Fri, Jun 26, 2015 - Page 9 News List

China, Russia find common goal in New Silk Road initiative

By Robert Skidelsky

The Chinese are the most historically minded of peoples. In his conquest of power, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) used military tactics derived from Sun Tzu (孫子), who lived in 500 BC; Confucianism, dating from about the same time, remains at the heart of China’s social thinking, despite Mao’s ruthless attempts to suppress it.

So when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) launched his “New Silk Road” initiative in 2013, no one should have been surprised by the historical reference.

“More than two millennia ago, the diligent and courageous people of Eurasia explored and opened up several routes of trade and cultural exchanges that linked the major civilizations of Asia, Europe and Africa, collectively called the Silk Road by later generations,” China’s National Development and Reform Commission said.

In China, old history is often called to aid new doctrine.

The new doctrine is “multipolarity” — the idea that the world is (or should be) made up of several distinctive poles of attraction. The contrast is with a “unipolar” (that is, a US or Western-dominated) world.

Multipolarity is a political idea, but it is about more than power relations. It rejects the notion that there is a single civilizational ideal to which all countries should conform. Different world regions have different histories, which have given their peoples different ideas about how to live, govern themselves and earn a living. These histories are all worthy of respect: There is no “right” road to the future.

Eurasia is an idea whose time, it is said, has come around again. Recent historical research has rescued the old Silk Road from historical oblivion. US sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod identified eight overlapping “circuits of trade” between northwest Europe and China that, under the aegis of a Pax Mongolica, flourished between the 13th and 14th centuries.

According to Abu-Lughod, Western imperialism superimposed itself on these older circuits, without obliterating them. Islam continued to spread across geographic and political boundaries. Chinese and Indian migrations did not stop.

Now a unique conjuncture of economic and political developments has created an opportunity for Eurasia to emerge from its historical slumbers. In recent years, Western self-assurance was humbled by the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and political catastrophes in the Middle East. At the same time, the interests of the two potential builders of Eurasia — China and Russia — seem, at least superficially, to have converged.

China’s motive for reviving Pax Mongolica is clear. Its growth model, based largely on exporting cheap manufactured goods to developed countries, is running out of steam. Secular stagnation threatens the West, accompanied by rising protectionism sentiment. And, although Chinese leaders know that they must rebalance the economy from investment and exports to consumption, doing so risks causing serious domestic political problems for the Chinese Communist Party. Reorienting investments and exports toward Eurasia offers an alternative.

As China’s labor costs increase, production is being relocated from the coastal regions to the western provinces. The natural outlet for this production is along the New Silk Road. The development of the road (actually several “belts,” including a southern maritime route) would require huge investments in transport and urban infrastructure. As in the 19th century, reduction in transport costs is likely to open up new markets for trade.

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