By Gal Luft
FOREIGN POLICY - September/October 2016 Issue
Over the past three millennia, China has made three attempts to project its economic power westward. The first began in the second century BC, during the Han dynasty, when China’s imperial rulers developed the ancient Silk Road to trade with the far-off residents of Central Asia and the Mediterranean basin; the fall of the Mongol empire and the rise of European maritime trading eventually rendered that route obsolete. In the fifteenth century AD, the maritime expeditions of Admiral Zheng He connected Ming-dynasty China to the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. But China’s rulers recalled Zheng’s fleet less than three decades after it set out, and for the rest of imperial history, they devoted most of their attention to China’s neighbors to the east and south. Today, China is undertaking a third turn to the west—its most ambitious one yet. In 2013, Beijing unveiled a plan to connect dozens of economies across Eurasia and East Africa through a series of infrastructure investments known as the Belt and Road Initiative. The goal of the B&R, Chinese officials say, is to bring prosperity to the many developing Asian countries that lack the capacity to undertake major infrastructure projects on their own by connecting them through a web of airports, deep-water ports, fiber-optic networks, highways, railways, and oil and gas pipelines. The B&R’s unstated goal is equally ambitious: to save China from the economic decline that its slowing growth rate and high debt levels seem to portend. The infrastructure initiative, China’s leaders believe, could create new markets for Chinese companies and at the same time provide a shot in the arm to the struggling banks and state-owned enterprises whose disgruntled bosses might otherwise trouble the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.