Global Economics Article

The Ultimate Challenge of the Silk Road: Empowerment

Photo of Xi Jinping sitting at his desk in China.

Where the New Silk Road Could Be Headed in the Next Five Years … 

Investments flowing out of China are only getting more and more intense in every next news update. It is by now no secret that the Chinese are on a global construction spree as they are getting hold of ports on the Mediterranean while moving bullet trains through Siberian steppes. Although, among all these headlines of billion dollar infrastructure contracts and thousand mile train rails through the Eurasian lands, a much more subtle yet highly critical story might be unfolding.

At the time of writing, a history of empowerment could be in the process of being written in front of our eyes: The ambitious Silk Road project that was recently launched with the slogan “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)”.  Empowerment, especially in this case, can be defined as granting someone the authority or power to achieve further. 

So will the much-hyped Silk Road project empower the nations and people it will affect?

Or will it become a source of tension and antagonism between the East and the West?

The intellectual debate about the newly developing “Belt and Road” must find a satisfactory answer to this, if we hope to thoroughly understand what this project is capable of achieving.

According to the PRC, the modern Silk Road aims to be grand source of empowerment, as it will lay a whole new foundation within the global economy. The project is planned to pass through at least 65 sovereign nations that will potentially boast the 55% of global GDP and 70% of the world’s population. Indeed, the project envisions not only a single terrestrial road through Central Asia, but also a maritime route that is already stirring up the South China Sea’s geopolitics.

The maritime Silk Road project coincides with the US pivot to Asia, complicating the diplomatic disputes in the ASEAN region. The nature of competition between China and the US in South East Asia will pretty much determine whether the new Silk Road will complement the current Atlantic-oriented world order or become an antagonistic scheme that serves as an exclusive alternative. India too, especially within the maritime route, must be considered as a major player who might be agitated by the aims of the OBOR. Many sceptic voices coming out of the South Asian giant consider the project as a string of pearls to get around India’s strategic depth and gain political and military advantage over it.

Photo of a family of three with three camels, sitting in the desert, watching the sunset.

Shall the competition within these major actors be economic in nature, the Silk Road is bound to benefit all the related parties with enhanced investment and boosted commercial activity throughout a wide geography. If however, the competition cultivates a political standoff, the region could face significant challenges towards its unity and stability. In order to make sure the competition stays benign and “business-oriented”, China must lead the scheme with the main goals of lifting societies out of poverty, giving them the right infrastructure and moving their economies to the next level — just like it did within its own borders since the Deng Xiaoping era.

Photo of Deng Xiaoping

The determinant in the success of this project will be China’s attitude towards empowering the people and cultivating their entrepreneurial spirits within this scheme. If the campaign becomes a fancy appellation for only grabbing infrastructure contracts with regional government officials, the Silk Road will not meet its significant goals. If, however, it brings the youth of all the included nations together through boosting educational exchange and the people of the region through eased access to trade and information — it will indeed rejuvenate the original spirit of the ancient Silk Road: a plethora of exchange of not only spices and commodities but of languages, customs and intellect.

About the author



Onat Kibaroglu is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore and a weekly contributor at the Global Times in Shanghai, one of the largest newspaper establishments in the PRC. At the time of writing he is working part-time at a Public Affairs & Relations consulting agency “Hume Brophy” at their Asian HQ in Singapore.

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