Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return from his trip to the five post-Soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, (collectively known as the “Stans”) and Russia prompts the question: What relevance does the history of the Silk
Road have for the present?
The Silk Road initiative announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and implemented, beginning this year, contemplates so vast an investment in highways, ports and railways that it will transform the ancient Silk Road into a ribbon of gold for the surrounding countries. Officially called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, the project also has the shorter title, “One Belt, One Road”.
China’s foreign ministry itself simply claims that the new road is open to any country that accepts Chinese investment in its infrastructure. Any country that participates in these colossal infrastructure undertakings will enjoy unprecedented Chinese investment. And the official pronouncements from China emphasise the positive connotations of the Silk Road.
It is one of the few terms that people remember from history classes that does not involve hard power: There were no conquests, no wars, no imperialism on the Silk Road, at least as it exists in most people’s imaginations, and it’s precisely those positive associations that the Chinese want to emphasise. Chinese officials speak about the Silk Road initiative as “happy” and a “win-win”.
But there is good reason to be suspicious. If China is investing money, more is involved than simply a happy scenario.
Historically, the Silk Road was not just about trade, cultural exchange and tolerance. On multiple occasions, powerful dynasties based in China and India sent troops to Central Asia to fight military confederations that threatened their security and to conquer rebellious rulers in Central Asia. The last time that India sent troops successfully to the region was in the 1st Century AD, when the Han dynasty was suffering a prolonged decline. Chinese dynastic histories report that the Kushans sent an army of 70,000 to modern-day Xinjiang. The number defies belief — it is simply not credible that such a large force could have gone such a great distance — but the Kushans certainly exercised influence in the region.
Their soft power, evidenced in the spread of Buddhism throughout Central Asia and to China, would be the envy of any minister today. Documents in Gandhari written in the Kharosthi script dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries have been found at the Chinese site of Niya in southwestern Xinjiang. Some analysts see these as evidence of Indian rule in earlier periods, but it is more plausible that a small group of migrants left Gandhara and crossed the Pamirs before arriving in Niya.
In the following centuries, different Chinese dynasties, most importantly the Tang dynasty (618-907), exercised considerable influence in Central Asia.
The Chinese recruited local men to join their armies. Sometimes the Chinese troops succeeded and defeated their enemies; in those cases, they stationed troops to govern the conquered territory. The Silk Road trade boomed in those periods in which Chinese armies were active in Central Asia. When they were defeated, the Chinese withdrew from the region, which is why maps of China’s territory show Central Asia as sometimes controlled by China, sometimes not. Between 1000 and 1500, Central Asia — both the Stans and the region of modern Xinjiang — Islamicised. That brought real change in the region. Rulers who converted to Islam required their subjects to convert as well. This was not true of the earlier Silk Road rulers, largely Buddhists, who had allowed their Christian, Manichaean and Zoroastrian subjects to practise their own beliefs as long as they paid their taxes.
So what does the Communist Party of China hope to gain from the One Belt, One Road initiative? One stated goal is to help balance the economic inequities between the highly developed coastal region, where most of China’s 650 million middle class live, and the interior, where income levels are considerably lower.
The unstated goals are more worrisome. China is heavily dependent on the sea trade; 82 per cent of its imported crude oil was shipped via the Straits of Malacca in 2013, a region where the United States maintains control. If China were to go to war — however remote the likelihood, almost everyone envisions a scenario involving the US as an opponent — then it would have no dependable energy supplies. If China can right the balance and increase overland shipments even by a percentage point or two, that will help it strategically.
When the Chinese proclaim the One Belt, One Road as a win-win policy, more careful analysts will see this as yet another attempt to increase Chinese influence around the world. The Silk Road initiative is aptly named. Just as China used the Silk Road to expand its sphere of influence in the past, it is doing exactly the same thing now.
The writer is professor of history at Yale and author of ‘The Silk Road: A New History’.