The Silk Road was a series of ancient trade networks that connected China with the rest of the world and was an important lifeline of commerce between the East and West. Today, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to create a new Silk Road with its Belt and Road (OBOR) initiative, which it believes will benefit all participating countries. However, considering Beijing’s authoritarian government and its debt-trap lending policies, leaders of many nations are wary of China’s intentions for the project.
The old Silk Road
The ancient Silk Road was very much in use during the period between 130 B.C. and A.D. 1453. From the East, products like silk, tea, precious stones, dyes, spices, perfumes, ivory, rice, gunpowder, etc. flowed into the West. In exchange, horses, honey, glassware, camels, fruit, woolen blankets, etc. were imported from the Western world. The Silk Road has played a huge role in the development of civilizations like China, India, Arabia, Korea, Japan, and so on.
In addition to goods, cultural exchanges in the fields of art, music, dance, philosophy, and religion also took place between the various nations. Even diseases were spread along the Silk Road, the most famous being the bubonic plague that arrived in Constantinople in A.D. 542 and wrecked the Byzantine Empire. With the rise of Europe after the Renaissance, the Silk Road eventually lost prominence as new water-based trade routes and strategic port cities in colonies were established by Europeans.
The new Silk Road
With China re-emerging as a global power, the Communist Party set out to create a modern version of the Silk Road, the OBOR. Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the project will reportedly involve an infrastructure investment of US$5 trillion across countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
About 65 countries have been identified by Chinese authorities as being potential participants in the OBOR network. However, not all nations are enthusiastic about the project, since it is being proposed by an undemocratic government that seeks to control its people and allies. Political experts also warn that poor and developing countries are especially vulnerable to Beijing’s debt trap lending tactics.
Sri Lanka is a prime example. When former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power, he accepted loans from China to build the Hambantota port even though many economists had clearly stated that the project was not economically feasible. After Rajapaksa lost power in 2015, the new government came in and found that the country was not in a position to repay the loans. Eventually, they had to sign an agreement with Beijing to lease the port for 99 years. In short, the port that Sri Lanka built for its benefit will now benefit the Chinese. And keep in mind that Sri Lanka occupies a key strategic location on the Indian Ocean.
As far as the future is concerned, the U.S. and its allies — the EU, Japan, and Australia — are planning on setting up their own infrastructure funds to counter Chinese influence. Southeast Asian nations are increasingly getting wary of China’s investments, with countries like Malaysia and Vietnam seeing public protests against Beijing’s growing influence in the region. India has been a staunch opponent of the OBOR project as a part of it passes through the disputed Kashmir region. Intelligence officials in India are concerned that allowing China to increase its presence in Kashmir will only embolden the separatists.
However, developing nations from Africa and Latin America are likely to accept China’s Silk Road proposals as a means to develop their infrastructure. In fact, a large number of China’s growing list of allies comes from these two continents, including nations like Burkina Faso, Kenya, Senegal, El Salvador, Panama, and so on.