China’s ambitious initiative will not only change global trade but will also have an impact on the region’s politics and cultures.
WHEN Chinese president Xi Jinping proposed the “New economic belt of the Silk Road” and the “21st century maritime Silk Road” – referred to as the One-Belt One-Road economic development strategy, back in 2013 – many were unable to visualise the global impact.
Nevertheless, the proposal received an overwhelming response from the 65 countries and regions along the route. The road covers 41.3% of the world’s total area and 60% of its population.
When the One-Belt One-Road roadmap was released in March 2015, the landmark plan’s enormous potential, large enough to change global trade and even global relations, took the world by surprise.
The One-Belt One-Road strategy completely renews the maritime and land-based Silk Road that has existed for centuries. It re-organises and consolidates politics, economics, cultures and education in Europe and Asia.
Politicians and business people currently focus on its impact on geo-politics and the economy, especially the potential to develop business opportunities. Its cultural aspects and impact on civilisations have received less attention, but it is exactly the cultural interaction it will engender that is the gateway for people to bond.
The ancient Silk Road spanned East Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe, all the way to Amsterdam.
In the early years of the Han dynasty, Zhang Qian failed to form an alliance with Yueshi on behalf of China, in order to combat the Xiongnu (nomads). After travelling 4,000 miles from Chang’an (now known as Xian), China’s capital at the time, he opened a new passage in western China that would become a key path for cultural interaction between East and West.
The total population along the One-Belt One-Road route is more than 4.4 billion, covering developing areas with US$3,000 (RM12,071) GDP per capita as well as developed areas with GDP per capita exceeding US$10,000 (RM40,238). It will provide a conduit to share prosperity in the dynamic world of today.
Intimidated by China’s rise in recent years, with China’s economy likely to replace the United States’ as first in the world, the US launched two economic and trade weapons after years of planning: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The TPP is generally seen as marginalising China. It covers 12 specially selected countries, covering 40% of global GDP and one-third of global trade.
China, which has a GDP in excess of US$10tril (RM40.24tril), is excluded. Having no one to turn to, China is strengthening itself.
The One-Belt One-Road initiative is one of the strategies. The proposal is accommodating and is based on a win-win philosophy.
China plays the role of a driving force, instead of domineering, to counter the domineering objective and exclusiveness of the TPP and the TTIP.
Compared to other regional economic ideas such as the TPP or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, where only selected countries are invited to join, One-Belt One-Road covers 65 countries along its route, and each country can opt to join the common project on its own accord.
China has never commented adversely about the TPP in public. Instead, it has signed free-trade agreements with five of the 12 countries shortlisted in the TPP. Among the countries that have signed the TPP, seven also participate in the RCEP. This has foiled the containment strategy followed by the US against China’s trade and economy.
One-Belt One-Road is a packaged plan. It is not only an upgrade to the existing China-Asean Free Trade Zone.
China has also set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and made a point of attracting a broad range of founding members from the start. Some 57 countries from Asia, Pan Pacific, Europe, Latin America and Africa can’t wait to join.
The establishment of a Silk Road Fund and the BRICS Development Bank have indirectly also supported the One-Belt One-Road strategy financially.
The Silk Road is not just about trade channels but also about mobility of talent and cultural interaction.
Apart from trade and finance, the Silk Road brought unprecedented cultural exchanges. China’s explosives, paper-making technology, compass, silk cloth, tea art, pottery and more were introduced to various countries along the road, while carpets from Iran, bangles from India, chivalry from the Middle East, glassware from the west, spices from the Middle East and medicine from Arabs were introduced to China.
Through the Silk Road, Buddhist monk Xuan Zang brought Buddhism from India to China. The interaction of musical instruments of all races and tea art were spread to all parts of the world through this road.
Through the maritime Silk Road, Zheng He peacefully visited the west seven times. This Muslim general leading tens of thousands of non-Muslim navy soldiers proves the encompassing and dynamism of Chinese culture.
The One-Belt One-Road, which has existed for 2,000 years, was a main channel to spread religion.
Religions in China and Confucianism were able to expand outside of China. Nestorian Christianity penetrated into China for the first time and spread to the western part of central Asia.
The impact of the Jesuits at the end of the Ming dynasty and during the early Qing dynasty led to the end of isolationism, after a period where China banned maritime activities. China has remained open to Western culture and religion ever since.
Along the One-Belt One-Road route, 57 countries have at least partially Muslim populations. More than 30 countries have majority Muslim populations.
The “Roadmap on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” calls for mutual learning for people in all countries to “promote opening-up, communication and integration among countries in a larger scope, with higher standards and at deeper levels, while giving consideration to the interests and aspirations of all parties.”
One-Belt One-Road stresses joint mobilisation to create common interests.
Mutual trust in politics, economic integration, cultural tolerance and cross-cultural learning form the essence of the proposal.
China’s global view used to emphasise differences between the internal and external world.
This self-centred view, where all land belongs to the emperor and all people living on earth and water are under the emperor, and reliance on the “China-centred mentality” does not lend itself well to establish successful relations with other countries in this modern era.
Respecting and trusting foreign friends and working together for the common interest is the only way to ensure successful implementation of One-Belt One-Road initiatives.
The cultural dimensions of the One-Belt One-Road initiative should be based primarily on mutual learning, trust and respect.
Today, One-Belt One-Road offers the best platform for mutual learning and interaction between Chinese culture and other civilisations. Accommodating and even absorbing the best of other civilisations is a mandatory process for cultural transformation and improvement.
The One-Belt One-Road initiative wants to promote the China Dream.
Yet, if it aims to mobilise Chinese in particular and people of the world in general, to have real impact, the ambition needs to be upgraded, from not only rebuilding China, but also to rejuvenating Chinese culture and ensuring its contribution towards charting a common destiny for mankind.
Only when other countries are able to realise and appreciate the mutual benefit of the One-Belt One-Road initiative, will they be convinced that China’s rise is beneficial to global peace and prosperity.
At the same time, when promoting One-Belt One-Road projects, we ought to ensure that cultural elements and dialogue between civilisations are taken into account, and adopt universal common values proactively to upgrade Chinese civilisation with a modern touch.
Tan Yew Sing is president of the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.