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Leaders with silken touch

Leaders with silken touch
The world got to know China through silk in the ancient times. In the 4th century BC, Greece called China as ‘silk country’. Julius Caesar, the great Roman ruler, went to the theatre with a silk gown which aroused keen attention and interests among the audience. Since then, the price of silk rocketed and it even became as expensive as gold.

In the minds of Europeans, the faraway Middle Kingdom was associated with beautiful connotations: fantastic, rich and glittering. when German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen was doing his research on the ancient routes connecting the East and the West one century ago, he came up with the word ‘Seidenstrassen’, namely the ‘silk roads’. The land, silk roads stretched from west China to the Mediterranean and the Maritime Silk Road started from Southeast China and reached Gulf countries and even East African countries.

Historically the twin silk roads were among the most important routes for exchanging goods and thoughts. They enriched the peoples and cultures involved. Chinese silk and tea brought brilliance and fragrance to the road, Buddhist scriptures made the road pious and sublime, music and dance from South Asia and Central Asia enriched people’s cultural life. It was through the Silk Road that the Chinese inventions of paper-making, gun powder, movable type printing press and compass were spread to Europe via the Arab region and that the Arabian and Indian astronomy, calendar, Buddhism and Islam, plants and herbal medicines were introduced to China. Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to revitalise the twin silk roads.

Xi’s State Policy
Xi Jinping proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt on a visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. He proposed that China and central Asian countries must work to improve traffic connectivity, trade and monetary cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges. Xi also proposed a 21st century Maritime Silk Road during his visit to Indonesia in October 2013. The proposals were unanimously accepted as the policy of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) during its plenary session held in late 2013. The initiative was then adopted by China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress, in its annual session held in March this year. Therefore, Xi’s ideas to promote the modern time twin silk roads have become the official policy pursued by both the CPC and the state. The initiative has thus become a rallying point to mobilise central government and provincial government agencies to put in their respective resources to materialise it.

Strategic Implications
As a Chinese saying goes, ‘To succeed one has to take advantage of the opportunity, geographic proximity and good-neighbourly relations’. Xi was fully aware of this. His idea is based on solid domestic and international calibrations. Late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put forward the opening-up and reform policy in late 1978. Deng’s initiative has become a driving force for China to become the 2nd largest economy from a backward and poor country in a time span of three decades. It has helped lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty. But it is the eastern and southern coastal regions that have benefited the most.

The gap between eastern China and western China has increased. To narrow the gap, former President Jiang Zemin put forward the ‘Develop the West’ policy a decade ago. Since then, China’s inner, poor western part has experienced marked progress in terms of per capita GDP, reduction of poverty, development of infrastructure, health and education. The 2nd largest economy came with a price. China is now increasingly encountering energy and environmental constraints and bottlenecks. In a sense, China is now on a cross road. The responsibility for fulfilling the Chinese dream falls on the shoulders of Xi. But there are not many policy alternatives left. Xi has to move his head westward and is now presiding over the opening-up of version 2.0. The twin silk roads initiative will make the western and southwestern China, engines for  the new phase of development. These regions have great potential for development.

This interior part will transform from a backyard to the face of opportunities. But it did not start from scratch. Western China has world class infrastructure, abundant in natural resources. It is high time to connect it to Central Asia, South Asia and other Euro-Asian countries. Obviously, Xi plans to use the silk roads as means to rejuvenate the nation. Silk roads are like a spread folding fan with China as the pivot. China has the need, the will and the ability to implement the grand blueprint.

In contrast, although Japan and the United States came up with the idea of silk road strategies in late 1990s and in 2012, when former US secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasised its importance  but they have fatal defections and  China was intentionally avoided. Majority of the US troops are set to pull out of Afghanistan by yearend and the American idea seems  dull and pale. It is not difficult to understand how far their strategies can be carried forward.

 The twin silk roads have several mechanisms and platforms in place. First and foremost, it is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It is an effective tool for enhancing regional cooperation and tackling terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Other such initiatives are the Euro-Asia Expo held annually in Urumuqi, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the South Asia Expo held in Kunming, Yunnan Province and the China-ASEAN Expo held in Nanjing in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Second,  comes the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM ) Corridor, the China-Pakistan Corridor, the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence (Panchsheel). The international railways link Chongqing, the 4th largest city along the Yangtze River and Zhengzhou in central China with ports in Germany, Poland and Holland come fourth. Fifth, are the energy corridors that have come into shape between China and central Asian countries and the pipelines between China and Myanmar. On the sixth slot is the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Bank which is coming into being and with China having a  prominent role in each of them, it’s not difficult for them to provide financing for relevant programs. As to the Maritime Silk Road, it seems more difficult to promote. Thus China has to make great efforts to cement relations with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives and the Gulf countries.

China and India
India and a few Arab countries are the only regions where the footprint of twin silk roads can be found simultaneously outside China. In this sense, President Xi’s visit to India is also an important step in revitalising both the land silk roads and the maritime silk roads. Actually, China and India together with more than a dozen Southeast Asian countries have started to rebuild the ancient Nalanda University which was indispensable in the silk roads history. Besides mutual trade, investment and infrastructure development, China and India could tap the great potential of tourism.

China has 47 UNESCO world heritage sites, while India has 29. Many of the 76 sites are related to the ancient silk roads. Chinese tourists have immense interests in the Indian Buddhist sites which are in north and central India and around the ancient trading ports of Kerala.

But there were only one lakh Chinese tourists among its 10 crores of outbound visitors coming to India last year while there were only six lakh Indians who went to China although we are close neighbours. If India builds more hotels to lower the exorbitant price, it should build better roads for fast and easy access to tourists spots, run more power plants to achieve less power cuts, and of course build more public toilets. Do this and the Chinese tourists will flock to India. Fortunately all of these are happening at about the same time as Xi is visiting India.

No doubt, Xi is a very powerful leader in China. He is the only top leader who has the trinity role in the state, the CPC and the military. He is reforming China in an all-round way by putting forward the notion of Chinese Dream. Quite particularly he has started cleaning up corruption with determination as a way to reform politics. He has called on to catch, both the tigers and flies in the fight against corruption. On the strategic and economic front, he has initiated the Silk Road Economic belt and the Maritime Silk Road in the age of globalisation. Similarly, Modi is a resolute leader with markable charisma. Frugal, clean and good at Facebook, he looks like a saint combining tradition and modernity. He works so hard and so effectively for the betterment of the Indian people domestically and for India’s bigger regional and international roles. I am quite sure Xi’s visit of India is set to bring the Sino-Indian relations to a new stage. The achche din for both our people are on their way.

The author is director at the State Council Information Office, China
Li Xiaojun

Li Xiaojun

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