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Silk Road

The Ancient Silk Road

The Ancient Silk Road was a land network of trade routes connecting the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. The first notices of the Silk Road go back to 138 BC when Zhang Qian’s expedition proved it was possible to travel safely to the far west. These beginnings led to further development of interactions amongst the Asian civilisations. Consequently the trade of goods (e.g. cotton, wool, tea, spices, ivory and other precious metals) developed. China’s most precious commodity, silk, was in high demand over centuries. In addition to the goods trade, the Silk Road was an important tool for transfer of political, economical, cultural and religious (foremost Buddhism) ideas and interactions. Inventions such as paper and gunpowder reached Europe from China by the Silk Road.

Safe transfer was of major importance to the Chinese. Indeed even the Great Wall of China was extended in order to ensure safe passage.

The Silk Road extended from China to Korea and Japan in the east and to Iran, Arabian peninsula, Middle East, Horn of Africa and Europe in the west. Overall it was longer than 6400km.

The golden age of the Silk Road was during the Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD).

The decline of the Silk Road began under the Tang dynasty in the early 10th century and reached its lowest point in the 13th century during Mongol conquests. There were multiple reasons for the quick decline of the trade on the Silk Road. Some of them are:

Political (conflict between traditional Chinese values and modern foreign trade),

Economical (development of the Guangzhou port in the south negatively influenced the traditional Silk Road located in the north),

Rise of the Maritime route (more goods were transported faster and more cost efficiently),

War (various wars along the Silk Road).

Finally the Silk Road collapsed with the collapse of the Safavid Empire (nowadays Iran) in the 1720s.

The trade between east and west however never stopped. In 1869 the Suez Canal was finished and by the 20th century one could not imagine trade between the Far East and Europe without the maritime route through the Suez Canal. The maritime route was however regularly obstructed during World War 1 and 2 as well as during the Cold War. Only in the 1990s the routes utilised in the Ancient times started being reactivated again.

Alongside the maritime route also the rail route was developing. The Eurasian Land Bridge is a railway connecting the Russian Far East and China with the European seaports. In January 2017 the first train on the Land Bridge headed towards London.

The Modern Silk Road also known as The Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative is a developmental strategy adopted by the Chinese Central Committee in 2013. The Chinese government has rolled out the infrastructure strategy with which it is planning to invest in a wide selection of countries and various organisations.

China is looking to establish a trans-continental passage connecting China with its neighbouring countries in South-East Asia and Central Asia as well as Russia and Europe. All by land. Some of the major land projects are: New Eurasian Land Bridge, corridor connecting North China with Mongolia and Far East Russia, corridor connecting China with Central Asia and West Asia, corridor connecting China and Pakistan. Additionally the maritime route shall connect south Chinese port cities with South-East and South Asia, Middle East, East Africa, Europe as well as South Pacific. The South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean are supposed to be in the leading role. Due to the price efficiency of the maritime route, the land route shall remain the smaller project.

The Belt and Road initiative seeks to encourage regional integration and consequently increase the trade as well as economic development of the countries involved.

In 2017 China extended the Initiative to Latin America, outlining it as an extension of the maritime route. As of January 2021, 140 (source: IIGF) countries have joined the Belt and Road Initiative.

Besides the continuous growth of the Initiative there are still some, economically important countries, which have not joined. These are, for example, Argentina and Brazil in Latin America and Spain, France and Germany in Europe.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development the Belt and Road Initiative has five major priorities:

  • Policy coordination,

  • Infrastructure connectivity,

  • Unimpeded trade,

  • Financial integration and

  • Connecting people.

We will dive into each of these topics in the upcoming blog posts.

Nearly eight years have passed since the initial announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative. That being said, first results can also be observed. Some of them are:

ÖBB (Austrian National Railway) has doubled its volume in 2020 on the New Silk Road

Growth of TEU (a measure of container handling activity) from 3.75m TEU in 2017 to 4m TEU in 2018 in the Greek port of Piraeus

Overall Chinese investment into African infrastructure has been at about USD 40 billion (as of May 2017).

In conclusion it can be observed that China is not trying only to revive the Silk Road, but rather to expand and upgrade it. The ambitious Initiative covers a great number of areas and therefore offers a great motivation for countries to join. Indeed, as outlined above, some positive results can already be seen.


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