China Going West
No. 1 2015 January/March
Igor Denisov

Senior research fellow at the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Institute for International Studies at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s MGIMO University.

The Silk Road to Bring Beijing out of the Shadows

Plans to create a Silk Road Economic Belt, which Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled in a speech at the Nazarbayev University on September 7, 2013, at first sight looked nothing but a beautiful historical allusion, a nice figure of speech that had dawned upon official speech-writers or Foreign Ministry officials responsible for preparing Xi’s trip to Central Asia.

Building bridges from the past to the present (as Chinese would say, “putting antiquity at the service of modernity”) is a trick that is widely employed in Chinese politics and rhetoric. As could be expected of an official statement, the new vision of the Silk Road was spelled out by the Chinese leader as a list of clearly defined points. They were preceded by the following historical reference: “The old Silk Road began in China’s Shanxi province, the place of my birth. It is a great pleasure to recall those historical bonds. Looking back on that epoch, I can hear the camel bells echoing in the mountains and see the wisps of smoke rising from the desert.”

After this lyrical preamble Xi proceeded with a quick review of distinctions of the new Silk Road aimed to link the peoples of Eurasia. Here, too, he said nothing that might herald a new course in diplomacy. The important lesson of the Silk Road, he said, is the need to follow the spirit of solidarity and mutual trust, equality and mutual benefit, inclusiveness and enrichment, borrowing of each other’s ideas, as well as cooperation for the sake of common prosperity. He also briefly outlined  five key components of the concept: better political coordination, greater effort to build a common road network, stronger trade relations and currency flows, and closer people-to-people bonds.


The concept instantly drew many questions. Even the geographic boundaries of the project looked vague. In different parts of his Astana speech Xi mentioned different countries: Eurasian, those located along the original Silk Road, and those embracing transport corridors linking East, West and South Asia. What the Chinese leader said about “regional economic integration” as part and parcel of the Silk Road concept was instantly disavowed in a number of ensuing official publications. Their authors said that the Silk Road Economic Belt was not an integration project, but a concept of joint development.

In the autumn of 2013 China was unable to offer a plausible explanation of how that initiative correlated with the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Statements that the “economic belt” would encompass the existing cooperation platforms involving China and other states and its main role would be to pool the already existing projects into one package brought more confusion than clarity. Many experts hurried to point to this ambiguity over the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.

One of Russia’s leading experts on China’s foreign policy, Ambassador Vitaly Vorobyov, discussed this issue in one of the previous editions of Russia in Global Affairs. He rightly noted that “the real perception of and consent for this project, let alone participation in it, implies an awareness of its essence and goals. In mathematical terms, at this point we only have a statement of the problem. All players, including Russia, expect corresponding argumentation and explanations from the Chinese side. The faster China presents these arguments and the clearer they are, the less room there will be for idle speculation and rumor. In any case, China has put forth a major initiative. China is interested in a favorable response and support for its own foreign policy signals.”

Apparently, at that moment any well-mapped plan for creating a Silk Road Economic Belt simply did not exist. Xi’s statement in Astana sounded rather like a declaration of intent than an equivalent of the Marshall Plan for China, although many Western analysts did not hesitate to interpret the initiative precisely that way.

The project’s more than year-long history clearly shows that China’s foreign policy has found itself at a dramatic crossroads after Xi’ coming to power. Whatever may be said about China’s growing assertiveness in international affairs, the departure from Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “Hide your strength, bide your time” is sporadic. Inside China, this change in foreign policy paradigms sparked heated debate.

For several decades China’s foreign machinery proceeded from an assumption that the main task of diplomacy is to create conditions for internal economic development, so it would be rather hard to retune it to forming an active regional and global foreign policy agenda. At the very start of its reforms China painstakingly steered clear of alliances, leadership positions and conflicts with global players, but as it grew strong it began to consistently advance its interests on a wide range of issues across a vast geopolitical space. However, it remains unclear what resources it should employ to this end and what sequence of steps it should choose. These issues require not just prudent political decisions but scrupulous work to readjust the entire system of external ties.

In this context what might look like Beijing’s covertness or some secret well-considered plans for setting the Chinese rules of the game on the regional and global scale in reality reflects a complex nature of Chinese diplomacy in transition. As a matter of fact, it is a transition from one of Deng’s maxims – “Hide your strength, bide your time” – to another: “Do something real.”

While at the top level clear calls are heard for bold concepts, real action and innovations, the bulky diplomatic machinery prefers to act with caution as it is coming out of the shadow. Hence the looseness and ambiguity of the Silk Road concept and of China’s policy towards African countries (the latter, as official documents say, is based on four hieroglyphs – authenticity, feasibility, friendliness, and sincerity).

Practically all of China’s think tanks and universities have held quite a few Silk Road conferences, symposiums and round-table discussions only to discover lack of new ideas and abundance of fine-sounding slogans. As some participants in such discussions told me, many experts were just trying to guess the opinion of officials at the very top. Since no extra signals from No. 1 in China’s political hierarchy followed, improvisations over Xi’s speech were many and varied. Too bad none of them addressed specific issues, such as the project’s goals, mechanisms of implementation, possible risks or ways of interaction with the existing projects.

Some analysts would underline that the Silk Road Economic Belt concept was flexible, advanced, and devoid of “artificial integration” flaws (openly claiming that the Customs Union project was far-fetched and not viable). Others claimed that the proposed concept reflected Xi’s dissatisfaction with the current state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, disregarding his words of praise for the SCO’s role in promoting a new model of cooperation. “The purpose of Russia’s drive for Eurasian integration is to link post-Soviet states once again in the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, while excluding China’s participation,” said Professor Li Xin, the director of Russian and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai International Studies University.


While Chinese foreign policy experts kept piecing together geopolitical puzzles, sometimes getting carried away by the narrative of “an offended state,” business people  and regional elites responded to the Silk Road concept in a very pragmatic and business-like fashion, demonstrating their eagerness to get down to work.

Speaking of the variety of actors involved in China’s modern foreign policy one should acknowledge that large companies which have gained much strength over the years of reform have become increasingly active in the decision-making process. Back in the 1990s China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) launched its first investment projects in Kazakhstan’s energy industry on its own, with no government support. Moreover, it did so in defiance of a rather cool response from the Chinese authorities, which insisted that priority should be given to domestic projects. One can say that the government had no strategic vision of energy security up until the end of the 1990s.

The vague Silk Road concept began to be fleshed out largely due to efforts by interested corporations in the oil and gas, building, logistics, and industrial sectors (in particular, those engaged in transportation machine-building). For Chinese businesses, which do not have to be persuaded to be proactive, the Silk Road Economic Belt offered an excellent opportunity for gaining a firm foothold on the markets that were quite comfortable for them, and they could do it under the umbrella of a priority state program.

Communist Party functionaries in China’s western provinces and autonomous regions were another major lobbyist for a reincarnation of the Silk Road. Inland territories lying away from the coast were least successful during the reform years. In order to eliminate regional disproportions, in the early 2000s China launched a special development program for the western regions, which, among other things, provided for the construction of transport infrastructure. The launch of the Silk Road Economic Belt project pushed up the demand for logistics centers, bonded areas, roads, high-speed railways, etc. Applications for the creation of free trade zones have been pouring in. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has suggested hosting a Central Asia-oriented free trade zone. The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region has drafted a plan for creating an advanced Chinese-Arab zone of free trade in collaboration with the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. Such projects not only promote the general socioeconomic upturn in regions, but also add to the political weight of their leaders in the Chinese political establishment.

Lastly, the third and most important driving force of the project is that it was unveiled by Xi himself. Since his rise to power he has focused the main efforts on home policies and above all on government consolidation, the war on corruption, and a new economic reform package.

However, in his statements at the Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference (October 2013) and the Central Work Conference on Foreign Relations (November 2014) Xi took a critical look at the legacy inherited from his predecessors and at Chinese diplomacy following the 18th Communist Party Congress. It is of fundamental importance that Xi described Chinese diplomacy as diplomacy of a “big state.” This implies greater responsibility for and involvement in addressing global issues than before. Peripheral diplomacy, in other words, China’s relations with its neighbors in the region, is number one on the list of priorities. Before, the focus was on relations with the United States and other “big countries.”

Apparently, these changes were prompted not only by certain disillusionment with the pace of building “a new type of relationship” with Washington, but also by the awareness that China will be able to overcome U.S. containment strategy only if it builds its own network of friendly partner states. Beijing hopes to create a counterbalance to the U.S. strategy of comeback to Asia by China’s “going West,” specifically by enhancing its influence along the new Silk Road route.

Aware of the growing threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism inside the country, the Chinese leadership hopes that the Silk Road Economic Belt project will make a tangible contribution to promoting economic prosperity and stability in Central and South Asia. Chinese loans free of political preconditions are attractive to the countries of the region. In November 2014 China declared the creation of a $40-billion Silk Road Fund. The fund will finance the construction of infrastructure, exploration of natural resources and other projects in countries along the new Silk Road.


The Silk Road Economic Belt has certain strengths. National Defense University experts Zhao Zhouxian and Liu Guangming say that this concept expands the strategic security space around China, stabilizes energy supplies, ensures economic security, and breaks through the enveloping containment strategy.

The commentators’ heavy emphasis on strategic aspects should not be attributed exclusively to their specific background. Strictly speaking, the Silk Road Economic Belt is not an economic program with firm deadlines to be met, a list of measures taken and the final quantitative parameters to be achieved (for instance, it cannot be compared with the construction of an alternative to the Panama Canal across Nicaragua, an ambitious project to continue for years). The new Silk Road has rather identified a fundamental vector of China’s advance towards a new global role. It is hoped that this “diplomatic brand” would unite logistics, energy, cultural, and humanitarian projects to form a belt of Eurasian countries loyal to Beijing. Alongside other benefits China will also get a safeguard against any potential risks a blockade of shipping routes through the Strait of Malacca might entail.

The security of this transport route had been on the agenda before, but it is under Xi that all critical challenges to China’s development were thoroughly reassessed. “One should have a clear understanding that in the new situation national security and social stability in our country are confronted with a growing number of threats and challenges, the synergetic effect of which is getting ever more obvious,” Xi told the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee on August 29, 2014.

In another statement the Chinese leader said that “the international situation is at a new turning point, witnessing fast polarization and recombination of various strategic forces, and the international system had entered a phase of rapid transformation and profound change.” China’s top leadership is aware that any prolonged periods of “strategic opportunities,” mentioned in Communist Party documents since the early 2000s, are unrealistic in the current highly volatile global environment. For this reason the term “security” is becoming a must in the description of any Chinese foreign policy and foreign economic projects.

The Silk Road Economic Belt is no exception. But the security aspect is probably the least explored one and subject to the greatest risks. These stem not only from the uncertainty over the future of Afghanistan, the activity of extremist forces in the region, drug trafficking and trans-border crime, but also from complicated relations among the states lying along the Silk Road and the political instability in some of them. Many seem to ignore these bottlenecks, although casting a single glance at the map with red lines showing the traffic arteries that cross nearly the entire Eurasian continent would be enough to realize that the authors of the project should have given thought to risk management in the first place.

Chinese experts assess the existing risks quite adequately, but their management looks like science fiction: since the Silk Road concept is based on equality, respect for interests and striving for common benefits, and defies Cold War mentality, it will inevitably lead to the emergence of new rules and standards. The mechanism of confrontation and wild competition will give way to long-term cooperation, Chinese analysts argue. This over-simplified viewpoint is very far from reality. Interaction among the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union should be geared to providing a realistic assessment of the security situation and identifying and solving the region’s common problems.

The Silk Road Economic Belt has become probably the best example of Xi’s new diplomacy and an embodiment of the Chinese Dream in an international format. At the same time, this is the first real foreign policy concept during China’s transition “from a big state to a strong one.” Napoleon used to refer to China as a sleeping lion. If Xi’s figurative expression is to be believed, the Chinese lion is now wide awake, but it is a “peaceful, friendly and civilized lion.” Now this lion will have to demonstrate these qualities to the world in a rather complex and rapidly  changing global environment.