Driving China’s Silk Road Economic Belt

At the heart of The New Silk Road Project is an attempt to move away from the reductionist characterizations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): that it is either a benign engine for transcontinental connectivity and cooperation, or an attempt to overturn the current rules-based international order. Traveling along China’s Silk Road Economic Belt from London to Yiwu in Eastern China was the centerpiece of this effort to challenge our assumptions and highlight some of the impacts of China’s growing global presence in the regions we encountered. Our 16,000-kilometer, 62-day journey gave us access to over forty key actors and academics of these aspiring economic and transport corridors. Along the way, we connected with the ministries, development banks, and embassies engaged in the challenges and opportunities of China’s BRI and visited some of the critical infrastructure hubs which are bringing greater efficiency to these routes and drawing this emerging trade network together. While some of the ground insights were expected, other findings were more surprising.

We had anticipated some of Asia’s infrastructure needs, but certainly not its full extent. Driving across some of its road networks highlighted the requirement for $1.7 trillion in annual infrastructure investment by 2030 in order to maintain the continent’s current growth trajectory. Georgia’s former minister of economy and Tbilisi State University professor, Vladimer Papava, shared his hope to see his country emerge as both a trade corridor and economic hub. However, the 140-kilometer drive from the lively Turkish-Georgian border at Sarp to the future Deep Sea Port and Special Economic Zone at Anaklia took four hours to complete. Such slow transit times along key overland arteries demonstrate the need for Georgia to upgrade its transport infrastructure if it is to fully capitalize on emerging economic hubs such as Anaklia.

High levels of inefficiency were also present further east, on a 230-kilometer road section between Makat and Bayganin in Western Kazakhstan, a key segment of the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor. It required ten hours to cross this section in a top-of-the-line Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle specifically designed for traversing difficult terrain and surface conditions. We witnessed an absence of road freight along Kazakhstan’s horizontal axis, pointing to the predominance of rail freight on this route and the low trade volumes between China and Europe via the Caspian region. However, the high lorry numbers on the Western Europe-Western China Highway demonstrate greater road cargo volumes shipped via Russia and the greater economic activity along this northerly trade corridor. The lack of supporting infrastructure for Western Kazakhstan’s road network and poor digital connectivity showcase the need for considerable infrastructure investment, particularly in the Caspian and Central Asia region if this “Middle Corridor” is to develop.

Westbound China-Europe trains heading to Mala on the Polish-Belarus border

While there is a commonly held belief that the Silk Road Economic Belt is primarily about transcontinental connectivity and that its main corridor will revive the principal arteries of the historic Silk Road, both assumptions are highly improbable. It quickly became apparent that the route we traveled between Europe and China, through Turkey, the Caspian region, and Central Asia, is likely to function as a subsidiary passageway if a major transcontinental trade network is to develop.

Many of the actors responsible for developing new nodes along this pathway confirmed this observation. Levan Akhvlediani, CEO of Anaklia Development Consortium, noted that Anaklia Deep Sea Port will receive its first vessels in 2020 and that while Anaklia is unlikely to be a primary node it can be one of most reliable alternatives along the BRI. This sentiment was echoed 900 kilometers further east by Eugene Seah, COO of the new Port of Baku at Alat as well as by Martin Voetmann, the commercial and administrative manager of DP World’s Port of Aktau on the Caspian’s eastern shore. Marketing material at the recently operational Samsun Logistics Centre stresses its “strategic location” along the modern Silk Road; however, its founder, Abdullah Gökbilgin, highlighted its regional focus in boosting trade as well as its secondary role in Europe-China trade, at least for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, schematic maps of the BRI can easily give the impression that all developments along its pathway are directly associated—through Chinese backed financing or construction by Chinese state-owned enterprises—with the initiative. We found, more often than not, that the hard infrastructure development along the Silk Road Economic Belt was not as coherent, internationally orientated, or evenly dispersed as sometimes illustrated. Given this, a clearer distinction should be made between China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the broader alignment of infrastructure projects within the same geographical parameters. These efforts are also important in contributing to faster transit times, making dislocated markets more accessible, promoting economic connectivity, and encouraging people-to-people interaction across Eurasia. This is crucial as we encountered more projects aligned with alternative development plans than BRI-backed projects along the Silk Road Economic Belt.

This is true in a variety of cases. For example, Samsun Logistics Centre is affiliated with Turkey’s Vision 2023 Initiative, the Asian Development Bank’s Makat-Aktobe Road Improvement Project, the World Bank’s Almaty-Khorgos road, and the European Bank for Redevelopment and Construction’s Corridor X highway in Serbia. It was easy to assume with international media attention so heavily focused on China that Chinese firms would dominate Eurasian infrastructure development. Hence, it was also a surprise to encounter no Chinese workers and only minimal Chinese equipment along our route. This suggests that we must be aware of the broader efforts to build new economic corridors as much as we should be reactive to China’s movement toward the global economic center of gravity.

Regardless of the source of funding or contractors, the effervescence at many of the projects we visited was unquestionable. Lars Nennhaus, managing director at Duisport, where Chinese president Xi Jinping visited in 2014, used the words “huge opportunity” to define the BRI. In Shanghai, Vikas Saxena of DHL Global Forwarding characterized the project as “the future.” Undoubtedly, these individuals have vested interest in the success of these overland economic corridors, yet we registered positive responses from a spread of geographical regions. However, the response from the academic community was certainly more reserved. This was particularly pronounced at organizations such as the German Marshall Fund in Europe, as well as those in the United States. Regretfully, we did not have time to engage with the grassroots opinion, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan where there is mounting hostility toward China’s control of national debt and local industries. This disjunction between China’s investment in important industries in these countries and its poor grassroots relations illustrates China’s aptitude at high-level dialogue but shortcomings in community level discussions.

While infrastructure, investment, and trade are central to the BRI across its geographic scope, we noted varying priorities in different regions to a greater extent than anticipated. For example, strategic acquisition appears to be a priority in Western and Southern Europe as we saw with COSCO’s investment in the Euromax Terminal at the Port of Rotterdam, as well as with the Port of Piraeus in Greece. In Central and Eastern Europe, people-to-people exchange appears more critical. In Serbia’s capital of Belgrade, an advertisement for “Amazing Shanghai” stood in the middle of Republic Square, the city’s central square. Hungary, a country with longstanding ties with China and home to its main tourism office for the region, is stressing the fast growth in tourism between the two nations. This theme was visible during our two-day stay in the city and Bogdan Góralczyk, sinologist and professor at the University of Warsaw, emphasized a similar theme in Poland. Educational partnership is another growth area and one pronounced in the South Caucasus region. At the end of June, Tbilisi State University professor Giorgi Gaganidze mentioned that he had just received a large delegation from Beijing University which was eager to build up a partnership with the university. These various connections highlight the complex and multifaceted nature of Chinese engagement along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the need for engagement with it on a country-by-country basis, in order to disaggregate and understand its nuances and disparate forms.

Advertisement for “Amazing Shanghai” in the middle of Belgrade’s Republic Square

The Silk Road Economic Belt is difficult to capture in a single image. At five years old, it is still very young and the low number of BRI-sponsored projects along its course is evidence of this. Various conversations from the journey suggest that the BRI is commonly visualized as a train carrying commerce across Eurasia. I believe a train does not adequately capture BRI’s significance or scope, but instead, a Chinese flag is a better representation. Whether it is China’s intention or not, the increasing connectivity the BRI brings comes hand in hand with exposure to Chinese culture. This increases participating countries’ alignment not only with Chinese commerce but also with Chinese values, practices, and standards. As China takes on a greater role in global affairs, it is likely that this trend will become more prominent. It is important that we remain receptive to alternative viewpoints, but at the same time remain self-reflective and secure in our own values, institutions, and beliefs.

Follow The New Silk Road Project on Twitter @OneBeltProject.