China’s Great Game: Road to a new empire


Charles Clover and Lucy Hornby in the FT:

After two decades of rapid growth, Beijing is again looking beyond its borders for investment opportunities and trade, and to do that it is reaching back to its former imperial greatness for the familiar “Silk Road” metaphor. Creating a modern version of the ancient trade route has emerged as China’s signature foreign policy initiative under President Xi Jinping.

“It is one of the few terms that people remember from history classes that does not involve hard power . . . and it’s precisely those positive associations that the Chinese want to emphasise,” says Valerie Hansen, professor of Chinese history at Yale University.

Xi’s big idea

If the sum total of China’s commitments are taken at face value, the new Silk Road is set to become the largest programme of economic diplomacy since the US-led Marshall Plan for postwar reconstruction in Europe, covering dozens of countries with a total population of over 3bn people. The scale demonstrates huge ambition. But against the backdrop of a faltering economy and the rising strength of its military, the project has taken on huge significance as a way of defining China’s place in the world and its relations — sometimes tense — with its neighbours.

Economically, diplomatically and militarily Beijing will use the project to assert regional leadership in Asia, say experts. For some, it spells out a desire to establish a new sphere of influence, a modern-day version of the 19th century Great Game, where Britain and Russia battled for control in central Asia.

“The Silk Road has been part of Chinese history, dating back to the Han and Tang dynasties, two of the greatest Chinese empires,” says Friedrich Wu, a professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The initiative is a timely reminder that China under the Communist party is building a new empire.”

More here.