I’ve just completed my third bout of New Silk Road research travels. The first two bouts went to China and Central Asia to research what was happening on the Silk Road Economic Belt, this one was focused on South and Southeast Asia and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
These travels were intense — logistically as well as some of the situations I found myself in. There is a massive amount of money being pumped into the New Silk Road, and as could be expected it is a highly politicized project in many countries. I found myself in a little deep in Bangladesh — which is both good for the story and good for myself (I like this stuff).
Overall, I was mostly able to gain access to the places I wanted to access and meet with the people I wanted to meet with. I was able to interview top executives and get a tour inside of one of the ports in Singapore, I was able to get into the port at Hambantota, I was able to meet with top officials at the port in Chittagong. I was able to interview ambassadors, academics, policy advising think tanks, bankers, investors, reps from private sector businesses, an interesting guy who is responsible for relocating people from some NSR project areas . . . I was also able to meet with DHL three times, which is always something special.
My usual work revolves around talking to people in the streets, but this project is very different. The New Silk Road is an endeavor that’s mostly developing behind closed doors and within high walls at this junction. While there are grassroots social and commercial elements jumping into it, right now not even many of the government officials and policy influencers directly involved in this projects can really tell you what it is.
“It’s very vague,” they often say.
“The New Silk Road is best defined not by what it is, but what it isn’t,” Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore perhaps put it best.
This vague, this openness, is one of the project’s biggest strengths. This isn’t a trade pact or an international organization with broad sets of rules and regulations and treatises of explanation, but is something that each country that’s involved in it can define and utilize in their own way and participate in at their discretion. If one country closes the door there are easy paths around them. The NSR is nothing if not adaptable.
The biggest push behind this project is that it makes sense for all parties involved. To be on the path of the NSR is to benefit. To be left off to the wayside is to watch your neighbors benefit. There could one day be big competition between countries, between cities, between companies, but right now there is more than enough spoils to go around, and this ultimately keeps everyone moving forward after the same carrot. The pinata has been cracked open and the only way to seize the spoils is to jump in — if you don’t the kids next to you will.
Whether it’s called the New Silk Road or not or even whether China is pushing it or not, what this project ultimately does is going to happen at some point anyway. It’s inevitable. Basically, the New Silk Road is the last act of the first phase of globalization. It’s an endeavor to pick up the countries of Eurasia that have been lagging behind, equipping them to interact with developed economies, and, most importantly, tying it all together. China is looking at what countries have to offer and what they need to be able to better offer it. Then they fill in the gaps.
The United States had a glorious opportunity to have created a “New Silk Road” of sorts in the Americas, but they botched it with the quasi-colonial hang-up of trying to make the countries they deal with wear the same clothes as them. China doesn’t have this hang up. China doesn’t care what a country dresses like — politically, economically, or socially. They don’t care what they do internally. All China cares about is whether or not a country is willing to step up and do business.
It is a mistake to view China through the lens of ourselves. China doesn’t want the burden of an empire — what do they say, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? — they just want to do business and, perhaps most importantly, to increase the political security, protect the sovereignty, and increase the international clout of China. China’s interest isn’t other countries, China’s interest is China. It’s always been this way.
For many years China has been building itself up to decrease the reliance it has on potentially rival foreign powers and the amount of leverage that these powers can exert over them. At this point, I believe the NSR is an extension of this; I view the NSR is an inherently defensive, not an offensive, maneuver.