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.