Carl Michael reviews the institutional base ofBelt and Road Initiative in his fourth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The primary institutional base underpinning the BRI is provided by the three interlocking branches of political power in China. The Communist Party of China (CPC), the State Council and the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). The CPC continues the long tradition of a unified Confucian ruling entity, which seeks to represent the interests of the whole of society, in comparison with a Western-style political party approach. Chinese governments are expected to cope with the challenges posed by a huge population and vast territory, ostensibly shaping a political culture characterized by valuing a longer-term vision, a more holistic perception of politics which places high value on the country’s overall stability and prosperity. This single-party approach, embodied by the CPC, is often contrasted with the impact of change of central government every few years in multi-party democratic systems as well as the national chaos following China’s 1911 revolution which sought a Western political model. The CPC exercises oversight of the BRI through the Central Foreign Affairs Commission.
The State Council on the other hand is the chief administrative authority in China and it exercises authority over the BRI through cabinet-level bodies such as Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce which is responsible for foreign trade policy and agreements and foreign direct investment. These bodies and their predecessors were instrumental in China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.
Chief among the financial institutes which underpin BRI activities is the government-owned China Development Bank (CDB). It is one of the most powerful banks in the world and has been crucial in transforming China’s economy and competitiveness. Even though other national development banks have financed political projects and favoured industries that private investors would eschew; never has such an institution existed with so much capital and financial capability with control delivered into the hands of one body, the CPC. The rise of Chinese capital availability overseas is an ever-increasing trend facilitated by the CDB which specializes in financing infrastructure, energy and transportation. In this it is complimented by the Exim Bank of China which specializes in financing trade, investment and economic cooperation; and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whose starting capital and credit ratings have made it a rival to the World Bank, ADB and the IMF. In addition to these banks, the government-owned Silk Road Fund fosters increased investment in countries participating in the BRI.
Any understanding of the institutional base of the BRI would be incomplete without considering the role of the Chinese PLA, which is the largest military force in the world. The recent growth of the PLA’s global power projection capabilities and strategic nuclear missile capabilities has been noteworthy. Local conditions in many BRI areas are highly unstable and scenarios where China may require the PLA to protect its interests beyond its borders are not unrealistic. As China’s growth has moved it along the path to becoming a true maritime power, so also has the PLA navy expanded its global reach with the acquisition of aircraft carriers, carrier-killer missiles and overseas bases. The perception of the PLA as being the armed wing of the CPC means the PLA’s deployment abroad is extremely sensitive in nature.
There is concern regarding the rise of a global player with an institutional base such as China’s. The justifiable unease in many parts of the world arises from the links between its national mission, power projection capabilities and political system. If this unease is not alleviated, the BRI could be perceived as a neo-colonial form of tributary diplomacy even as China works to reinstate its rightful civilisational place in the world order.
Kimberly Daniels, a member of our Emerging Fellows program reviews the history of Heartland power in her third blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Events over the past thirty years have shaped the current geopolitical environment of Eurasia’s Heartland. From the collapse of the former Soviet Union to struggles for influence, power assertion, or empowerment following the Cold War, these events signal high stakes for Russia, the U.S., and China. They inform possibilities for a world-power pivot.
The collapse of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 ended the Cold War and left Russia trying to expand her influence throughout a fragmented Heartland. As some post-Soviet Eastern European countries pursued new visions of independence, Russia looked back to the former Soviet Empire’s past glory. From the early 1990’s, she organized or joined bilateral regional organizations to promote the security, economic, and or political interests of Eurasian member states. In 2008 and in later years, she supported separatist regions in other Heartland countries to ensure their dependence on her for their economic and political development. In 2014, she annexed Crimea from Ukraine, strengthening Russia’s military influence through uninterrupted access to the Black Sea. Over time, Russia expanded her influence throughout the Heartland, though at the cost of leaving it fragmented.
Winning the Cold War propelled the U.S. forward with momentum to chase an elusive goal of fully asserting her power to leverage the Heartland’s fragmentation. She waged a war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001 after the devastating 9/11 attacks on the U.S. She invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Saddam Hussein when he continued to defy U.S. containment strategies intended to stop his ruthless dictatorship. She provided security and economic assistance to Central Asian countries in exchange for access to their military bases and air space. Yet, despite the interventions, containment strategies, and attempts to establish a long-term U.S. military presence in the region, the U.S. fell short of her goal. Unable to leverage the Heartland’s fragmentation for a full power assertion, the U.S. lost much of her influence in the Middle East and in Central Asia.
China’s Cold War pivot away from the former USSR and towards the U.S. empowered China to extend her reach into the Heartland. Aligning her economic interests with the U.S. gave rise to China’s growth from foreign investment and trade. Undeterred by the global financial crisis of 2008, she looked to new possibilities for trading Chinese goods across Afro-Eurasia along a New Silk Road. Through increased investments in foreign infrastructure development, China began improving trade routes. Later, she announced plans for a One Belt One Road international market system or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, revealing a competing interest in the Heartland. The 2015 announcement of her “Made in China 2025” strategic plan further revealed her ambitions for economic growth through technological capabilities. A high-speed rail system, for example, would support the BRI and an empowered China’s extended reach into the Heartland.
Post 20th-Century Cold War, the U.S. faces a high-stakes change in geopolitical power rivalry for the Heartland. Having lost her influence in Central Asia and in the Middle East, the U.S. seemingly has conceded vying for Heartland control. Instead, her focus is on containing Russia and China as these two civilizational states increasingly shape Heartland power. For Russia, it’s a matter of uniting Afro-Eurasia in Eurasian solidarity. For China, it’s a matter of integrating Central Asia and parts of the Middle East into her sphere of influence. Could these and other stakeholders influence a world-power pivot to the Heartland? Any number of possible futures could unfold.
Travis Kupp, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the preparedness of Asia for demographic changes in his third post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Among the most significant determinants of an Asian Century is demographics. The expectations and behaviors of a nation’s people—driven in part by attributes that can be measured in aggregate, like age—influence economic performance and political dynamics. Projected declines in the working age populations in East Asia present a major challenge to maintaining their gravitas. Meanwhile, the rest of the continent generally has a much better outlook, at least in terms of potentially productive youth. Immigration policies that succeed in overcoming ideological intolerance may be the key to sustaining Asia’s rise to global dominance.
Japan is a preview of what could potentially happen at a different scale for its neighbors. The archipelago nation is now selling more adult diapers than baby diapers in supermarkets. The increased spending on healthcare that comes with this age demographic inversion is unsustainable with a simultaneously shrinking workforce and tax base. Japan recognizes that efforts to raise its fertility rate will not be sufficient to address the problems already emerging. Longevity of life is coming to also mean longevity of work-life well beyond the age of 60. Automation of care is being developed, where possible, to lower the costs of the ballooning system. It is yet to be seen whether this will be a successful formula for saving the nation’s economy.
China is taking a different approach. Demographic data shows their working population shrinking and the trend portends a net population decline starting as soon as 2032. Like Japan, China has started offering cash bonuses and subsidies to encourage more births, but it is unlikely that this will be enough to cover the dearth of young people to care for the elderly in the short term. Nor will automation of such services soon be ready to take on the task at scale. Instead, China is bolstering its economy by moving the value chain from the Middle Kingdom to tributary states in Central, South, and Southeast Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative. In a time of national economic war, however, it is not unthinkable that some of these target states may attempt to limit the extent to which others draw on their resources.
Migration will increasingly be a flashpoint as Asian demographics change. Cultural similarities make Southeast Asia the clearest option from which China and Japan could draw human capital, or at least extract the output. China is adamant that newcomers assimilate to their norms, an approach that may need to be loosened in light of its expanding global reach. India’s government, particularly in the case of Muslims, seems determined to reject even its own over ideological differences. West and Central Asia have growing populations that could strengthen the Asian position but are better poised to bolster Russian and European populations, even though immigration policies in both destinations are lacking. All of these tensions will escalate if regimes do not adapt quickly enough to the inevitable changes in their constituencies.
Asian nations, on the whole, are unprepared for what lies ahead demographically. Economic and social policies are slowly and insufficiently trying to adapt to a future in which families are small and the old outnumber the young. Regimes attempting to unilaterally solve for these shifts without sufficient regard for pressures beyond their centralized control, like accelerated migration, will face the most serious challenge. While some nations may have more reason to be optimistic, they will need to be ready to compete to keep their workforce from migrating to other more attractive markets. If an Asian Century does come to pass, one thing is certain: it will be with a populace that looks quite different than the one we know today.
Sarah Skidmore, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the preparedness of Africa for disruptive climate change in her third blog post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Disruptive climate change is not a mere interruption coming in the distant future. Disruptive climate change is already alive in Africa. It brings devastation to the geography and deadly impacts on African people and wildlife. The coming decades will undoubtedly usher in unprecedented shifts and unthinkable outcomes dramatically affecting the African land, people, and wildlife. Climate destruction encircled (and continues to encircle) Africa in recent history. The cyclones of 2018 impacted individuals living in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe; and, the threat of cyclones continues. The Indian Ocean is warming, and the warming is associated with more significant rainfall in East Africa. Because of the rain, Central Africa experiences unparalleled moisture leading to issues of flooding. Tens of thousands of people living in the regions where the massive flooding occurs resettle to other areas; and resettlement brings its own set of challenges. All-encompassing dust storms overtake regions of the continent. And, think of the global impacts of losing the Congo Rainforest.
Africa is estimated to have only contributed 3-5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, but Africa is feeling the brunt of the climate consequences. The disruptive climate change consequences that Africa experiences are primarily spurred on by variables outside the scope of African decisions – including both state and non-state actors. Variables include global policy adherence, state policy development, multinational corporation (MNC) decisions, behaviors of consumers, just to name a few. Within this context, can Africa prepare for further disruptive climate change by 2050? A primary distinction between Africa and other global players is the sheer level of poverty that exists. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, finds itself in extreme poverty without the resources of foreign actors to take precautions and make preparations for climate disruption. In 2050, sub-Saharan Africa will need $50 billion each year to handle the estimated climate disruption. Yet, present poverty serves as a limiting force that impacts the options available to African leaders.
Impacts of disruptive climate change in Africa include millions of individuals starving from drought in some regions and other areas people are displaced due to flooding. People who are displaced experience life-altering situations. Displacement welcomes the spread infections due to a lack of sanitation infrastructure, causes a reliance on camp-style temporary shelters, and obstructs access to healthcare. Displacement reduces the grazing and water offered to animals and forces farmers in disaster areas to make tough decisions such as slaughtering their source of income and nutrition. Displacement is merely one rabbit hole to travel down. Think of the carbon considerations that accompany losing the Congo Rainforest. As the second largest global rainforest system, the Congo Rainforest represents 18% of the earth’s rainforests. Or, think of economic impacts that accompany the flooding due to rising sea levels of urban centers situated along the African coast.
Africa in 2050 does not have to be earmarked as a climate change dystopia. The decisions that leaders, both in Africa and globally, make now will dramatically shape the African experience in 2050. Within the continent, African leaders and governments may opt to co-create effective local solutions and teach adaptability to communities. African leaders may innovate around renewable energy production, agricultural developments, agroforestry work, and smart city urbanization. Consider the benefits that may arise from intra-continental cooperation and local entrepreneurship. As leaders seek to unlock the potential of Africa by 2050, safeguarding the continent relies heavily on the decisions and actions of current leaders.
Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program continues his futuristic exploration to the Arctic region in his third post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The Arctic region is currently demilitarized, largely un-commercialized and has limited infrastructure. Currently the Arctic Council has limited ability to balance new economic developments, environmental protection, and geopolitical competition. The council’s role will remain limited with a focus on ensuring that transportation, resource extraction, and scientific exploration remain safe and open. However, if an expanded scope of governance does not emerge in the region, there will be growing tensions over military exercises, resource ownership, and environmental stewardship.
Arctic Sea Route usage will continue to grow, especially along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap. Russia will expand its already dominant capabilities by increasing the capacity of sea routes to harbor more foreign flag ships. Cooperation between Russia and China, as part of the Arctic Silk Road, will increase shipping infrastructure development and resource extraction projects. Shipping transit fees will allow Russia to diversify its economy away from energy resources and circumvent US sanctions. As the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Routes open, shipping will be diverted away from the Panama Canal and Suez Canal trade routes, resulting in decreased shipping time and cost from East to West coast of US, and from Northeast Asia into Northern Europe, US, and Canada.
Military operations will expand to increase “security” in the region. The US will seek a renewed military interest in the Bering Straits and the GUIK as strategic choke points in response to increased Russian and Chinese activity. This will require the US to develop new military bases and vessels, while increasing military cooperation with their allies. Other Arctic states will need to adjust and adapt to the growing tension, increasing the likelihood that NATO will be invited by Norway and Iceland to play a more significant role in maintaining stability in the region. Rising military tensions will be buffered by economic and natural resource interests.
Resource Extraction is currently constrained by profitability, limited Infrastructure, and safety concerns. Ice-free summers will allow the development of new infrastructure to support mining operations. Low oil costs, larger ships, and decreased shipping time will increase the financial and logistical feasibility of natural resource extraction.
The drive for oil and gas resources in the region will continue to be stalled by a complex cost-benefit analysis equation. Globally, countries will expand their renewable energy demand, reducing the pressures on oil and gas production. Arctic resources will be an essential part of Russian geopolitical strategy and outside investment will expand their oil and gas developments. These developments will initially be slowed by Arctic State environmental concerns and western sanctions, but will speed up as Russia expands its commercial infrastructure in the region.
Fisheries will continue to adapt to the warming waters, driving fish north. Fishing vessels will brave climate challenges to chase fish migrations, resulting in conflicts in EEZ. The Increase in fisheries micro-conflicts will challenge the durability of the Arctic Council.
International cooperation on scientific research in the region will grow in importance. Scientific exploration will increase the development of polar-fit stations, technology and communication systems. The strategic location of the Arctic for satellite access will lead to the development of polar stations for collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data. More accurate science and data will support infrastructure development and investment decisions, while also growing the connection between science, business and policy. China will become a bigger player in the region as it expands its Arctic research partnerships.
Publicly Arctic nations will continue to support a de-politicized, de-militarized and consensus-based approach to activity in the region. At the same time, strategic competition will increase as military exercises expand, commercial activity infrastructure develops, economic and scientific partnerships are formed, and EEZ resource ownership is disputed. Open communication and open seas, within a backdrop of increasing military presence, will be essential ingredients in maintaining stability and security in the region. If cooperation remains beneficial and increases resilience, then it will be sustained. If not, then geo-political competition could act to destabilize the Arctic region.
Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the future drivers of migration in his third post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
What are drivers of migration in the future? There is one large difference from the past. This is on the tip of everybody’s tongue: climate change. We will take a critical look at this new driver of migration. It will complicate some of the narratives surrounding climate change related migrations, and we will consider some of the ultimate implications (and destinations).
Climate change holds the threat of ecological devastation and a radical global transformation — it is no wonder that it has occupied the popular imagination and mainstream political discourse in recent years. Climate change has been linked with migrations all over the world, whether in Central America or Bangladesh. Headlines like “Climate Change will Create World’s Biggest Refugee Crisis” litter the contemporary mediascape. The Guardian, in the aforementioned article, suggests that “tens of millions of people will be forced from their homes.” This is a moderate estimate; in the extreme end, there is Vice with the headline “Climate Change Will Create 1.5 Billion Migrants by 2050 and We Have No Idea Where They'll Go” painting an apocalyptic scenario. In response, the first global movements have begun to protect the image of the climate migrant. In a very recent landmark ruling in January 2020, the United Nations human rights committee has declared that it is unlawful for governments to return migrants whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change.
The Syrian civil war has been linked to climate change as well. The Syrian civil war began as Arab Spring-inspired pro-democracy protests that were met with violent repression. This was the catalyst for further escalation. What sparked the initial discontentment? From a climate change lens, the narrative points to the drought from 2006 to 2011. This was the most severe in recorded history and decimated the livelihoods of the rural population. The drought led to a rural-urban migration, increasing competition for resources, and leading to conflict that took on an ethnic dimension.
This has not gone without scrutiny. Other researchers have pointed to policies of economic liberalization that cut rural subsidies and ultimately put farmers in debt. Government policies have led to the rural-urban migration in this narrative. It is beyond our scope to recount the play-by-play of academics in their boxing ring. It suffices to say that migratory events are complex and multi-factored. Climate change is undoubtedly an important consideration, but there is no First Cause when it comes to migration. A critical view on other migratory factors like internal politics and wealth concentration in urban areas allows a more nuanced perspective on contemporary migrations.
In the discourse of the climate change migrant in the West, there is mixed in an image of anxiety and fear. How will the West survive the flood of climate migrants? However, the West is far from a stoic Atlas that carries the burden of global migrations on its shoulders. The case of Syrian refugees presents a poignant demonstration.
Despite popular political narratives, most Syrian refugees have been relocated outside of Europe. As with other migrations, most of the migrants were displaced internally. Seven million of the 13 million are still within Syrian borders. In terms of international migration, there are roughly 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey, 950 thousand in Lebanon, and 670 thousand are housed in Jordan. Germany accepted 593 thousand Syrians, and this is followed by Iraq with 252 thousand. While this may not be representative of all migrations, the case of the Syrian migrations seems to suggest that not all roads lead to Europe.
As a conclusion, what are the drivers of future migration, and what are the consequences? In response to popular narratives, the article answered in the negative: climate change is not the Prime Mover in migration, and one must be aware of the erasure of other migratory factors when this occurs. Migrations in the future will not overwhelm the West. As with contemporary migratory patterns, one will expect internal migrations to occupy a large portion. External migrations will be distributed throughout the region, and will not be concentrated solely in the West.
Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program assumes that global climate will be warmer and its consequences increasingly extreme in 2050. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Over the last quarter century, climate change impacts have grown in scope and scale. Global temperatures rose by two degrees Celsius since the 19th century, a tremendous change given the amount of energy it takes to raise earth’s average surface temperature even a small amount. The seemingly small increase has resulted in drastic effects, from more horrific hurricanes to hotter temperatures to wildfires more destructive than anything recorded history has seen. How these shifts will play out over time is something beyond predictive capability - there are too many influencing events and inputs beyond our control. Even with the best research and foresight techniques, conditions will change in ways we can’t fully anticipate.
Despite that uncertainty, there are a few emergent trends on which scientists increasingly agree. For starters, global temperatures will continue to rise. Cities like New York will soon have dramatically longer and hotter summers, with the number of days above 32 degrees Celsius slated to more than double by 2050. In a region like metropolitan New York, where hot weather comes with significant humidity, such high temperatures over prolonged periods will result not just in serious impacts to human health and well being, but also damage to the essential myriad systems that rely on ambient air cooling, like HVAC systems and electrical grids. CO2 levels associated with those kinds of temperature increases could easily range from 550 to 600pm, up from the roughly 420ppm levels of today. Those amounts of CO2 would directly result in decreased nutrient levels in agricultural production, spikes in pollution related deaths, and widespread slowing of human cognitive function.
Hotter temperatures will also lead to rising seas. Sea levels are likely to rise at least 38cm within the next thirty years, with those numbers quite possibly reaching 100cm in certain areas. Under those conditions, coastal centers like South Beach in Miami would lie underwater. Entire regions, such as greater Bangkok and the low-lying areas of southern Bangladesh, would sit below annual flood levels, placing millions of people at risk and sparking mass migration across the globe. Wealthier areas like the Netherlands and coastal England will likewise face mounting pressure, with growing swaths of land lying fully inundated for greater periods of time.
But rising seas mean more than higher oceans. The climatic changes that bring sea level rise also result in stronger storms, more intense rainfall, and bigger storm surge. Areas shaped by major rivers, like development along the Mississippi River Valley, will experience increasingly frequent flooding. Without intense intervention or adoption of new approaches to living with water, these regions will see higher levels of deluge, with daily life interrupted on more regular bases for hundreds of thousands of people.
In more arid areas, rising temperatures are slated to bring both more intense rainfall as well as drought. When drought arrives, it will last longer. When rain comes, it will fall harder over shorter periods. The droughts will leave ground more compacted, making it harder for rain to absorb into soils and increasing the likeliness of mudslide. They will also make areas more vulnerable to wildfire. By 2050, the events that have recently wracked Australia with previously unseen levels of devastation will become much more common. From California to the front range of Colorado to Spain and beyond, longer and more dangerous fire seasons will become the norm.
While the precise dates and degrees of change remain a mystery, the general trends are clear – global climate in 2050 will be warmer and its consequences increasingly more extreme.
Martin Duys, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the drivers of in-country inequality in his third blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
When income inequality is discussed in casual conversation, people are generally referring to in-country inequality - the measure of how income is distributed amongst the population of a single country. The factors that drive in-country income inequality are multiple, interrelated, complex, and sometimes contradictory. Some factors tend to be more prevalent in advanced economies and others are more influential in emerging markets and developing countries (EMDCs). Geography, political history, and even culture also play a role.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has attempted to identify, measure, and rank the most important factors driving in-country income inequality. They conclude that over the past thirty years the three dominant factors have been: labour market flexibility, financial deepening and technological progress - in that order.
Flexible labour markets allow firms to reallocate resources and create conditions that encourage a certain amount of economic dynamism, but they also put tend to put the salaries of workers, and especially low skilled workers, under pressure. The primary beneficiaries of increased labour market flexibility tend to be those in the top ten percent of the income distribution. In EMDCs labour markets that are too rigid can create conditions that encourage informality resulting in increased levels of inequality. There is a strong body of evidence to suggest that labour market regulation (a legislated minimum wage, unionisation, and compulsory social security contributions) tends to improve income distribution. Labour market flexibility ranks as the most important factor in EMDCs and the second most important in advanced economies.
Financial deepening - increasing the provision and sophistication of financial services - is associated with increased inequality in EMDCs (ranked third), largely because the beneficiaries of this deepening tend to be those at the higher end of the income distribution. In advanced economies, where levels of financial inclusion are historically higher, the impact of financial deepening is not as significant, and it is only ranked fourth.
Advances in technology generate economic growth by increasing productivity. They also shed jobs through increased automation and require higher skill levels to run them. This ‘skill premium’ increases levels of income inequality as jobs shift from low-skilled workers at the bottom end of the income distribution to more skilled, better paid workers. Technology is the second most important factor in EMDCs. Although it is ranked only fourth in advanced economies, the skill premium factor which is as a direct result of technological advances, is the single most important driver of income inequality in advanced economies.
Globalisation, seen as more a reinforcer than a driver, is a fourth contributing factor. It creates circumstances that sometimes increase and sometimes decrease inequality. Trade liberalisation increases economic activity, generates economic growth, and decreases income inequality. Offshoring increases income inequality in the country outsourcing the manufacturing as it sheds jobs at the lower end of the salary spectrum, but the new jobs created in the offshore economy tend to decrease income inequality there. Although not fully understood, financial globalisation is thought to cause increased income inequality in both advanced and EMDC economies.
Many would expect education to appear on the list of the most influential factors, but the impact improving levels of education equality has on income inequality is dependent on a number of other variables that can dilute its impact. These variables include the size of the investment made in education, whether it is made by individuals or governments, and the level of return on the investment.
Although there are common themes in the sources of income inequality, there are no generalised lessons to be learned that can be taken from one successful attempt at addressing the issue and applying the same strategies uncritically elsewhere. Each country has its own unique mix of interrelated and intermingled factors and needs to be analysed and understood on its own merits.
Carl Michael inspects the historical roots ofBelt and Road Initiative in his third blog post for our Emerging Fellows program.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The ancient version of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ‘Silk Road’, would not have existed were it not for the domestication of silk-moths in China as well as the domestication of horses and Bactrian camels in Central Asia. From a historical perspective, China is a country which has the longest continuous history of any of the great ancient civilizations. It has preserved its culture and writing system over three millennia and continues to evolve energetically. The ‘Silk Road’ provided China with connections with other civilisations and for centuries there were periods of being open and being closed to the influence of Central Asia, as demonstrated by the existence of the ‘Great Wall’.
Some of the earliest recorded accounts of the ‘Silk Road’ relate to armed expeditions from China to adjoining areas during the Han dynasty period. Later accounts from the Jin dynasty era were recorded by the monk Faxian, who travelled by both foot and ship between China and India. Faxian’s writings show that the ‘Silk Road’ provided major trade, cultural and religious connections between states all along the routes. Subsequent accounts of travel by the scholar Xuanzang during the Tang dynasty era show how important the ‘Silk Road’ was in the heart of Asia, though its importance subsequently declined for economic and political reasons. Trade focus then slowly shifted to maritime routes during the Song and Yuan dynasty eras when control of Central Asian regions became weaker in comparison with previous eras.
The advent of the Mongol empire was like a whirlwind which disrupted not only the ‘Silk Road’ but the heart of Asia and China itself. The disruption created a free flow of people, ideas and goods which stemmed from the flexible Mongol cultural, political and economic model and this integrated the heart of Asia as never before. The Mongols forcefully unified diverse people groups and integrated them into a new global power system centered on the Asian heartland instead of the coasts. The Yuan dynasty which followed on from this then changed China profoundly and spurred global innovations in monetary systems. Marco Polo’s accounts date from this era and these provide personal insights into the era. The subsequent Ming dynasty era saw a relative decline in the importance of the ‘Silk Road’ proper with more emphasis on naval expansion and maritime trade routes. These eventually extended to the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea with Admiral Zheng-He making a number of armed voyages with large fleets. Chinese trade and exploration reached its peak during this period.
During the subsequent Qing dynasty period less energy was expended on trade routes and ‘ownership’ of the routes between East and West was absorbed into the nascent European colonial systems during the ‘Vasco da Gama era’, which only ended with the return of sovereign control of Hong Kong to China. Russian dominance in Central Asia caused a decline in the use of traditional land routes and the state of affairs continued until that dominance diminished.
Till relatively recently China was a dominant entity not only economically but culturally. Interaction with foreign powers continued to be based on the Chinese way of strategic thinking based on unilateral historical concepts such as ‘Guanxi’ and ‘Tianxia’ which could be traced through the Yuan era and then back to the time of Confucius. China only fully integrated into the world system when it joined the WTO at the turn of the last century, at which point the ’Silk Road’ was reborn as the BRI, on the back of the growth of Chinese power resulting from its cultural, economic and political resurgence.
Kimberly Daniels, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the key features of Heartland phenomenon in her second blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Eurasia’s Heartland is a living organism of complex interconnected systems, which shapes the geopolitical environment by which it is itself shaped. It is characterized to some degree by the interaction of demographic, socio-cultural, political, economic, and technological changes that impact the Heartland as a whole. To another degree, it also is characterized by the impact it has on its geopolitical environment.
Demographically, the Heartland includes populations in Russia, twelve other Slavic East European countries, three other Caucasus countries, five Central Asian countries, Mongolia, and parts of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Over 500 million people strong, the Heartland spans the spectrum of contrasting demographic trends. Low fertility rates, aging populations and workforces, and year-to-year improvements in education are matters of reality in some countries. By contrast, the realities of other countries exist as higher fertility rates, high mortality rates, and a decline in educational achievements. These and other demographic trends impact socio-cultural changes in the Heartland.
Socio-culturally, the Heartland is a system of complex diversity. Its spoken languages include Slavic Indo-European dialects, Mongolic, Turkic, Arabic, and native Himalayan dialects. Its religions, those professed and or practiced, are Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Folk Religion, and atheism. Its historical transitions, from social migration patterns to the rise and fall of political empires, have fueled competing cultural preferences for Turkish clannism, Mongolic pastoralism, or Russian nationalism. There are efforts toward increased gender equality in Eastern Europe, and struggles between radicalization and social inclusion among youth in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran. Such complex socio-cultural diversity could be the environmental force that brings together nations to co-create a desirable future, yet impedes the political transformation to a unified Heartland.
Politically, the Heartland is shaped by the opposing tug of differing ideologies. On one side is Russia, geographically situated on the continents of Europe and Asia. Neither identifying as belonging solely to one or the other, it culturally identifies with both. Adamantly against Westernization, Russia has pushed for Eurasianism. It’s an ideology premised on extending Russia’s influence and power, while driving world dominance from the West to the East. On the other side are Eastern European countries that support Westernization and opportunities for knowledge sharing, trade, economic growth, etc. Between these ideologies is Turkey, strategically positioned between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Turkey aligns its political or military agenda with Russia when cooperation works to its advantage, yet it also is a bridge to connecting the West and the Middle East. Some Heartland governments are authoritarian and others democratic. From one side to the other and in-between, political ideologies in the Heartland have shaped the competing economic systems of communism and capitalism, with influences of socialism from China.
Economically, the Heartland has systems that thrive and others that merely survive. Deposits of hydrocarbon, minerals, coal, oil and natural gas reserves have supported the thriving economies of Russia, Poland, Kazakhstan, and others. These countries alone had GDP values worth over five percent of the world’s economy in 2018. The agrarian economies of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan reflect lower GDP values. Not only have they incurred rising amounts of external debt for survival, they also depend on income earned by citizens who work abroad and send money home. In the past, proximity to the old Silk Road trade routes boosted the economies of some Heartland countries. Today, China’s New Silk Road or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and other technological advancements, could help many more nations across the Afro-Eurasian World Island to thrive.
Technological change in the Heartland’s geopolitical environment is spurring multiple pathways of change. In addition to the BRI, developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, advanced-tech agriculture, and green infrastructure could open up new possibilities. Such possibilities could include new job creation, more international cooperatives, improved trade relations, or increased drug-trafficking. Undoubtedly, these changes will influence a geopolitical environment in a future increasingly characterized by competition among world powers for power, control, or dominance.
The Heartland is a living system. It is characterized by the interaction of changes to and the impact it has on its geopolitical environment. These demographic, socio-cultural, political, economic, and technological changes influence increasingly complex system impacts. Likewise, they will impact the Heartland’s future, starting with its past.