Parallels with the past?
Many analysts prefer to talk about a ‘New Silk Road’ rather than the Belt and Road, recalling the exploits of merchants and explorers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, who spent their lives wandering the countries on the Silk Road map.
China’s President Xi Jinping also understands the resonance of the Silk Road brand and he has evoked a romantic history of trade involving Chinese goods like silk and porcelain. Not that any of the traders that traversed the mountains and deserts of Central Asia would have understood the route in quite such a way. The Silk Road label didn’t emerge until the 1880s, when Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geographer, coined the term Seidenstrassen to describe the mosaic of trade routes between Asia and Europe.
Another misnomer is that the Silk Road was a well-established route, followed point-to-point by those who travelled it. In fact it was more of a network of paths that evolved with time and circumstance, offering different options for travel between the great cities of China and their counterparts in Europe.
The same situation exists today as a range of rail, road and sea routes starts to emerge under the Chinese plan. Another similarity is that the Silk Road traders of the past rarely travelled the entirety of the journey, but passed their goods to others at points along the way. That is happening again with transshipment of cargo at sea ports and the reloading of trains where there are changes in railroad gauges at national borders.
For the maritime components of Xi Jinping’s grand plan, the historical inspiration draws on the exploits of Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who embodied China’s early history of sea trade and exploration.
Zheng led seven voyages to South Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the African coast between 1405 and 1433. His fleet of treasure ships forged new trade ties with distant kingdoms before returning to China with ambassadors from the places that they had visited, bringing commercial tribute for their emperor as diverse as black pepper and cobalt oxide, tin and tortoiseshell, precious stones and even zebra and giraffes. Despite clashing with pirates and local rulers, Zheng’s reputation as a peaceful envoy is important to China, which has donated millions of dollars to excavations and the like that trace his voyages to places such as Sri Lanka and Kenya. Of course, the two are important points in Belt and Road’s maritime network, and the Chinese are financing the construction of deepwater ports in both countries.
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