Travelling ‘The Silk Road’ is, among many things, an excuse to buy a silk shirt. China had a monopoly on silk, and the secrets of its production were fiercely guarded, with often fatal consequences for would be thieves. As ridiculous and prohibitively expensive as it might sound, silk is the perfect material for travelling; it has a low enough density as to be lightweight and comfortable, while good insulation properties make it warm in winter and cool during Summer months, finally it is one of the strongest natural fibers – worn by many, including the Mongols, as a layer designed to trap an arrow and reduce the damage it dealt. In another life I might have exchanged that silk shirt for spices or a goat, but supply now tends to run ahead of demand, not to mention that the demand for my used shirts hovers around zero.
The New Silk Road, as discussed in Part 1, has a significance far beyond that which justifies me wearing silk. Since the collapse of the Silk Road in the latter half of the 15th century as a result of destructive war and the advent of safe and reliable sea travel, 90% of trade has been distributed by cargo ships. It is a highly effective way of transporting goods around the world, however it is much slower than train. The 5,900 mile trip on the 15 February 2016 by train from Zhejiang Province to Tehran took 14 days. That is 30 days quicker than the usual sea voyage from Shanghai and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Although, a train can not carry nearly the same capacity as a cargo ship and is less cost effective, double stack technology means that freight trains can carry close to a thousand containers. This makes it an attractive transportation method for perishable goods, luxury items and high demand products like iPhones where speed of delivery is a necessity. The economic potential of a stable and reliable trans-Asiatic and Eurasian land based trade network should be clear.
It could be far more important than simply linking Eurasia and the world into a single trade network. In 1964, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed a new method to measure the level of civilisations technological advancement. This was done in relation to their ability to harness and use energy. It was called the Kardashev Scale. We are currently classified as a Type 0 civilisation, having the ability to harness the energy of our home planet but not to its full potential. A Type 1 civilisation is one that can capture all the energy of its home planet (all the sunlight that hits the earths surface) and we are expected to reach this state in 100 years according to theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku. A Type 2 civilisation can harness the power of stars and we are perhaps several thousand years away from this stage let alone Type 3. At the moment we are undergoing the transition between Type 0 and 1. Kaku believes that this is the most dangerous time in human history for our species survival because we still have the tribalism, savagery, passion and sectarian ideas circulating around along with nuclear weapons, biological weapons and terrorism to name but a few. Projects like China’s New Silk Roadcould help to direct us towards a Type 1 civilisation by creating unity and stability due to shared economic gains. In the same way the European Union suggested the birth pangs of a global economy and all the benefits that has brought to Europe, such as peace and prosperity, so perhaps the New Silk Road beckons this for Asia and also for Africa and South America, which the New Silk Road also hopes to increasingly ‘connect’ with. In many ways it is too early to tell but I am optimistic in the ability of economic cohesion to bring such benefits, boost us up the Kardashev scale and help to avert global calamity and Malthusian catastrophe.
One thing it will do for Central Asia is to decouple its reliance on Russia. President Xi by the start of 2015 had sealed $30 billion worth of deals with Kazakhstan and $15 billion with Uzbekistan, as well as providing Turkmenistan and Tajikistan with billions in loans. Unlike the decades of The Great Game and the USSR, Russian citizens are starting to migrate away from Central Asia. Its economy and security is now less dependent than ever before on Russia. When the much delayed Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway is completed in 2017, it will unite the Eurasian railway network making it the first line not under Russian control. It is projects like this as well as gas pipelines and roads by which China is disconnecting the former Soviet States in Central Asia from Russian influence. This initiative will also help to include Tehran in the global world network and make it of critical importance in the movement of Eurasian trade. There are many more questions like the effect on African and South American economies but the trajectory seems to be pointing in this direction.
The New Silk Road is a step forward towards Central Asia capitalising on its vast resources, a milestone for China towards global hegemony and perhaps also a return to its previous prominence. It will be interesting to see how China's economic slowdown effects this. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that China invented the instruments that brought about the collapse of the Silk Road such as the compass and gunpowder, thereby contributing to its own demise. The allusions to its historical success and its increasing regional aggressiveness do nothing conceal its ambition to evaporate its Century of Humiliation and previous years of relative obscurity. The New Silk Road signals a globally more influential China.