More than 2,100 years ago, during the Han Dynasty of China, the original Silk Road was established. The goods along the Silk Road moved from east to the west. The routes stretched from China through Central Asian countries, India, modern-day Pakistan, through Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the African continent, linking as far as Greece, Rome, and Britain on the European continent. The road connected the region with other countries to facilitate trade and commerce. Chinese silk was the major trade product that travelled on this road; it was named the Silk Road by a reputed German geographer in his work China in 1877. Besides silk, China sent jade, china crockery, glasses and vases with intricate designs to Europe. The Indian caravans took ivory, ceramic items, spices, fabrics, bronze and beautiful mirrors to the west. The Central Asian woollen goods, carpets, handwoven rugs and blankets were in great demand in China. From the west, China received gold, silver and semi-precious stones. The exchange also enhanced art, culture, religion, ideas, science, and technology in addition to transport of commercial goods from one place to another. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1453, the Ottoman Empire closed the fabled road and cut ties with the West. Since the closing of the route, the merchants have been using the sea to carry goods; trading is mostly done through maritime lanes these days.
In 2013, during a visit to Kazakhstan, the Chinese President Xi Jinping took a major initiative in reviving the old Silk Road in an attempt to better connect China with rest of Asia, Europe and Africa. In his speech Xi Jinping said, "China wants to create a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways and streamlined border crossings, both westward -- through the mountainous former Soviet republics -- and southward, toward Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia."
This ambitious project initiative is also referred to as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road. The project aims to connect incongruent regions with China's near and distant countries through an enormous programme of interconnectivity and reconstruction development. China plans to build trade links over land and sea into Europe and Asia. It has planned to invest $46 billion in Pakistan alone.
THE BOTTOM LINE: With the trading partners, China will be able to secure the future demand of all Chinese goods. China's thinking is that in case of a war, one cannot depend on the sea to transport all goods; China will become vulnerable and its economy will face a collapse without an alternate route. China's 'One Belt, One Road' initiative was perhaps built as an answer to this possible collapse. Xi Jinping urged the other countries to join this initiative to strengthen cooperation and to realise what is good for common development.
The high-speed railway in China and Europe will greatly increase the transport efficiency, cutting in half the travel time between China, other Asian countries and Europe. With major infrastructure developments, the railroad transport of goods will save time. In late February, a Chinese freight train from Wuyi reached Iran's capital Tehran in 14 days, which would have taken another month to reach by sea. This kind of connectivity is an indication of how China is reconstructing the Silk route across Eurasia.
In general term, Xi Jinping's so called One Belt, One Road ingenuity is gigantic in scope and ambition, with future investments of almost $1.0 trillion. China plans to build trade links over land and sea into Europe and Asia. As far as South Asia is concerned, it is a massive programme that has the potential to be a game changer in the region influencing global trade patterns, contributing to power play. Analysts see it as a major step in projecting Chinese power and influence beyond its southern and western borders. The implementation of this project will obviously allow China to play an assertive role as a superpower.
Officially, China claims that its investment in infrastructure development in South Asia is a lucrative deal for all concerned, maintaining that it is aiding the neighbours improve economic control by sharing its technology, manpower and resources. This should be seen as part of regional development in terms of rebuilding and upgrading old and slow technology by opening up routes to move goods from China's poor and underdeveloped western Xinjiang province through Pakistan which will be taken through the Arabian Sea onto the Middle East to Europe. According to China, the overall goal is development and progress and there is no regional power play involved in implementing such a massive plan. As an example, the Chinese like to say how Pakistan and China are now 'iron brothers' and 'all-weather friends.'
China will spend billions of dollars to develop other countries' roads, railways and pipelines. What is in it for China? In letting China's neighbours gain economic control by sharing its technology and resources, China is redefining its upcoming role in the global arena. China wants new markets for its consumer goods, and to dispose its excess industrial goods. It has abundance of steel that can be of help to poor areas throughout South Asia that remain isolated because of lack of better connectivity. Parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan are good examples.
India, Pakistan's arch enemy and China's strategic rival, is naturally mistrustful of China's enterprise. The humiliation of the 1962 war is still fresh in its mind. India is also wedged between two nuclear-armed countries, China and Pakistan who are friendly to each other. Land boundaries have not been settled between India and China as yet. The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is another reason that makes Delhi to be hesitant. China is not showing India the blueprint of the project.
In contrast, Bangladesh has formally joined this new South Asian Silk Road initiative during Xi's visit to the country from October 14-15. Xi Jinping's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative was formally accepted by Bangladesh on October 15. About US$ 24 was pledged as loan. Needless to say, this represents a qualitative change in direction for Bangladesh international policy. Since Independence, the nation has been in cohorts with Soviet Russia, and India until the coup of 1975 derailed this in favour of a pro-Pakistani tilt. China, which had opposed the Liberation war initially, was kept at arm's length in the early years (1971-'75). The embrace of the OBOR initiative in 2016, if carried through to its logical end, changes this dynamic. By becoming a part of the new South Asian Silk Road, Bangladesh joins many other nations, including Pakistan, in an initiative that is seen with wary eyes by its biggest neighbour, India, and ultimately the USA. It remains to be seen if this can be sustainable in the long run.