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Beijing retraces the Ancient Silk Road
December 16, 2013, 6:21 am

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on a recent visit to Romania attended a summit with leaders of 16 Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. An unprecedented number of cooperation agreements on agriculture, transportation, power generation and finance were signed while more than 300 Chinese entrepreneurs and investors accompanied Premier Li during this visit. Stronger ties between China and the CEE countries could provide that crucial impetus to the sound and sustained development of that grand revival project, the Silk Road economic belt.

China is aiming for a ‘silk road economic belt’ that would ‘open up the transportation channel from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.’ [Getty Images]

China is aiming for a ‘silk road economic belt’ that would ‘open up the transportation channel from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.’ [Getty Images]

The Silk Road was a remarkable ancient commerce passage connecting China, Russia, Central Asia, West Asia and Europe. It is now to be resurrected, driven by ambitious development aspirations and plans of China and relevant countries that stand to gain.

It was during his visit to Central Asia in September that the new Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt when he addressed Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.

“I can almost hear the ring of the camel bells and the wisps of smoke in the desert,” said Xi in a nostalgic remembrance of the old Silk Road.

Xi wisely called for closer regional cooperation and deepening mutual political trust to jointly revive the ancient trading route. As some informed Chinese analysts pointed out recently, the CEE countries occupy the ends of the economic belt and can play a key role given their status as a gateway to European inner lands.

In fact, in an article published in major media of the CEE countries before his visit, Premier Li made it clear that China is making more efforts in upgrading its westward opening-up while the CEE countries are moving to look East, and the two side should seize the economic opportunities.

The timing of Li’s visit sends out a pointer or two. The third plenum of the CPC’s 18th Central Committee ended in early November, and a communiqué on pushing forward with a new comprehensive set of reforms was issued.

China, I would say, is experiencing another “Deng Xiaoping Moment”—Deng was the leader who changed modern China by launching landmark reforms and opening-up in late 1970s. In response to its internal development challenges and the changing international economic environment, the new Chinese leadership seems quite determined to reshape its global posture in a bold and creative way.

Beijing has adopted a fundamentally new approach---investing in the “belt” more than the “road”, says Zhao [Getty Images]

Beijing has adopted a fundamentally new approach—investing in the “belt” more than the “road”, says Zhao [Getty Images]

New domestic reforms in fields such as financial system, labor market, income distribution and political governance will help China to regain the economic momentum and sustain its modernization course. And one key element of these is to build up an economic system with upgraded opening-up and external cooperation. But the government has to seek more space and opportunities for Chinese corporations and in the meantime ensure ever-expanding overseas economic presence which is conducive to national security goals.

In this sense, the success of the Silk Road economic belt will be very consequential to the stability of Chinese western provinces including XinJiang. In the early 1990s, the then Chinese leadership launched a “Go-West” campaign aiming to addressing the development disparity between the coastal areas and the vast inner lands. The wealthier provinces were asked to aid the poorer ones in the west by providing financial support, co-developing large-scale business projects and transferring advanced human resources.

For now, China is waking up to the huge potentials of its ties with the westward neighboring countries; it is high time for Beijing to add an international policy pillar for the “Go-West” drive which was previously regarded as a domestic endeavor. No wonder then that the proposal of building up the Silk Road economic belt was highlighted in the communiqué of the recent third plenum.

Indeed, for better understanding Beijing’s thrust on reviving the Silk Road, one needs to pay closer attention to the ongoing overhaul of China’s periphery diplomacy. In late October, President Xi Jinping presided over quite a high-level conference on China’s relations with neighboring countries. All of its Politburo members as well as hundreds of senior leaders working on foreign, economic and military affairs attended this conference, and even a number of CEOs of Chinese state-owned enterprises joined the conference. The level and scale of such a conference focusing on China’s periphery policy is unprecedented.

President Xi made a tone-setting speech and emphasized diplomatic principles in dealing with the neighboring countries—intimacy, honesty, benefaction and tolerance. These, of course, sound abstract to Western ears but China has been gradually putting these into deeds.

In the light of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the Central Asian countries could suffer from the spillover effects of Kabul’s weakness and disorder. Not only terrorist and extremist forces but also cross-border organized crimes and drug trafficking in particular are likely to put the region in great danger. These are very much on Beijing’s radar since Chinese bordering areas may not be immune to such turmoil.

The Chinese President Xi Jinping has strategically backed the revival of the ancient Silk Route [Getty Images]

The Chinese President Xi Jinping has strategically backed the revival of the ancient Silk Route [Getty Images]

In order to ensure the long-term stability of its westward neighboring areas, Beijing has adopted a fundamentally new approach—investing in the “belt” more than the “road”. The essence of a good-neighborhood policy is to achieve truly “win-win relations” and widen the common ground. Beijing seeks to move its ties with the Central Asian countries beyond the high profile and headline grabbing energy transactions and attract the CEE countries and West Asian countries to make joint efforts in building the Silk Road economic belt.

China looks ready to respond to the demands of those countries in the belt on creating jobs, bettering infrastructure, upgrading transportation, diversifying exports, enhancing economic competiveness and financing local innovations. A rapidly increasing number of Chinese corporations and sub-national governments are upbeat about the Silk Road economic belt initiative, keen on leveraging the golden opportunity to march west. It has also been reported that a national-level strategy which includes more specific measures and plans, is in the making.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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