In the current issue of Middle East Report, we write about the strategic logic of China’s increasing investment in teaching Middle Eastern languages, particularly Arabic, Persian and Turkish. A key goal of the push for Middle Eastern language competency is to help rebuild the Silk Road that China stood astride in centuries past.
The ancient Silk Road bridged China and the Middle East via Central Asia and facilitated rich commercial, political and cultural exchange. After a long interlude, the Silk Road is back. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Central Asian republics in the 1990s provided China with an opportunity to restore this channel of communication. In 1990, the People’s Republic commenced construction of the Eurasian Land Bridge, a highway and high-speed rail line that traverses eastern Russia and ends in Rotterdam. A second such land bridge connects Rotterdam to the port of Lianyungang in the northeastern Jiangsu province. And still a third is planned to go through Turkey, with a branch ending in Egypt.
Beijing intends the new Silk Road to be much bigger and better than the old. Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of an overland “silk road economic belt,” as well as a “sea silk road,” during visits to Kazakhstan in September 2013 and Indonesia in October 2013, respectively. These proposed routes are meant to transform bidirectional east-west exchange into multi-directional networking.
In order to promote this networking, the People’s Republic has built two exposition platforms in the northwestern part of the territory it controls. One is the annual China-Arab States Expo, headquartered in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and established in 2013. The China-Arab States Expo is aimed not only at “sustaining friendship, deepening cooperation and joint development” but also at achieving an “increase in mutual political trust and strategic consultation.” Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are the key Arab players.
The second platform is the annual China-Eurasia Expo, which was launched in 2011 at the Xinjiang city of Urumqi in 2011 as a way to boost trade with China’s western neighbors, as well as foster cooperation in infrastructure, electricity, real estate, mining and refining, textiles, agriculture, technology, finance and tourism, among other areas. Among the participating countries are Turkey and the Turkic countries of Central Asia. Turkey’s importance to the project is self-evident: It has considerable influence in the capitals of the Turkic states as well as among the Uighur population in China.
In addition to the land bridges, another planned route leads from Kashgar in southwestern Xinjiang province to the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif’s 2013 visit to Beijing finalized the proposed economic corridor.
This south-south route will greatly shorten the time and distance of transport of Middle Eastern oil and gas to China and reduce the risks associated with the east-west sea route — whether piracy or interdiction by rival naval powers in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese investments in the Gwadar port and the Kashgar-Gwadar railway are meant to make the flow of energy from Saudi Arabia and Iran more stable and secure. For Iran, meanwhile, the Kashgar-Gwadar linkage, together with the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline that should be finished soon, will increase access to the rising energy markets of China and India. Hossein Dehqan, the Iranian defense minister, went so far as to call China a “strategic partner” during an early May visit to Beijing.
But, of course, these grand plans do not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. The progress of Chinese-Iranian ties is hindered somewhat by China’s continued desire not to offend Washington, at least not too grievously. On April 29, Iran canceled the contract for a Chinese state-owned oil company to develop the South Azadegan oilfield on the grounds that the firm has done “no effective work” since receiving the bid in 2009. Iranian officials blamed US sanctions, which penalize third parties for doing business with Tehran as the dispute over the Iranian nuclear research program drags on.
In many ways, moreover, the Chinese visions of silk roads for the twenty-first century are a response to another “new silk road” plan, one hatched in India. Once crucial difference between China’s plan and India’s is that the latter has the full backing of the United States. It surely helps India’s case that New Delhi markets its plan as a way to rescue Afghanistan from poverty and chronic political instability. While she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton endorsed the Indian “silk road” as providing “credible alternatives to insurgency” in the South and Central Asian arc of crisis.
The road ahead for China’s new Silk Road strategy may not be uniformly smooth.