internet cannot breach the gap, rather it provides haters to fill it with lies. Understanding, require firsthand knowledge and for that, requires travelling. A strategic partnership among stakeholders of BRI will provide secure and safe passage for the people, artisans, teachers, researchers, artists, mythologists and many more will travel around and will get the firsthand knowledge and then spread it. It will create a new era of public diplomacy and no doubt will create massive challenges for warmongers.
Note: The writer Shazia Cheema is an analyst writing for national and international media outlets including Pakistan Observer, Eurasia Diary, InSight, and Mina News Agency. She heads the Thought Center of Dispatch News Desk (DND). She did her MA in Cognitive Semiotics from Aarhus University Denmark and is currently registered as a Ph.D. Scholar of Semiotics and Philosophy of Communication at Charles University Prague. She can be reached at her: Twitter @ShaziaAnwerCh Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.