China plys its trade in Europe. EPA/Wojciech Pacewicz
Much has been made of China’s assertiveness in its maritime sphere of influence, most notably in the light of its hotly contested claims in the South China Sea. But the rest of the world seems to have only recently started to notice the scale of what China is doing on land.
China’s engagement with the rest of Asia and the wider world has come to light in the form of the initiative known as One Belt One Road, a broad economic, diplomatic and infrastructural programme designed to transform the way China deals with its Asian neighbours – and with the world beyond.
This programme recently hit the shores of Britain with the arrival of a Chinese freight train, fittingly named the East Wind, at Barking, which carried Chinese goods for Western markets all the way from Yiwu. It seems that half a century after he outlined it, Mao’s vision of “the east wind prevailing over the west wind” is finally coming into view.
But while the impetus for the project is largely economic, there is another more strategic dimension that has yet to be tapped into. China’s geopolitical manoeuvring on land is grounded in the great power politics of the previous century, which have lately made a comeback in Asia. The Kremlin, for one, is philosopher Aleksandr Dugin’s vision for Russia-centric “Eurasianism”. With the Trump administration apparently flirting with a form of isolationism and international uncertainty reaching new heights, this initiative has only become more imperative for Beijing.
In language alluding to the old Silk Road that once connected east and west, the purpose of One Belt One Road is to connect Chinese trade with European markets via rail and maritime links, the latter known as the maritime silk road.
The sheer scale of this project can be seen as an expression of Beijing’s global aspirations, which Chinese premier Xi Jinping underlined in a striking defence of globalisation at the 2017 Davos summit in Switzerland. Alongside recent developments – most notably the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – China has an opportunity to return to the role that it once occupied in Asia and also for the wider world. In doing so, it’s reviving an idea that once dominated the power politics of the 20th century: the contest for influence in Eurasia.
Throughout the 20th century, the idea of Eurasia dominated geopolitical strategy. During the Cold War, the region was often the focus of the superpowers’ attention, as epitomised by Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard, which advocated American management of the region in order to prevent a potential challenger from emerging. Traditionally, this notion was largely bound up with Russia and the Soviet Union, but ever since the latter collapsed, China has been more and more active in its former sphere.
Land rivals: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. EPA/Ernesto Arias