t was once a valuable trade route, bringing silk, spices, and gunpowder to the west while gold, silver, and glass products traveled back east. Popular use of the road allowed religion and culture to travel along the same routes as silk fabric and precious metals. Ultimately, the Silk Road stimulated early China’s global importance, placing the East Asian superpower at the hub of one of the earliest waves of globalization.
Modern China has yet to achieve its Silk Road-era dominance. Beijing faced an intense economic downfall in the early 19th century during the decline of its Qing dynasty. During this time, the Chinese government struggled to suppress numerous costly internal rebellions, struggled with foreign aggression, and failed to maintain major hydraulic works.
By 1890, the U.S. overtook China as the world’s biggest economy—a title Beijing had held for over two millennia. And these economic challenges persisted into the 20th century, when a variety of Republican regimes presided over Beijing before China’s notorious experiment with communism. In 1952, Chinese GDP was lower than it had been in 1820.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, reforms initiated by leader Deng Xiaoping stimulated China’s economic modernization, and currently China is the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States. Today, however, China remains economically isolated from the Central Asian countries that it had been linked to through the Silk Road. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, today, trade between Central Asian countries makes up just 6.2% of all cross-border commerce. Further, GDP in Central Asian countries is closely linked to the Russian economy. One-third of GDP in Kyrgzstan and Tajikistan is dependent on Russian remittances.
In 2013, China laid out a plan to restore its former Silk Road-era glory through a series of massive infrastructure projects in collaboration with over 60 countries. Initially dubbed the One Belt, One Road Initiative, today the project is known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions for the initiative are large scale and far reaching. Morgan Stanley estimates that Xi’s “project of the century” will total $1.3 trillion by 2027. The largest Belt and Road Initiative investment to date is estimated to be the $68 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a series of projects connecting China to an Arabian seaport in Pakistan. A 2017 estimate clocked in China’s total spending on Belt and Road Initiative projects at $150 billion annually.
Multiple outlets have remarked that the BRI demonstrates a clear break from Deng Xiaoping’s vision of a China that “[hid its] capabilities and [bided its] time.” In March 2017, The Economist noted that the announcement of the BRI was the second time that year in which China had publicly laid out its “claim to global leadership.”
The Economist also reports that the BRI’s ultimate goal is to position Chinese-dominated Eurasia as a trading rival to the American-dominated transatlantic. CFR notes that many Asian countries, joined by the United States, fear that the initiative is a Trojan horse for “China-led regional development, military expansion, and Beijing-controlled institutions.”
But the world hasn’t taken the Chinese advancement lying down. The EU member countries were some of the first to act against the BRI, launching a 2017 investigation into whether a Chinese project to build a high-speed railroad between Serbia and Hungary violated EU transportation policy. In 2018, 27 of 28 EU ambassadors to Beijing signed a resolution criticizing the initiative for hampering free trade.
And the EU is coming at China with an infrastructure project of its own. In October 2018, the EU unveiled its own strategy to connect Europe and Asia, one that would heed environmental and social norms without burdening participating countries with loans they cannot pay. China hasn’t always offered its borrowers the same privileges. Sri Lanka had to hand over a strategic port at Hambantota to China after failing to pay off a loan to Beijing.
The United States is also offering funding to developing countries in Asia and Africa that will compete with China’s BRI through the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act. The law may incentivize countries to accept American loans for infrastructure projects rather than accepting Chinese funding.
As China prepares to ascend global dominance through BRI, it is also facing the lowest economic growth it has seen in 27 years. During the second quarter of 2019, Chinese economic growth dropped from 6.4% to 6.2% as Beijing starts to feel the effects of the U.S. trade war. NPR reports that economists have been warning about a 2019 economic slowdown in China for months. A looming economy is just one more consideration for a China attempting to use BRI to achieve world dominance. Only time will tell if the initiative helps China get anywhere near the economic dominance it achieved during the age of the original Silk Road.