According to historical analysis and Silk Roadology, the success of the legendary trade route was dependent on three factors. First, the greater security situation in the region due to the presence of strong empires – the Han Empire, the Kushanite Empire, the Persian and Greek Empires. Second, there were great cultural and religious exchanges along the old Silk Road, which further eased the ways for travellers and traders. Third, sea routes were yet to be discovered, and trade flowed mostly through land and caravans.
With increased trade through the sea routes, the world became more interconnected, and given the lack of cultural ties in the region, the old Silk Road eventually became history.
Now as regionalism, globalism and a win-win situation in economic regional integration is taking place, many countries have initiated their own Silk Road initiatives. China is not an exception to this – it has not only initiated one of the biggest Silk Road revival programmes but its strategy in this regard is also becoming a success story.
Yet, there’s much that has been neglected in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI):
Culture and ethnic migrations played an important role in initiation of the old Silk Road trade and transit corridor. Nothing can explain this better than the migration of the Kushans or Yue-Chi from Gansu, China, into Afghanistan and the travels of Zhang Qian into Balkh, Afghanistan, According to old Chinese texts, these two factors paved the way for the initiation of the Silk Road. It was Zhang Qian who gave a proposal to Chinese Emperor Wu of Han to trade with the West upon his return from Afghanistan.
Ethnic connectivity can play an important role in further connecting the BRI region at a time when most ethnic groups from one country in the region are living in multiple neighbouring countries as well.
Connecting the ethnic communities with each other socially and economically will have an enormous impact, by increasing ties between people and businesses.
The transit routes
Transit issues can have an impact on regional economic integration in three ways.
First, the presence of physical and political barriers in community and business relations in the region. Second is the issue of transit with landlocked countries. Interestingly, many Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) countries are landlocked. Except Lao PDR and Bhutan, all other landlocked countries in Asia are located in the SCO region. On the other hand, there are also other European and African landlocked countries along the BRI.
Without resolving the transit issues of landlocked countries, the BRI region won’t develop economically, since one of the causes for stunted economic growth is the trap of being landlocked. According to Oxford University professor Paul Collier, 38% of people who live below the poverty line are in landlocked countries and the GDP per capita income in landlocked countries is 57% less than the maritime countries.
Second, trade through land routes will also need transit rights for commodity exchange in the BRI region and beyond.
Third, maritime nations have often used ‘transit’ as a foreign policy instrument to influence landlocked countries.
Therefore, the BRI should highlight the rights of landlocked countries; it should encourage smooth and non-political bilateral and multilateral agreements, and should introduce a problem-solving mechanism related to transit.
Although connectivity between communities and businesses has received much attention in the BRI, unless political barriers (for instance, transit issues) are done away with, the BRI will not see its full potential.
The Great Wall of security
According to historical facts, Qin Shi Huangdi (the first emperor of China) started building the Great Wall to protect his people from attacks from the Steppe nomads. After his death, work on the Great Wall stopped. But in 141 BCE, Emperor Wu of Han restarted the building work as a means of protecting traders and travellers from the West.
The BRI region faces many security challenges at present. Instability in the Central and West Asia regions, stemming from civil unrest, as well as the rise of extremism means there are greater threats to tackle. The rise of ISIS, lone wolf attacks and terror financing mean it is just as necessary to maintain a Great Wall of security to protect the BRI region.
There are two ways China can do this: First, by using the SCO in BRI. But India remains reluctant to extend full support to the initiatives, given its issues with China and Pakistan.
Second, by boosting security and military cooperation with Afghanistan. Given the precipitous situation in Afghanistan, isolating or ignoring the country will only add to problems. Instead, China should look at integrating it into all the main regional economic and security mechanisms.
Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabul. He is the author of upcoming book on Sino-Afghan relations: 1955-2017 in Pashto. He tweets at @abilalkhalil.