Archive for ‘Silk Road’

08/07/2019

Seven Silk Road destinations, from China to Italy: towns that grew rich on trade

  • Settlements along the route linking Europe and Asia thrived by providing accommodation and services for countless traders
  • Formally established during the Han dynasty, it was a 19th-century German geographer who coined the term Silk Road
The ruins of a fortified gatehouse and cus­toms post at Yunmenguan Pass, in China’s Gansu province. Photo: Alamy
The ruins of a fortified gatehouse and cus­toms post at Yunmenguan Pass, in China’s Gansu province. Photo: Alamy
We have a German geographer, cartographer and explorer to thank for the name of the world’s most famous network of transconti­nental trade routes.
Formally established during the Han dynasty, in the first and second centuries BC, it wasn’t until 1877 that Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term Silk Road (historians increasingly favour the collective term Silk Routes).
The movement of merchandise between China and Europe had been taking place long before the Han arrived on the scene but it was they who employed troops to keep the roads safe from marauding nomads.
Commerce flourished and goods as varied as carpets and camels, glassware and gold, spices and slaves were traded; as were horses, weapons and armour.
Merchants also moved medicines but they were no match for the bubonic plague, which worked its way west along the Silk Road before devastating huge swathes of 14th century Europe.
What follows are some of the countless kingdoms, territories, (modern-day) nations and cities that grew rich on the proceeds of trade, taxes and tolls.

China

A watchtower made of rammed earth at Dunhuang, a desert outpost at the crossroads of two major Silk Road routes in China’s northwestern Gansu province. Photo: Alamy
A watchtower made of rammed earth at Dunhuang, a desert outpost at the crossroads of two major Silk Road routes in China’s northwestern Gansu province. Photo: Alamy

Marco Polo worked in the Mongol capital, Khanbaliq (today’s Beijing), and was struck by the level of mercantile activity.

The Venetian gap-year pioneer wrote, “Every day more than a thousand carts loaded with silk enter the city, for a great deal of cloth of gold and silk is woven here.”

Light, easy to transport items such as paper and tea provided Silk Road traders with rich pickings, but it was China’s monopoly on the luxurious shimmering fabric that guaranteed huge profits.

So much so that sneaking silk worms out of the empire was punishable by death.

The desert outpost of Dunhuang found itself at the crossroads of two major Silk Road trade arteries, one leading west through the Pamir Mountains to Central Asia and another south to India.

Built into the Great Wall at nearby Yunmenguan are the ruins of a fortified gatehouse and cus­toms post, which controlled the movement of Silk Road caravans.

Also near Dunhuang, the Mogao Caves contain one of the richest collections of Buddhist art treasures any­where in the world, a legacy of the route to and from the subcontinent.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan's mountainous terrain was an inescapable part of the Silk Road, until maritime technologies would become the area's undoing. Photo: Shutterstock
Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain was an inescapable part of the Silk Road, until maritime technologies would become the area’s undoing. Photo: Shutterstock

For merchants and middlemen hauling goods through Central Asia, there was no way of bypassing the mountainous lands we know today as Afghanistan.

Evidence of trade can be traced back to long before the Silk Road – locally mined lapis lazuli stones somehow found their way to ancient Egypt, and into Tutankhamun’s funeral mask, created in 1323BC.

Jagged peaks, rough roads in Tajikistan, roof of the world

Besides mercan­tile exchange, the caravan routes were responsible for the sharing of ideas and Afghanistan was a major beneficiary. Art, philosophy, language, science, food, architecture and technology were all exchanged, along with commercial goods.

In fact, maritime technology would eventually be the area’s undoing. By the 15th century, it had become cheaper and more convenient to transport cargo by sea – a far from ideal development for a landlocked region.

Iran

The Ganjali Khan Complex, in Iran. Photo: Shutterstock
The Ganjali Khan Complex, in Iran. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to the Silk Road and the routes that preceded it, the northern Mesopotamian region (present-day Iran) became China’s closest trading partner. Traders rarely journeyed the entire length of the trail, however.

Merchandise was passed along by middlemen who each travelled part of the way and overnighted in caravan­serai, forti­fied inns that provided accom­mo­dation, storerooms for goods and space for pack animals.

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With so many wheeler-dealers gathering in one place, the hostelries developed into ad hoc marketplaces.

Marco Polo writes of the Persian kingdom of Kerman, where craftsmen made saddles, bridles, spurs and “arms of every kind”.

Today, in the centre of Kerman, the former caravanserai building forms part of the Ganjali Khan Complex, which incorporates a bazaar, bathhouse and mosque.

Uzbekistan

A fort in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Photo: Alamy
A fort in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Photo: Alamy

The double-landlocked country boasts some of the Silk Road’s most fabled destinations. Forts, such as the one still standing at Khiva, were built to protect traders from bandits; in fact, the city is so well-preserved, it is known as the Museum under the Sky.

The name Samarkand is also deeply entangled with the history of the Silk Road.

The earliest evidence of silk being used outside China can be traced to Bactria, now part of modern Uzbekistan, where four graves from around 1500BC-1200BC contained skeletons wrapped in garments made from the fabric.

Three thousand years later, silk weaving and the production and trade of textiles remain one of Samarkand’s major industries.

Georgia

A street in old town of Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Alamy
A street in old town of Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Alamy

Security issues in Persia led to the opening up of another branch of the legendary trade route and the first caravan loaded with silk made its way across Georgia in AD568.

Marco Polo referred to the weaving of raw silk in “a very large and fine city called Tbilisi”.

Today, the capital has shaken off the Soviet shackles and is on the cusp of going viral.

Travellers lap up the city’s monaster­ies, walled fortresses and 1,000-year-old churches before heading up the Georgian Military Highway to stay in villages nestling in the soaring Caucasus Mountains.

Public minibuses known as marshrutka labour into the foothills and although the vehicles can get cramped and uncomfortable, they beat travelling by camel.

Jordan

Petra, in Jordan. Photo: Alamy
Petra, in Jordan. Photo: Alamy

The location of the Nabataean capital, Petra, wasn’t chosen by chance.

Savvy nomadic herders realised the site would make the perfect pit-stop at the confluence of several caravan trails, including a route to the north through Palmyra (in modern-day Syria), the Arabian peninsula to the south and Mediterranean ports to the west.

Huge payments in the form of taxes and protection money were collected – no wonder the most magnificent of the sand­stone city’s hand-carved buildings is called the Treasury.

The Red Rose City is still a gold mine – today’s tourists pay a hefty

US$70 fee to enter Petra

. The Nabataeans would no doubt approve.

Venice

Tourists crowd onto Venice’s Rialto Bridge. Photo: Alamy
Tourists crowd onto Venice’s Rialto Bridge. Photo: Alamy

Trade enriched Venice beyond measure, helping shape the Adriatic entrepot into the floating marvel we see today.

Besides the well-documented flow of goods heading west, consignments of cotton, ivory, animal furs, grapevines and other goods passed through the strategically sited port on their way east.

Ironically, for a city built on trade and taxes, the biggest problem Venice faces today is visitors who don’t contribute enough to the local economy.

A lack of spending by millions of day-tripping tourists and cruise passengers who aren’t liable for nightly hotel taxes has prompted authorities to introduce a citywide access fee from January 2020.

Two thousand years ago, tariffs and tolls helped Venice develop and prosper. Now they’re needed to prevent its demise.

Source: SCMP

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05/06/2019

Xinjiang’s vanishing mosques highlight pressure on China’s Muslims as Ramadan ends with a whimper

  • Few signs of Eid celebrations after crackdown that has seen a reported million Uygurs and other minorities interned in camps
  • Muslims in far western Chinese region say they are now ‘too scared’ to practise their faith in public
Worshippers leave a mosque in Kasghar after prayers on Wednesday. Photo: AFP
Worshippers leave a mosque in Kasghar after prayers on Wednesday. Photo: AFP
The corner where Heyitkah mosque in China’s far western region of Xinjiang once hummed with life is now a car park where all traces of the tall, domed building have been erased.
While Muslims around the world celebrated the end of Ramadan with prayers and festivities this week, the recent destruction of dozens of mosques in Xinjiang highlights the increasing pressure Uygurs and other ethnic minorities face in the heavily policed region.
Behind the car park in the city of Hotan, the slogan “Educate the people for the party” is emblazoned in red on the wall of a primary school where students must scan their faces upon entering the razor-wired gates.
The mosque “was beautiful,” recalled a vendor at a nearby bazaar. “There were a lot of people there.”
Satellite images reviewed by AFP and visual analysis non-profit Earthrise Alliance show that 36 mosques and religious sites have been torn down or had their domes and corner spires removed since 2017.
Satellite images from 2014 (top) and March this year show the disappearance of the dome of the Karamay West Mosque in Xinjiang. Photo: AFP/ Distribution Airbus Defence and Space/ CNES 2019/ Produced By Earthrise
Satellite images from 2014 (top) and March this year show the disappearance of the dome of the Karamay West Mosque in Xinjiang. Photo: AFP/ Distribution Airbus Defence and Space/ CNES 2019/ Produced By Earthrise

In the mosques that are open, worshippers go through metal detectors while surveillance cameras monitor them inside.

“The situation here is very strict, it takes a toll on my heart,” said one Uygur, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “I don’t go any more,” he added, referring to mosques. “I’m scared.”

In the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, no longer does the sunrise call for prayer echo throughout the city – a ritual the manager of the city’s central mosque once proudly shared with touristsOn Wednesday, locals celebrating Eid al-Fitr quietly filed into the entrance of state-approved Idkah Mosque – one of the largest in China – as police and officials fenced off the wide square surrounding the building and plain clothes men monitored every person’s actions.

It was another low-key Ramadan for Muslims in Xinjiang, where restaurants were busy serving food to customers throughout the day, a time when practising Muslims fast.

In Hotan on Friday – a holy day for believers – the only mosque in the city was empty after sundown, an important prayer session when Muslim families typically break their daily Ramadan fast.

Earlier in the day, at least 100 people attended a midday session but the vast majority were elderly men.

Human Rights Watch decodes surveillance app used to classify people in China’s Xinjiang region

The ruling Communist Party “sees religion as this existential threat”, said James Leibold, an expert on ethnic relations and policy in China at La Trobe University.

Over the long term, the Chinese government wants to achieve “the secularisation of Chinese society,” he told AFP.

The Xinjiang government told AFP that it “protects religious freedoms” and citizens can celebrate Ramadan “within the scope permitted by law”, without elaborating.

The authorities have thrown a hi-tech security net across the region, installing cameras, mobile police stations and checkpoints in seemingly every street in response to a spate of deadly attacks blamed on Islamic extremists and separatists in recent years.

An estimated one million Uygurs and other Turkic-speaking ethnic groups are held in a vast network of internment camps.

After initially denying their existence, Chinese authorities last year acknowledged that they run “vocational education centres” aimed at steering people clear of religious extremism by teaching them Mandarin and China’s laws.

In those centres, it was a different Ramadan.

The Xinjiang government told AFP that people in the centres are not allowed to hold religious activities because Chinese law forbids it within education facilities, but they are free to do so “when they return home on weekends”.

Uygur men dance after Eid al-Fitr prayers in Kashgar. Photo: Greg Baker/ AFP
Uygur men dance after Eid al-Fitr prayers in Kashgar. Photo: Greg Baker/ AFP

In recent years, Chinese authorities have ramped up controls on public displays of religion and Islamic traditions in Xinjiang.

AFP reporters did not see any veiled women and few men sporting long beards during a week-long visit to the region. Former internment camp inmates have said they were incarcerated for these outward signs of their religion.

Places of worship too have become targets of Beijing’s draconian security measures.

Human Rights Watch decodes surveillance app used to classify people in China’s Xinjiang region

In the satellite images analysed by AFP and Earthrise Alliance, 30 religious sites were completely demolished while six had their domes and corner spires removed.

AFP reporters visited about half a dozen sites, and found that some mosques had been repurposed into public spaces.

Police officers blocked journalists from entering Artux, just north of Kashgar, where the town’s grand mosque and dozens of other community mosques were destroyed.

The area is some 22 kilometres (14 miles) away from an enormous complex believed to be a re-education centre. Visible from a nearby village, the facility has razor-wired walls, watchtowers and imposing block buildings.In Kashgar, two cameras perched on the columns of a former mosque point at its entrance. There is no minaret or dome – instead, a shop selling dresses lies to its right alongside houses.

A demolished mosque in Hotan has been converted into a garden, paved with concrete walkways and sparsely planted trees.

On the outskirts of town, situated between a cemetery and sand dunes, two white flags and a pile of burned refuse and debris was all that was left of an old shrine named Imam Asim.

China’s top Xinjiang official Chen Quanguo should face sanctions over alleged abuses, US lawmakers say

Uygurs consider these mosques and shrines “their ancestral heritage,” said Omer Kanat, director of the Uygur Human Rights Project.

“The Chinese government just wants to erase everything … that is different from Han, everything which belongs to Uygur culture or Islamic culture in the region,” he said.

Juma Maimaiti, the official imam of Idkah Mosque, told AFP in an interview arranged by the propaganda department that the demolition of mosques “has never happened here”.

“But our government has proceeded to protect some key mosques,” he added, and said that the city of Kashgar has over 150 mosques.

A propaganda slogan and surveillance camera at a mosque in Yangisar, south of Kashgar. Photo: AFP
A propaganda slogan and surveillance camera at a mosque in Yangisar, south of Kashgar. Photo: AFP

Though Beijing’s restrictions on religious piety, such as fasting, are not new, observers say conditions have deteriorated to the point where celebrations for the holy month in Xinjiang are reduced or largely invisible.

Islamic greetings and openly fasting in public are no longer permitted, said Darren Byler, a lecturer at the University of Washington who focuses on Uygur culture.

While there are Uygurs who continue to practise their faith, they are “internalising it at this moment – they’re not expressing it openly,” he said.

EU calls out Beijing on human rights but activists want harder line against China’s Xinjiang and Tibet policy

At state-backed mosques, religious activity is controlled as Beijing pursues a five-year plan to “Sinicise” Islam as the “only way for a healthy development of Islam” in the country, said Yang Faming, president.

Source: SCMP

16/05/2019

4th Silk Road int’l expo concludes in Xi’an

XI’AN, May 16 (Xinhua) — The fourth Silk Road International Exposition concluded Wednesday in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

During the five-day expo, 65 contracts in various fields including education, medical care, modern agriculture and intelligent manufacturing were signed with a total investment of 115.1 billion yuan (about 16.7 billion U.S. dollars).

Themed “New Era, New Pattern, and New Development,” the fourth Silk Road International Exposition attracted more than 2,000 Chinese enterprises and more than 200 overseas enterprises from 25 countries and regions, including Russia, the United States and Cambodia.

More than 30 activities and exhibitions were staged during the five-day event, including forums, conferences and investment and trade activities. An international forum on poverty relief was first held during the expo to contribute China’s experience and efforts to the global poverty reduction.

Known in ancient times as Chang’an, Xi’an was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road and plays a key role in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Source: Xinhua

13/04/2019

China’s trade boom and building frenzy of ports help home-grown producers corner the world market of containers and cranes

  • Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries now exports quay cranes, gantry cranes to more than 300 ports in 100 countries, with 70 per cent of the global market
  • China International Marine Containers Group (CIMC), took a little more than a decade to become the world’s largest maker of shipping containers
Quay cranes along a berth at the Yangshan deep-water port in Shanghai on September 14, 2011. Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Machineries, established in 1992, has grown along with the explosive development of China’s ports to control 70 per cent of the global market for cranes, loaders and lifting equipment used in ports. Photo: Xinhua
Quay cranes along a berth at the Yangshan deep-water port in Shanghai on September 14, 2011. Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Machineries, established in 1992, has grown along with the explosive development of China’s ports to control 70 per cent of the global market for cranes, loaders and lifting equipment used in ports. Photo: Xinhua
The explosive growth of China’s container ports has turned one of the most important vendors in shipping into a best-in-class industry leader, whose cranes can now be found in 300 wharves in 100 countries, with 70 per cent of the global market share.
Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries, a unit of China’s state-run construction behemoth China Communications Construction Company, makes quay cranes, gantry cranes, loaders and stackers used for loading and unloading shipping containers. It also developed the infrastructure for the automated berths in Phase IV of Shanghai’s Yangshan port, and in Qingdao.
Its net profit jumped 47.6 per cent last year to 443 million yuan, while sales was little changed at 21.8 billion yuan (US$3.25 billion).

“It is a major showcase of China’s manufacturing capability,” said Sun Can, a Chuancai Securities analyst. “The company has its own technologies and is a powerful player in the global port machinery industry.”

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Established in 1992, the company was formerly known as Zhenhua Port Machinery for its speciality in making lifting equipment on the harbourfront. Taking advantage of China’s low wages, Zhenhua quickly carved out a big chunk of the global market share by selling machines at lower prices than its competitors.
The company’s former chief executive Guan Tongxian, a confessed workaholic known for his hard-driving working ethic, retired at the age of 76 in 2009, the same year that the company renamed itself to reflect its forays into marine transport and installations, as well as the construction of special steel structures including the Las Vegas Ferris wheel, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Norway’s Hardangerfjord bridge.
Rows of gantry cranes standing along the Huangpu River in Shanghai on 26 June 2002. A consortium of Chinese domestic banks provided a 17 billion yuan (US$2 billion) credit line toward the construction of Shanghai's Yangshan deep-sea container port. Photo: AFP
Rows of gantry cranes standing along the Huangpu River in Shanghai on 26 June 2002. A consortium of Chinese domestic banks provided a 17 billion yuan (US$2 billion) credit line toward the construction of Shanghai’s Yangshan deep-sea container port. Photo: AFP

Listed on the Shanghai exchange in 1997, Zhenhua’s shares have risen 41 per cent in the past 12 months, ending 2.1 per cent lower at 4.46 yuan on Friday. All three analysts who cover the stock recommend their clients either “buy” or “accumulate” the stock, expecting Zhenhua to be a major winner in China’s megaplan to build infrastructure along the old Silk Road in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Another major company that has emerged with China’s rising tide was China International Marine Containers (Group), or CIMC, a unit of the state-run conglomerate China Merchants Group. Established in 1980, the company took a little more than a decade to dominate the global industry, becoming the world’s largest maker of shipping containers since 1996.

Visitors look at rows of containers at the Yangshan deep water port in Shanghai on April 6, 2006. Photo: AP
Visitors look at rows of containers at the Yangshan deep water port in Shanghai on April 6, 2006. Photo: AP

Guosen Securities said in a research report that CIMC would face lower profit margin this year amid rising raw material costs and fiercer competition from global rivals.

Its shares have risen 43.7 per cent in the past 12 months on the Shenzhen exchange to 15.20 yuan as of Friday.

Source: SCMP

08/04/2019

China to avoid debt burden for BRI participating countries: envoy

AMMAN, April 7 (Xinhua) — Li Chengwen, ambassador for China-Arab States Cooperation Forum Affairs of China’s Foreign Ministry, refuted on Sunday the criticism that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will create so-called “debt trap” for some participating countries.

“China is trying to find mechanisms to avoid the ‘debt trap,'” Li said during a session on the second day of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2019 held in the Dead Sea area of Jordan.

The Chinese envoy was responding to the criticism directed at the BRI by some people in the United States and Europe ahead of the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, due to be hosted by China later this month in Beijing.

The initiative, proposed by China in 2013, aims at building a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road to seek common development and prosperity.

As of July 2018, more than 100 countries and international organizations had signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with China, extending the initiative’s scope from the Eurasian continent to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the South Pacific region.

Li pointed out that no participating country has complained of falling into the so-called “trap” of Chinese loans.

“The Belt and Road Initiative aims to increase the economic prosperity of a country. It does not aim at expanding the political and geographical authority of China in the world,” he said.

Many participants at the forum in Jordan agreed with Li’s comments.

“If you keep your interest first, you will not find China an unfair partner,” said Shandana Gulzar Khan, Pakistan’s parliamentary secretary for commerce. “But it depends on how well you do your homework.”

In Pakistan, a major BRI participating country, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has created tens of thousands of jobs and revived the economy of an entire region, Khan noted.

Speaking at the session, He Wenping, a research fellow of the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, echoed Li’s remarks.

“The biggest worry on the ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ should come from China’s side, not from outside. It is tax payers’ money,” the Chinese professor said.

“China is not waving the ‘China First’ flag,” she said.

The upcoming Belt and Road forum to be held in Beijing later this month could be an opportunity to kickstart a “second phase” of the initiative, she added.

Source: Xinhua

20/02/2019

China’s top legislator holds talks with Iran’s parliament speaker

CHINA-BEIJING-LI ZHANSHU-IRAN-ALI LARIJANI-TALKS (CN)

Li Zhanshu (R), chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, holds talks with Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Feb. 19, 2019. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

BEIJING, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) — China’s top legislator Li Zhanshu on Tuesday held talks with visiting Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, calling for stronger cooperation to boost ties.

Li, chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, urged the two sides to take a strategic and long-term view in bilateral ties, constantly deepen political mutual trust, strengthen communication and coordination, and provide mutual support on issues concerning each others’ core interests.

He also called for more anti-terrorism security cooperation and more mutually beneficial cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Despite profound changes in the international situation and increasing instabilities and uncertainties, China’s position in safeguarding the Iranian nuclear deal has not changed, neither has its commitment to developing China-Iran relations, Li said.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Iran in 2016, the two countries established a comprehensive strategic partnership, ushering in a new chapter in bilateral ties, said Li.

Hailing the smooth progress in all-round cooperation in recent years, Li said that exchanges between the countries’ legislative institutions are an important component in the comprehensive strategic partnership.

“The NPC is willing to carry out friendly exchanges with Iranian parliament at different levels and in different forms, strengthen communication on experiences in legislation, supervision, and state governance, so as to provide sound legal guarantee for the two countries’ mutually beneficial cooperation,” he said.

Larijani said the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road witnessed the long history of exchanges between the two countries, and the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping gives new meanings to the Silk Road.

He said the Iranian side highly values and actively participates in the Belt and Road Initiative. The Iranian Parliament would like to carry out more exchanges with the NPC and support mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields.

Source: Xinhua

01/07/2016

Our bulldozers, our rules | The Economist

THE first revival of the Silk Road—a vast and ancient network of trade routes linking China’s merchants with those of Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe—took place in the seventh century, after war had made it unusable for hundreds of years. Xi Jinping, China’s president, looks back on that era as a golden age, a time of Pax Sinica, when Chinese luxuries were coveted across the globe and the Silk Road was a conduit for diplomacy and economic expansion. The term itself was coined by a German geographer in the 19th century, but China has adopted it with relish. Mr Xi wants a revival of the Silk Road and the glory that went with it.

This time cranes and construction crews are replacing caravans and camels. In April a Chinese shipping company, Cosco, took a 67% stake in Greece’s second-largest port, Piraeus, from which Chinese firms are building a high-speed rail network linking the city to Hungary and eventually Germany. In July work is due to start on the third stage of a Chinese-designed nuclear reactor in Pakistan, where China recently announced it would finance a big new highway and put $2 billion into a coal mine in the Thar desert. In the first five months of this year, more than half of China’s contracts overseas were signed with nations along the Silk Road—a first in the country’s modern history.

Politicians have been almost as busy in the builders’ wake. In June Mr Xi visited Serbia and Poland, scattering projects along the way, before heading to Uzbekistan. Last week Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, made a brief visit to Beijing; he, Mr Xi and Mongolia’s leader promised to link their infrastructure plans with the new Silk Road. At the time, finance ministers from almost 60 countries were holding the first annual meeting in Beijing of an institution set up to finance some of these projects, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Like a steam train pulling noisily out of a station, China’s biggest foreign-economic policy is slowly gathering speed.

Chinese officials call that policy “One Belt, One Road”, though they often eviscerate its exotic appeal to foreigners by using the unlovely acronym OBOR. Confusingly, the road refers to ancient maritime routes between China and Europe, while the belt describes the Silk Road’s better-known trails overland (see map).

OBOR puzzles many Western policymakers because it is amorphous—it has no official list of member countries, though the rough count is 60—and because most of the projects that sport the label would probably have been built anyway. But OBOR matters for three big reasons.

First, the projects are vast. Official figures say there are 900 deals under way, worth $890 billion, such as a gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar to south-west China and a rail link between Beijing and Duisburg, a transport hub in Germany. China says it will invest a cumulative $4 trillion in OBOR countries, though it does not say by when. Its officials tetchily reject comparison with the Marshall Plan which, they say, was a means of rewarding America’s friends and excluding its enemies after the second world war. OBOR, they boast, is open to all. But, for what it is worth, the Marshall Plan amounted to $130 billion in current dollars.

Next, OBOR matters because it is important to Mr Xi. In 2014 the foreign minister, Wang Yi, singled out OBOR as the most important feature of the president’s foreign policy. Mr Xi’s chief foreign adviser, Yang Jiechi, has tied OBOR to China’s much-touted aims of becoming a “moderately well-off society” by 2020 and a “strong, prosperous” one by mid-century.

Mr Xi seems to see the new Silk Road as a way of extending China’s commercial tentacles and soft power. It also plays a role in his broader foreign-policy thinking. The president has endorsed his predecessors’ view that China faces a “period of strategic opportunity” up to 2020, meaning it can take advantage of a mostly benign security environment to achieve its aim of strengthening its global power without causing conflict. OBOR, officials believe, is a good way of packaging such a strategy. It also fits with Mr Xi’s “Chinese dream” of recreating a great past. It is not too much to say that he expects to be judged as a leader partly on how well he fulfils OBOR’s goals.

Third, OBOR matters because it is a challenge to the United States and its traditional way of thinking about world trade. In that view, there are two main trading blocs, the trans-Atlantic one and the trans-Pacific one, with Europe in the first, Asia in the second and America the focal point of each. Two proposed regional trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, embody this approach. But OBOR treats Asia and Europe as a single space, and China, not the United States, is its focal point.

Source: Our bulldozers, our rules | The Economist

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