China’s Bell and Road Initiative (BRI) program is inspired by the ancient silk road and its successful history, but unfortunately that part of history had not been well appreciated by the West. The BRI in the past five years have shown sufficient progress and significant achievements. They should not be ignored by anyone. The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank supporting the BRI has grown to 87 member countries and launched numerous construction projects. The BRI offers an opportunity not a threat to world economy. It is time for the few skeptics to do an honest analysis of BRI, and endorse the initiative.
The ancient Silk Road was started so long ago that we may say that it represents a network of trade routes over time connecting the East (China) to the West (mid-East and Europe) from 114 BCE to 1450s CE, referring to both the terrestrial and the maritime routes connecting East Asia, Southeast Asia with West Asia, East Africa and Southern Europe. The term Silk Road was coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German, as Seidenstraße and Seidenstraßen ("the Silk Road(s)"). Richthofen made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872. The term Silk Route was also used in the 19th century but it did not gain widespread acceptance in academia or in popularity. One should note that the first book entitled The Silk Road was published by a Swedish geographer Sven Hedin in 1938. The Silk Road was central to cultural interaction in addition to commerce between the Eurasian regions for many centuries, but at least from 200 BCE, the trade (silk and spice) along the seaway from the East and South China Sea to Indochina was initiated and continued through Tang, Song,Yuan and the Ming Dynasty. The famous Zhenghe expedition in 1405-1433, seven voyages exploring around the world with advanced ships covering Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean were a testament to the effort of culture and commerce interaction conducted by China through seaway.
The land Silk Road began in the Han dynasty (207 BCE–220 CE) and was expanded in the Central Asia around 114 BCE through the missions and explorations of the well documented Chinese imperial envoy Zhang Qian. The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their trade products and extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the protection of the trade route. Trade on the road played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, Korea, Japan, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, opening long-distance political and economic relations between the civilizations. Because of the Silk Road, many other goods in addition to Chinese silk were traded; more profoundly, interactions of culture, civilization, religions, philosophies, and exchanges of sciences and technologies, even transmission of diseases (such as plaque) and medicine were spread along and expanded and by the Silk Road. The Chang'an-Tianshan corridor of the Silk Road had been deservedly designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in June 2014.
The significance and impact of the ancient Silk Road although traceable in limited recorded history but it was not well researched and discussed by scholars nor was well presented to the public in comparison to the exploration of China by Europeans (e.g. Famous Marco-polo story). The proposal of One Belt and One Road (OBOR or BRI, Belt and Road Initiative) by the Chinese leader, Xi Jin Ping, in 2013 at Kazakhstan (September) and Indonesia (October) seemed to have not aroused much attention on the ancient Silk Road initially. As the OBOR plan was evolving with expanded modern infrastructure construction, the significance of the ancient Silk Road attracted more recognition of the antiquated road infrastructure on the land route and the limited maritime capability on the sea lane. One can imagine with modernized infrastructure what impact OBOR may bring. (*OBOR was described in an article, Understanding of China's World Development Program, OBOR, in the book, The Changing Giants, The U.S. and China, pp. 186-190, 2017, ISBN 0977159450)
OBOR was a brilliant vision for promoting globalization especially for activating the land locked Central Asia in economic development and its interaction with the rest of the world. With today’s advanced communication capability, the announcement of such a grand plan did not immediately catch the world’s attention was a surprise, in fact being ignored by the West from America to Australia was unreasonable. The reason OBOR didn’t reach every person in every corner on Earth, perhaps, was due partly to a lack of PR work by China, partly to China’s not ready to articulate the scope, depth, evolution path and future impact of a germinating idea and perhaps mostly due to the West media unwilling to accept and comprehend such a grand proposal. After the financing bank for supporting Asian infrastructure investment (AIIB) proposal received sufficient support in 2015, the OBOR program got its blood supply thus gaining more self-confidence and kicked off with a new name, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The idea of "Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” surfaced in the Bo'ao Forum in April 2009. The frustration of getting World Bank to finance Asian infrastructure construction needs triggered the thought to make better use of Chinese foreign currency reserves. The AIIB initiative was officially launched by Chinese President Xi Jin Ping on a state visit to Indonesia in October 2013. Even though the proposal met cold reaction from the U.S. and Japan, but it soon gained global endorsement and at its inauguration in 2015, the AIIB had 17 members subscribed 50.1% of its Authorized $100B Capital Stock. Jin Liqun was elected as its first President of five-year term with the bank opening for business on January 16, 2016. Currently, AIIB has 87 State members including European and Asian powers. (*The AIIB was described in an article, chronological account of the establishment of AIIB and its Significance, in the book, Understanding the US and China, pp 65-69, 2016, ISBN: 0977159442.)
The U.S. has opposed China’s BRI plan from its start taking an allegedly-high-moral position that it may fail to stimulate the economic development of the developing countries and the financing organization such as AIIB may not meet the high standards maintained by the existing world financial institutions, even worse accusation was claiming that China purposely set debt traps by make easy money loans and reap bountiful fruits as the debtor countries default. But as time passed by, more countries came on-board BRI, the U.S. had changed her reasoning of opposing China’s BRI to a debatable strategy - targeting China as a threatening competitor, destined to dominate the world, thus any program accelerating China’s rise should be opposed. This hostile view is self perpetuating with little objective analysis while BRI is gaining momentum and traction. The facts and interpretations reviewed in part II may explain the hostile view and help us to make a fair analysis to reach some conclusions.