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Silk Roads, Old and New

Long-distance trade existed well before the growth of capitalism. The Silk Road was a series of routes, some on land and some by sea, that linked China and India to the Mediterranean region. It emerged gradually, so it is hard to date its origin precisely, but it was well-established by the second century BCE. Along it travelled not just Chinese silk to Europe, together with many other goods (pottery, for instance), but also ideas such as Buddhism from India to China.

The original Silk Road was in decline by the 15th century, and Chinese capitalism, in its grab for wealth and power, now has something along similar but far more ambitious lines in mind. Nowadays, though, a great deal of planning and investment has to go into such developments. One such structure is the Silk Road Economic Belt, an overland route through Central Asia, and part of this is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This involves a series of infrastructure projects, costing as much as US $46bn, that will link the Chinese city of Kashgar to the Pakistan seaboard. In addition to roads and upgraded rail lines, this will include an international airport and various energy projects in Pakistan (including wind farms and gas pipelines). In April came the announcement of the first stage, a 720,000-kilowatt hydroelectric power project in the Punjab province of Pakistan, which is expected to cost $1.65bn. It is financed by various state-owned Chinese banks, should become operational by 2020, and will be run by Chinese companies for thirty years.

The other major project is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt (Maritime Silk Road for short). The plans here seem to be less detailed at present, but they involve a route via the South China Sea, then two separate parts, one to the Indian Ocean and one to the South Pacific. In September last year, President Xi Jinping visited the Maldives and Sri Lanka in order to push this scheme. Sri Lanka has in fact already received $1.4bn from China to improve the port facilities at its commercial capital Colombo, as a rival to Singapore and Dubai. China will also be financing the upgrading of the Maldives’ international airport and the improvement of transport links within the island chain.

The two umbrella projects, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, are known collectively as the Belt and Road Initiative. The intention is that, within a decade or so, trade between China and the Belt and Road countries will be over $2.5 trillion. However massive the investments are, the hoped-for profits are even greater. The funds come from various Chinese investment vehicles, such as the Silk Road Fund, and banks like the Export-Import Bank of China. Economics and politics are of course closely linked, and co-operation in terms of security and coastguard operations will all be part of the deal with the aim of reducing tensions and disputes over maritime resources.

The area for the envisaged Economic Belt has a population ‘close to 3 billion people and represents the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential’, Xi said at a talk in Kazakhstan in September 2013. As for the maritime route, a Cambodian minister stated last year that for China and nations in South-east Asia, ‘it is necessary to build a maritime silk road in order to bolster economic cooperation, particularly in the fields of trade, investment and tourism’.

So the Chinese ruling class’s plans for economic expansion and rivalry with the US cover not just the other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa), but also Pakistan and other places in Central, South and South-east Asia. Capitalist competition is forging new struggles over trade routes and resources.  

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