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China's New Silk Road: where does it lead?

THE NEW SILK ROAD (NSR) INITIATIVE IS A KEY TO UNDERSTANDING China's current diplomacy. In a speech by Chinese president Xi Jinping on the "Silk Road Economic Belt" at Nazarbayev University (Kazakhstan) on September 7, 2013, he praised the role of the ancient Silk Road in promoting the development of both countries and called on Kazakhstan to jointly build a modern Silk Road Economic Belt. Under the Chinese government's plan, both belt and road will run through Asia, Europe, and Africa, connecting the vibrant East Asia economic circle at one end with Europe's developed economic circle at the other (MoFA 2015). But there is also a maritime dimension to the plan. Speaking to the Indonesian parliament on October 3, 2013, Xi stated that Indonesia was an important stop on the ancient Maritime Silk Road, and that China plans to strengthen its maritime cooperation with Indonesia and the other nine states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Subsequently, China set up the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in October 2014 and the SRF (Silk Road Fund) in November 2014 to sponsor Asian connectivity and development programs. The strategy is summarized as the One Belt, One Road (yi dai yi lu) policy. According to the Chinese authorities, One Belt refers to the land-based Silk Road, whereas One Road refers to the twenty-first-century Maritime Silk Road. They function together as complementary wings of Asian development.

China's NSR initiative has triggered both positive and negative responses. On the one hand, many countries hope to benefit from this project and express their hope to actively participate. The initiative has attracted interest from more than sixty countries and international organizations (MoFA 2015). However, some countries also expressed their worries about potential geopolitical conflicts. For instance, Kyrgyzstan suspended a long-planned railway project linking it to China in November 2013, while Myanmar suspended its high-speed rail program with China in July 2014. Much doubt and skepticism have also arisen among international scholars since China launched the initiative. Some argue that China is employing this strategy to expand its influence and view it as a kind of neocolonialism (Dealwis 2014), while others consider it part of China's challenge to US hegemony and the ambition to become the center of the world (Deepak 2014; Page 2014). There are also critics who contend that the revival of the ancient Silk Road heralds the return of historical geopolitical competition (Mead 2014; Ross 2014).

Why has China launched such an initiative? What are the driving forces behind it? What are the main challenges facing this strategy and what could it bring to the world? Our article will probe the formation of China's strategy, the international response to it, and its benefits and risks. The article is divided into four sections. In the first section, we argue that China's NSR strategy is driven more by long-term factors such as China's ambition to integrate still further into the global economy and to recover its past glory (the Chinese Dream) than by short-term factors such as the US pivot to Asia policy and China's economic slowdown since 2012. In the second section, we analyze the external challenges such as the geopolitical concerns of India and Russia, as well as political instability in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In the third section, we examine China's diplomatic behavior around the New Silk Road and highlight China's motives, objectives, and policy dilemmas. In the final section we discuss the sustainability and implications of China's NSR initiative for the world and argue that the ongoing project will likely cause the rise of land powers and the decline of sea powers, reshaping the geopolitical landscape by speeding up regional integration.

Driving Forces of China's New Silk Road Strategy

Assessing the Usual Explanations

For many analysts, an easy assessment is that China's NSR strategy has been formed under the pressure of the US rebalancing policy and China's own economic slowdown. In November 2009, President Barack Obama announced an apparent strengthening of US interest in East Asia by declaring that the United States is an Asia-Pacific country. Next, in July 2011, Hillary Clinton proclaimed the US Silk Road strategy. In June 2012, the United States strengthened this strategic line of thought by announcing the "rebalance" policy, also known as the "pivot to Asia." During the same period, China was facing mounting pressure in the East and South China Seas, and its economy experienced a significant slowdown at the beginning of 2012. The timing of China's NSR strategy announcement in September 2013 thus gives the impression of a direct countermeasure to the twin challenges of the US rebalancing policy and its own economic slowdown. Can it be that these two factors were the sole causes of the initiation of China's NSR strategy?

First, the US rebalance did put military pressure on China by encouraging Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam to take a more assertive policy stance in territorial disputes with China in the East and South China Seas. The US policy exposed and amplified the differences between China and some of its maritime neighbors and helped trigger a few rounds of military and diplomatic crises from 2010 to 2012. There were heated debates in Chinese academic circles on how to cope with the pressure from the rebalance policy. For instance, two academic debates were held on March 1, 2013 (hosted by the Institute of Africa, Chinese Academy of Social Science) and May 21, 2013 (hosted by the Institute of South Asia, Sichuan University). (1) Some influential thinkers such as Wang Jisi proposed that China could refocus on its western region to avoid direct confrontation with the United States (Wang 2012). This Moving West mentality was clearly a factor that helped forge China's NSR strategy.

Second, China's economic slowdown did play a role in the emergence of the NSR as a national strategy. China's export-oriented economy encountered many problems after the financial crisis of 2008 with the ensuing slump in US and European market demand. China did not intend to find supplementary markets in the beginning but instead launched a 4 trillion yuan stimulus package in November 2008 and sought to boost domestic consumption to maintain the momentum of its economic growth. Domestic investment in infrastructure helped stabilize China's economy with a relatively high annual GDP growth: 9.6 percent in 2008, 9.2 percent in 2009, 10.4 percent in 2010, and 9.3 percent in 2011.

The stimulus, however, has generated little in the way of expanding domestic consumption. Chinese saving habits and social security systems do not support a truly significant rise in domestic consumption in the short term. On the contrary, these factors aggravate China's surplus of productive capacity. The slowdown in China's exports has been accompanied by significant levels of excess production in many sectors since 2012, such as steel production and housing. China's annual GDP growth fell to 7.6 percent, 7.7 percent, and 7.4 percent, respectively, in 2012, 2013, and 2014. With the economic slowdown and little expansion of domestic consumption, China had to search for alternative markets for its products to compensate for the shrinking Western markets. China turned its attention to its surrounding neighbors, but the trade potential has long been curbed by connectivity barriers that the revival of the Silk Road is directly designed to address.

Moving West and Moving Out

While it is therefore correct that both a security dilemma arising from the US rebalance policy and pressure from the economic slowdown played an important role in the emergence of the NSR strategy, much more has occurred behind the scenes. We may therefore ask two key questions: If there were no US pivot, would a revival of the Silk Road nonetheless have been proposed? Or if no economic slowdown had occurred, would China still have developed the NSR strategy?

In fact, China has been attempting to connect itself more strongly with the outside world for a long time. For instance, in September 1990, the Chinese Lanxin railway linked to the Kazakhstani Tuxi railway at Alashankou, a Chinese northwest border trade city. China and Kazakhstan started to transport goods by train in December 1992. Later, in May 2004, China signed a Railway Transportation Agreement with Kazakhstan. China then started to rehabilitate the Stilwell Road in 2006, linking southwest China to Myanmar and Northeast India. In July 2006, China and India reopened the Nailadui Pass, an important trading hub for the ancient South Silk Road. The Kunman (Kunming-Bangkok) Highway started operating in December 2008, and the Yuxinou (Chongqing-Xinjiang-Duisburg) Railway got under way in January 2011.

Alongside these practical initiatives, in September 2006 China and the ASEAN countries reached a consensus on a "Pan Asia Railway" plan to link with Europe. According to China's National Mid- and Long-Term Plan for the Chinese Railway Network approved in 2004, transnational corridors had been part of China's overall economic and political strategy for almost ten years, aiming to build powerful new transport links to Russia, Central Asia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar (Government of the People's Republic of China 2005). These connectivity plans were also mentioned in the Eleventh (2006-2010) and Twelfth (2011-2015) Five-Year Plans for national railways.

Based on the above, we can assert that the revival of the Silk Road has been on China's development agenda for at least a decade, if not more than two. This would suggest that the pressures from the US pivot to Asia and China's economic slowdown were just two catalysts that helped to consolidate and speed up an already existing set of plans and policies. However, additional factors should be taken into account in order to further our understanding of the driving forces behind China's NSR strategy.

First, even though China's strategy seeks to avoid direct conflicts with the United States and to deepen cooperation with neighboring countries, it is very different from Wang Jisi's proposal of Moving West. True, maritime pressures caused China to focus on Moving West, but the focus remains on the east, where a great deal of attention is being paid to establishing a twenty-first-century Maritime Silk Road with Southeast Asian neighbors. The scope of the New Silk Road strategy as a whole is much larger than Moving West and is better described as Moving Out. It is a network pointing in every direction and extending to the whole of Europe and Africa. The driving force behind Moving Out is China's eagerness to embrace the significant opportunities to integrate itself into the outside world from a position of strength and territorial integrity, bearing in mind the very negative memories that surround its first major encounters with the Western powers during and after the Opium Wars.

Second, China's NSR has a stronger link with its economic rise than with the more recent slowdown in its economic growth. Obviously, the economic slowdown stimulated the desire to seek additional foreign markets, but China is also investing more in foreign and overseas infrastructure as part of this process, rather than simply dumping its products on the states concerned. We can see that China took some of its first steps in reviving the Silk Road in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and that China continued and consolidated this approach throughout the boom years that preceded the economic slowdown. In the historical past, China's economic slowdowns and the shrinking of national strength were usually accompanied by a decline rather than a revival of the ancient Silk Road. This tendency is clearly being bucked today.

Third, from the perspective of foreign policy, the NSR represents a key aspect of China's continuing search for a sustainable grand strategy. Compared with China's good neighbor policy over the past two decades with its focus on economic and security cooperation, the NSR highlights connectivity and the development of infrastructure among Asian countries, both of which have long-term rather than short-term significance. The good neighbor policy has not created a satisfying external security environment for China, and its diplomatic behavior has been frequently questioned by its neighbors, including accusations that China is a bully and an irresponsible state. Chinese foreign policy elites have thus continued to search for a grand strategy that better fits the changing realities of the international system and China's role within it (Sorensen 2013). They seek to gradually develop a consensus that China should shift from a low-profile international role to one that actively strives for more achievements (Li 2015). Through the NSR strategy, China wishes to improve its international image as a responsible power and to raise its profile as a global power by providing better connectivity and more strategic economic benefits for its Asian neighbors.

Historical memory, our fourth point, is also one of the driving forces behind the NSR. The ancient Silk Roads thrived during the strong and outward-looking Han and Tang dynasties and declined during the inward-looking Ming (after Zhenghe's last expedition in 1433) and Qing dynasties. In a selective way, Chinese society often associates the ancient Silk Roads with periods of Chinese strength, territorial unity, booming trade, and culture inclusiveness. Great emphasis is placed on the significance of the Silk Roads in the Han and Tang dynasties in Chinese history textbooks. The NSR is therefore perceived as a sign of China's enthusiasm to return to the prosperity, strength, and outward orientation associated with these dynasties.

Putting China's NSR strategy in a larger context clarifies that the opening up and rise of China are the underlying reasons for the strategy. China's ambition to recover its past glory economically and culturally is the most fundamental driving force, demonstrating that China's strategy is mainly driven by long-term instead of short-term factors. The US rebalance policy and China's economic slowdown have merely accelerated the strategy's emergence.

International Challenges

Geopolitical Competition Among Great Powers

Major powers have different views of China's NSR strategy. Though they all support trade and transportation links among Asian countries, they have different priorities in relation to Asian connectivity agendas. The differences among them might trigger geopolitical tensions, which are likely to surface in the near future.

The United States has developed its own Silk Road strategy, centering at first on Afghanistan. Its original design was in part to improve logistical support for US combat forces there. Aiming to revitalize Afghanistan's corruption-ridden economy and maintain the stability of this war-torn country, Hillary Clinton, in her "Silk Road" speech in Chennai in July 2011, proposed to build energy links of oil, natural gas, and electricity from Turkmenistan to India (Clinton 2011). The United States remains highly skeptical of China's NSR initiative and views it as a threat to its global influence or at least as an effort to reduce its regional role (Yoon 2015). The United States put overt pressure on both South Korea and Australia not to join the AIIB and claimed that the AIIB would not meet international transparency criteria. When Britain announced its plans to become the first European country to join the development bank in March 2015, it drew a cautious response from the United States (Telegraph News 2015). One of the most serious concerns for the United States is that the revival of the Silk Road will likely lead to a closer China-Russia partnership, alongside a view that "the more they gain economic strength, the more they will press their respective territorial demands on neighbors" (Roskin 2014).

India is also highly skeptical of China's NSR strategy. First, India views it as an ongoing attempt at encirclement, especially after China's submarine docking in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Pasricha 2014). Second, India views the strategy as an attempt to compete with it for hegemony in South Asia (Pant 2014). In order to frustrate Chinese influence in South Asia, India intends to invite Japan, France, or Germany to sponsor its connectivity program. According to India's preliminary connectivity plans, its priority is to connect with Iran, Central Asia, and Russia. India's current attitude to China's New Silk Road strategy is "not to say no but string China along" (Mohan 2014). India wishes to push the Himalayan economic belt (China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan), and once this achieves a degree of vitality, India would think of participating in the New Silk Road (Arpi 2014).

Third, border disputes have had the deepest impact on China and India, curbing deeper cooperation such as the building of transportation corridors (Wang 2011). During Xi Jinping's visit to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the press that stronger China-India ties needed an earlier settlement of their border disputes, which sent a signal that India may not further promote cooperation with China until settlement of these disputes shows progress.

Russia has already officially showed its support and understanding of China's NSR strategy on various diplomatic occasions, such as by signing the Joint Statement of the New Era of Sino-Russia Strategic Partnership on May 20, 2014. The statement praises China's initiative and claims that it meets Russian interests. However, official consensus at the central governmental level cannot negate the truth that Russia had intended to develop its own transportation corridors and that in important details, these plans diverge from China's. Russia plans to upgrade its Siberian Railway and hopes that the Siberian corridor will be the main trunk line of a Eurasian corridor, though it is more likely to be merely an offshoot. China's NSR might therefore dilute Russia's influence in Central Asia (Rickleton 2014).

Russia also worries that China's NSR will challenge and replace the North Sea route that Russia hopes will provide links between Northeast Asia and Europe (Bennett 2014). More dangerously, China's initiative will be a potential competitor to Russia's Eurasian Union strategy, which aims to recover and expand Russia's economic and cultural influence in the former Soviet states and forge stronger security ties among them. Vladimir Putin's project is thus incompatible with China's strategy in certain important respects. According to his blueprint, Central Asian states should forge closer relations with Russia, but in reality China's geographic proximity and Central Asia's landlocked status give Beijing a regional advantage (Ziegler 2014). Central Asian states not only have already developed close relations with China in many fields such as petroleum and natural gas but also are thirsty for China's capital and investment to boost their economies.

Thus, Russia is concerned about China's potential of dominant influence in Central Asia. Its worries are not openly and officially asserted, but an event such as the suspension of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway in 2013 sent a signal that Russia remains troubled by China's NSR strategy.

Political Instabilities Along the Silk Road

The construction of the Silk Road requires a stable domestic and international environment, but China's foreign and overseas infrastructure investments could be used as excuses by opposing parties in host countries to attack the ruling party and trigger domestic political instability around issues such as corruption and environmental protection.

Myanmar has been keen to develop a railway link from the southwest Chinese city of Kunming to Kyaukpyu Port. It signed an agreement with China in April 2011, with construction scheduled to finish in 2015. However, political and social reforms in Myanmar have greatly changed the situation since 2011, when Myanmar attempted to avoid becoming overly dependent on China and implemented a more balanced foreign policy toward China, the United States, and India. The Thein Sein government wished to keep its distance from China and carry out "controllable" political reform with the help of Western countries. After the suspension of a dam and a copper mine project in 2011, the Myanmar government canceled its high-speed railway plan with China in July 2014.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leader of Myanmar's leading opposition party, often viewed as the backbone of Myanmar's prodemocracy movement, has a significantly different perspective from that of the government. Having a more balanced attitude toward Chinese projects, she has called for a more reasonable resolution to problems concerning the China-sponsored dam and for managing Myanmar's relations with China on a fairer basis. Political divisions in Myanmar nonetheless contribute further to the uncertainties about the future implementation of China's NSR strategy.

Sri Lanka, an important stop on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, is another example of why domestic politics matter in development projects. China has been working with Sri Lanka to improve its port facilities since 2002. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president of Sri Lanka, expressed his support for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and attempted to use Chinese support to recover his country's power in maritime transportation. However, Chinese investment also produced discontent among Sri Lankan political groups. Thus the current president, Maithripala Sirisena, says he will reexamine the qualifications of Chinese companies that were accused of causing corruption and environmental problems when he ran for election.

An underlying reason for this reversal is that close relations between China and former president Rajapaksa triggered diplomatic tensions between India and Sri Lanka. The Chinese presence in Sri Lanka has been viewed as part of a "string of pearls" strategy to encircle India. Sri Lanka suspended the Chinese port program on March 5, 2015, after new president Sirisena's visit to India on February 16, 2015.

Fear of Overdependence on China

Too much economic interdependence between countries often correlates with domestic political instability. In a system of sovereign states, all countries value independence. Overdependence on an outside state can cause fear and anxiety and generate internal political conflicts. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are two cases, which appear to demonstrate that too much interdependence can lead to domestic political conflicts and curb the advance of economic relations. It appears that other countries, such as Kazakhstan and Mongolia, also have serious concerns about too much reliance on China.

Kazakhstan has long been very supportive of China's NSR strategy. The two countries signed a "Memorandum of Understanding on Jointly Advancing the Silk Road Economic Belt" during Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Kazakhstan on December 14, 2014. Yet Kazakhstan has its underlying fears. As Nargis Kassennova has stated, "China is too powerful and strong, and we are afraid of being overwhelmed. It is hard to turn down what China can offer, but we resist the full embrace of Chinese power. We are just trying to benefit economically" (Shi 2014). And then there is Mongolia. Xi Jinping proposed to construct the Grasslands Silk Road when he visited Mongolia on August 21, 2014. The president of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, expressed his support when interviewed by a Chinese news agency and stated that Mongolia wished to collaborate in building the NSR, owing to its poor domestic infrastructure. But Mongolia has a long history of fear of Chinese influence mixed with hunger for Chinese investment, and there are worries about China's possible claims for territory as China becomes stronger (Na 2006).

Traditional and Nontraditional Threats

Marked by a historic imbalance of power, Asia is an unstable continent. Border disputes along the NSR could trigger a political crisis and escalate into war. Vietnam has been in maritime disputes with China for many years and even armed conflicts at sea in 1974 and 1988. More recently, anti-Chinese feelings have been intense in Vietnam. For instance, a Chinese oil rig platform in a contested area of the South China Sea triggered a strong anti-Chinese protest in August 2014. Thousands of Chinese-invested factories were attacked, with many people killed or injured. Therefore, the NSR is far from being on an agenda of cooperation between Vietnam and China. In addition, the expansion of religious conflicts from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria could block the development of the NSR.

Associated with the last point, nontraditional threats such as extremism, separatism, and drug smuggling also pose dangers to the NSR project. Terrorism is the most serious transnational threat. Taliban terrorists pose a danger to the China-Pakistan economic corridor, and the China-Central Asia economic belt is also dealing with Islamic extremists and separatists. Zhang Wenmu borrows from China's ancient history and argues that China's opening up to Central Asia usually brought insecurities to China, and that the NSR would increase the possibility of western China's being exposed to external dangers. He thus warns that China should not overstretch itself in Central Asia (Zhang 2014). Environmental risk is another important issue. China's NSR projects have encountered protests on this score. The suspension of a dam and a copper mine in Myanmar happened mainly because of their environmental risks, and the new government of Sri Lanka also attributed suspension of the Colombo port being built by China to environmental concerns.

Even facing so many challenges, the NSR initiative is still very high on China's agenda. The reason that China still pushes the initiatives forward is mainly because of their high strategic importance. China needs the NSR to boost its economy and fulfill its security ambition of a "harmonious region" or "harmonious world." The NSR represents China's efforts to proactively engage its neighbors to build a more secure border rather than wait for its neighbors' policies to change. Even though the NSR could encounter challenges and trigger conflicts, China views it as a long-term project and continues to push it forward despite short-term setbacks. In a word, the NSR is a key long-term national goal for China that has to be pursued until it is fulfilled. The tempo could be slow or fast, but the project itself will be very high on the agenda of the Chinese government for some time to come.

China's Policy Dilemmas

Economically, China's NSR initiative will provide more opportunities for other countries to develop themselves. The AIIB and the SRF established by China will make it easier for Asian states to receive loans to improve their infrastructures and economies. It could benefit all. However, China has its own concerns such as increasing exports to counter its declining economic growth. This could disrupt foreign markets. China vows to practice win-win cooperation, but it is impossible for it to practice truly equal economic relations with trade partners that have much smaller, weaker, or less diverse economies. If China realizes the aim of increasing its trade through the NSR, it might further unbalance trade with its partners and make them more reliant on China economically, a situation they have tried to avoid or have complained about in the past. Even Russia and India have long complained of their trade imbalance with China, let alone the small and medium-sized states we have discussed. China could face a new wave of accusations of neocolonialism if the NSR is perceived as being driven solely or mainly by selfish and one-sided motives. The prospective internationalization of China's currency, which complements the NSR initiative, could trigger worries from the United States and Japan.

China's security motives are to improve relations with its neighbors by shifting the focus to development in order to reshape its external security environment. A more secure environment would benefit China's neighbors, which have been eager to develop their economies. However, China can also be seen as working to expand its political influence, which is perceived as threatening. Even though China claims it has no intention to seek regional dominance, success for its NSR initiative would no doubt mean that China would assume a more important regional and global role. A concerted process of internationalizing China's rise could both trigger geopolitical conflicts with other major powers and create fear of overdependence among small and medium-sized countries.

China hopes to realize its dream of national rejuvenation (minzu faxing) through the NSR initiative and expects other countries to recognize its ambition, but this often provides nourishment for the China threat discourse. The rise of China has obviously provided opportunities for other countries' development. However, China's expanding influence and the perception that nationalism is on the rise there is creating and will continue to create potential fear among other countries. Then the questions arise: Will China respect other countries when it becomes much stronger? Or will China create a new tributary system? In the traditional Chinese tributary system, China granted special rights to its comparatively weak neighbors in exchange for their acceptance of Chinese moral and cultural authority. China was expected, in return, to respect their sovereignty, however vague this may have been at the time. In a new tributary system, or at any rate, in a system resulting from much increased regional integration, it would seem that China's neighbors should acquiesce to China's higher international status and not seek outside influences to balance China. China, in turn, would respect its small or weak neighbors' international roles.

If China continues to rise and at the same time exert a positive influence on its neighboring countries, the new system could take off. But Beijing's leaders have not provided much explanation about the kind of country China would become under these circumstances, creating a continuing undercurrent of mistrust surrounding the NSR initiative.

Objectives and Means

The NSR initiative stresses links. In Xi Jinping's "New Silk Road Economic Belt" speech (Xi 2013b), he stated that there were five links to accomplish: policy links (strengthening policy coordination), road links (improving road connectivity), trade links (promoting trade facilitation), currency links (enhancing financial integration), and heart links (strengthening people-to-people bonds). Of all these, the road link is China's current priority. China's short-term goal is to link to its immediate neighbors, its middle-term goal is to link to the rest of Asia, and its long-term goal is to extend to Africa and Europe.

In the short-to-medium term, we can see that China is most concerned with achieving Asian integration, which would solve both its security dilemmas and its market concerns. According to Xi Jinping, One Belt and One Road are two wings of Asian development (Xi 2014c). The aim of the AIIB is to provide finance for infrastructure projects in the Asian region. In his speech on Asia's security, he claimed that security problems in Asia should be solved by Asians themselves through cooperation (Xi 2014a). During the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for the Asia Annual Conference 2015, Xi called for jointly building a regional order that is more favorable to Asia and actively building an Asian free trade network (Xinhua News 2015). Therefore, the integrity of Asia is currently the most ambitious objective of China. China realizes that it should borrow from Asia's market strengths to maintain its economic influence and from Asia's political support to resolve its current security dilemmas in East Asia and forge a more secure external environment.

However, a tension exists between China's objectives and its means. China needs to resort to economic and peaceful means to accomplish the NSR initiative, such as by establishing the AIIB and the SRF, building industrial parks in Kazakhstan and Belarus, and constructing deep-water ports in Gwadar and Chittagong. However, China is also greatly improving its military capabilities and preparing for the possibility of wars with the United States and its allies. If China emphasizes its military capacity building, it will increase distrust and reluctance to cooperate among its neighbors. But if China doesn't resort to military deterrence, China would face pressures from the possible loss of its maritime assets and from its own nationalist domestic opinions. An overemphasis on military security could split Asia and endanger the integrity that China's initiative seeks.

China intends to solve the dilemma by exploring new spaces in the West and employing military deterrence in the East. This split strategy could create geopolitical demarcations. It could lead to a peaceful West and a conflict-ridden East. China will likely enjoy better relations with its northwestern neighbors but still maintain turbulent relations with some eastern and southern neighbors--a comparatively peaceful land-based Silk Road, for instance, but a more turbulent Maritime Silk Road. This outcome would go against China's original design, in which land and sea were seen to share great compatibility and harmony.

Values and Actions

Xi Jinping emphasized long-standing Chinese principles of noninterference and "no seeking for hegemony" in the "New Silk Road Economic Belt" speech. He proclaimed that China would not interfere in other countries and would not seek regional dominance (Xi 2013b). In the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" speech, he further promised that China would respect the sovereignty of other countries and their right to choose their development path (Xi 2013a). In the "Grasslands Silk Road" speech, Xi said the NSR will be based on the spirit of win-win cooperation: China will share opportunities with neighboring states in economic development (Xi 2014b). He stressed, in his "Strengthening the Partnership of Connectivity" speech, the value of inclusiveness by claiming that China welcomes all countries to take a free ride on the Chinese economic train (Xi 2014c). The NSR initiative is not China's solo but an inspiring chorus, he announced in his speech on "Asia's New Future: Towards a Community of Common Destiny" (Xinhua News 2015).

China hopes its diplomatic values will help diminish geopolitical fears and boost confidence in cooperation. As in the past, China seeks a long-term friendly or at least nonhostile bordering area around itself. China hopes to achieve trust from its concerned neighbors by implementing the noninterference principle and to increase its attraction to its neighbors through the perceived benefits of win-win cooperation. But China will have to face its own dilemmas when it comes to this reality. China claims not to pursue a traditional sphere of influence, but connectivity cooperation will eventually help China project its influence into the surrounding region.

On the one hand, then, how can China strike a delicate balance between projecting influence and creating a sphere of influence? China has to confine that influence to the economy, but its greater economic influence could be readily transformed into greater political and cultural influence. The future challenge for China is still how to attract its neighbors economically while controlling the temptation to intervene politically in their affairs. On the other hand, parts of the region have already been under the powerful influence of the United States, India, or Russia. If China plans to strengthen its ties in those areas, how can it do so without challenging the existing regional power structure?

China vows to stick to the principle of noninterference in its foreign policy, but if China doesn't actively interfere, political uncertainties within some countries will endanger China's foreign and overseas interests, such as happened in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Can China overcome this kind of political uncertainty without any interference? And if China did seek to interfere, it would probably drag itself into an unpredictable geopolitical trap, going totally against its diplomatic principles. Can China intervene "in a soft and subtle way" (2) without creating an impression of intervention?

China insists on the principle of nonalignment, but the revival of the Silk Road needs collective efforts and multilevel cooperation. Will China be able to find and maintain the many friendships necessary to jointly and efficiently push this grand project forward? How can China win the support of more friends without violating its principle of nonalignment? If China intends to forge closer and more comprehensive relations with relevant countries, how can China avoid giving the impression of constructing a sphere of influence? Using the United States as a negative role model, China is displaying considerable self-restraint in the cases of Myanmar and Sri Lanka, trying to influence them with much patience and in a relatively delicate way. The ultimate issue at stake here is whether China might shape a sphere of peaceful coexistence rather than a sphere of influence, but any loss of diplomatic self-control could upset the whole edifice.

Sustainability of the NSR Initiative

Possible Futures

Will the diplomatic dilemmas mentioned in the previous section mean that China's NSR initiative cannot be sustained? Four factors indicate that China's NSR initiative could be a long-term rather than temporary project.

First, the economic strength of China and its attitude toward the outside world will influence the future of the NSR initiative. If China continues to rise and sticks to an opening-up policy or positive attitude toward the world that it has held since 1978, it will naturally continue to connect with the world. If China closes its doors or becomes hostile to the world, the initiative will become an empty concept. From a historical viewpoint, China's active exploration to the west during the strong Han and Tang dynasties led to the rise of the Silk Road, and a closed-door policy during the comparatively weak Ming and Qing dynasties contributed to the decline of the old Silk Road. China experienced a sudden surge of outward movement during the early Ming, but this was seen as wildly ambitious and unsustainable after the death of the Yongle Emperor. Admiral Zhenghe's great expeditions came to a sudden halt in the 1430s and oceangoing naval activity was proscribed for centuries thereafter.

However, history cannot be taken as a guide for current developments. Judging from the current situation, China's approach to the economic, diplomatic, and military consequences of its rise must necessarily show a degree of consistency and develop in an evolutionary way rather than through sudden leaps. And Beijing must be prepared to accept short-term setbacks along the way. A seemingly irreversible process of globalization and China's continual opening in social attitudes suggest that it will not close its doors again. Moreover, China's political system could safeguard against the direction of China's future development being changed by a single person, especially if China is recovering its confidence in dealing with the outside world after experiencing many frustrations. A more confident China would more likely sustain an open-door policy; the latest evidence is that the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party National Congress in November 2012 vowed to stick to the policy of reform and opening up. Compared with its gloomy past, after the Opium War, no voice in Chinese society supports a closed-door policy.

Second, China's strategy would meet the development needs of many countries, providing significant momentum for the implementation of the NSR initiative. Most of its neighbors are developing countries with full awareness that trade and transportation are critical to their economic growth, particularly the Central Asian states whose disadvantages as "the largest landlocked region in the world" are obvious (Nash and Seu 2014). Other landlocked countries such as Laos and Nepal rely heavily on highways and railways to develop their economies. Nepal has been eager to prompt China to extend its Tibetan railway system to Nepal since operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway began in July 2006. Nepal's vice president stated that Nepal wished to take a free ride on the "high speed rail" of Chinese economic development in an interview in October 2014. The high level of support given to the AIIB by Asian and European states is strong evidence that the NSR initiative provides a powerful driver for cooperation.

Third, transportation technology can create its own momentum. Typical tools such as sailing ships, steamships, wagons, and the railway have always brought associated economic advances and produced great changes in the world. The NSR represents not only trade links among countries but also a new transportation technology with strong construction requirements. A high-speed railway can create its own demands and markets. Technology transfer would make more countries choose it as their transportation tool. For instance, France, Germany, and Japan were the earliest users of high-speed rail. China's NSR strategy is the outcome of the technology transfer of high-speed trains from those countries. In this regard, transportation technology innovations can help China maintain and even inject new momentum into China's NSR initiative, and it could eventually link the world together like streams flowing into rivers and seas.

Finally, many players including sovereign states and international organizations have launched connectivity programs across the Asian and European continents. China is not the first country to propose a Silk Road project. The TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia) project, proposed by the European Union, represented the first attempt to revive the Silk Road in 1995. The Pan-Asian highway in 2004 and the Pan-Asian railway in 2006, initiated by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and supported by most Asian states, represented the second attempt. Since 1998, the International Road Federation has initiated and sponsored four International Silk Road Conferences to discuss how to revive the Silk Road.

Meantime, Russia, Iran, and Kazakhstan have their own transportation plans to become the trade link between Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan's new economic policy in November 2014, called the Bright Road, made the construction of economic corridors its national priority. In fact, from the perspective of continental transportation, the NSR is a joint project requiring the efforts of many countries. China's initiative represents the biggest effort so far to revive these cross-continental trade routes. On one hand it could likely stimulate, revive, and reenergize other countries' Silk Road dreams. On the other, the collective efforts of international collaborators can also help China maintain its momentum for the NSR initiative.

With much momentum behind the NSR, its possible futures could be as follows: (1) In the short term (up to ten years), railway links might be built across China, Kazakhstan, and Thailand, but geopolitical competition among China, India, and the United States might also happen, and political instabilities could arise within a number of small and medium-sized countries of significance for the success of the NSR. (2) In the middle term (ten to twenty years), links within ASEAN, Northeast Asia, and Central Asia might be built, but the link between China and India might be delayed owing to their territorial disputes. The world could see a dotted Silk Road instead of a smooth line. (3) In the long term (twenty to fifty years or longer), most potential links will be successfully built, and nearly every state could possibly be linked through high-speed rail. National borders and civilization's "fault lines" will gradually blur to some degree.

Implications for the World

Significant changes to trade routes often lead to great geopolitical and geoeconomic transformations in the world. How will the NSR transform the landscape of the world? Compared with the ancient Silk Road, the modern one contains a larger scope with more advanced transportation technology. Assuming no global war disrupts the process, NSR might bring fundamental changes to the world.

First, the world could see the rise of land powers to equal and possibly surpass sea powers, which have for a long period tended to enjoy a superior position. The ancient Silk Road witnessed many strong land powers such as the Chinese Han and Tang empires, the Arabian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, and prosperous cities such as Ashkhabad, Isfahan, and Samarkand. Trade on the ancient Silk Road and across the Mediterranean Sea brought about the prosperity of Italy, but in the past 500 years, oceanic sea powers have arisen, mainly because oceanic trade was more convenient and cheaper than land-based routes (Mahan 1890).

Based on the same logic, the revival of the Silk Road might also cause a significant shift of trade routes from the oceans to high-speed railways. A possible consequence would be the rise of land powers, with some medium-sized countries situated at important transportation intersections--such as Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt--being rewarded with trade opportunities that help develop their economies in new directions. Accordingly, the rise of land powers, possibly accompanied by more authoritarian political systems, particularly in Asia, could cause shifts in the balance of world political culture.

Second, improvements in transportation have played an important role in regional integration, considering that they brought about better connectivity that "changed the meaning of space, location and distance" (Starr 2013, 438). The very start of globalization triggered by European oceangoing vessels around the sixteenth century caused a worldwide geographic revolution. The process of European integration reveals that integration often comes after breakthroughs in connectivity. For instance, the international E-road networks started to link most European states in September 1950, emerging earlier than the Coal and Steel Community that was established in April 1951. The European high-speed rail system begun in the 1980s likewise produced a surge of regional economic integration.

The experiences of early globalization and European integration indicate how transportation plays an unexpectedly important role in the process of regional integration. High-speed rail is a revolutionary transportation tool for land shipping; its speed is ten times that of nineteenth-century railways. In the long run, high-speed rail will likely play a major role in transporting commerce. History shows that railways played a strong role domestically and internationally. They helped create or consolidate new nation-states but often triggered conflicts internationally. For instance, railways helped construct the identities of Germany, Canada, the United States, Russia, and India in the nineteenth century. But overseas railway projects were usually regarded as tools to project influence. For instance, the 3B (Berlin-Byzantine-Baghdad) railway project launched by Germany in 1888 triggered a geopolitical crisis among Germany, France, and Britain.

History could repeat, but there are two reasons why high-speed rail will play a more positive role for the world's future. One is that higher speed will draw larger areas together, as happened in Germany and India. The other reason is that geopolitical competition is much less intense on the Eurasian continent than it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so there may be fewer concerns about neocolonialism. In this regard, the NSR can draw states together within a subregion and promote integration by narrowing space and time. Better connectivity will enhance their development potential as well as facilitate the diffusion not only of technology but also of ideas and norms (Pandit and Basu 2014). Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa could all benefit greatly from this transformation.


The NSR strategy represents China's efforts to integrate itself with the outside world and improve its profile on the world stage. But China's implementation of the strategy could face a rocky road in the near future. Geopolitical struggles represent the biggest obstacles, but domestic instabilities within some countries and fear of being overdependent on China also challenge Chinese diplomacy. How China manages these challenges along the silk routes will naturally influence the future of the NSR. In order to avoid turning the connectivity programs into geopolitical games, China claims to practice principles of noninterference and win-win cooperation and vows to provide more public goods through the establishment of initiatives like the AIIB and the SRF. When facing a domestic political crisis within some countries, China chooses to wait and see. This helps minimize the risk of involving itself in geopolitical conflicts but also creates policy dilemmas for China. China needs to convince its partners that its goals will be compatible with theirs; it must strike a delicate balance between its economic pursuits and military capacity building. Judging from the current situation, China is prudently pushing the initiative, and it has been attracting more cooperation than geopolitical concerns. All things considered, it is off to a relatively good start.


Gan Junxian is assistant professor of political science at Zhejiang University. He is also a visiting research fellow at the Department of Political Science, Copenhagen University. His research interests cover China-US relations and China's foreign policy. His latest book is The Capacity Building of China's Climate Diplomacy (2013, in Chinese). He can be reached at gan Mao Yan is assistant professor of political science at Zhejiang Shuren University. Her research interests cover China-Russia relations and China's foreign policy. She can be reached at

This research was supported and funded by the New Silk Road project (2014) of the Chinese Ministry of Education, "Competition and Cooperation Among China, India and the United States." The authors thank Barry Buzan, Chris Hadley, Camilla T. N. Sorensen, Lene Hansen, He Kai, Clemens Stubbe, Ostergaard Carsten, Carsten Boyer Thogersen, Jorgen Delman, and Ingrid Fihl Simonsen for their useful comments and suggestions.

(1.) The first academic conference on the Moving West strategy was held on March 1, 2013, at the Institute of Africa in the Chinese Academy of Social Science. It touched upon topics such as China's new international environment, national interests, and the prospects for the Moving West strategy. Another conference was held at the Institute of South Asia at Sichuan University; it mainly compared China's Moving West strategy and India's Look East policy.

(2.) How to protect China's overseas interests has been discussed in Chinese academic circles ever since Libya's domestic unrest in March 2011. China has been exploring low-risk ways to intervene and protect its overseas interests. Wang Yizhou at Beijing University developed a concept of "creative engagement," which touches upon how China can properly manage political crises from Sudan to Myanmar.


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Author:Junxian, Gan; Yan, Mao
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Date:Jan 1, 2016
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