The Belt and Road Initiative, often called the New Silk Road, conjures up distant and exotic images that are still reminiscent of the fairytale descriptions in Marco Polo’s Milione. The allusion, which is not insignificant, refers to historical periods in which international trade was monopolised by the caravan routes that developed between the Far East and the West of Eurasia: relations along this route, both overland and by sea, first saw the Sassanid empire, the Han empire and the Roman empire as co-protagonists, but were also maintained during the Middle Ages despite the enormous political upheavals that followed over the centuries.
The Silk Road, in addition to precious goods, connected very different peoples and cultures, and established reciprocal links between China and the West even when it was not possible, due to limitations imposed by technology and distance, to establish direct diplomatic ties. Its centrality in world trade was such that, after the fall of Constantinople, Europeans looked to the Atlantic Ocean for a new route to the rich East.
The search, as we know, ended with the discovery of America, and this led to an inexorable decline of the Silk Road in the modern age: the world trade pivot shifted from East to West, where the Atlantic Ocean became the nerve centre of the old continent’s development in relation to the overseas colonies. From the 16th century onwards, there was an increasingly significant gap between East and West, with a progressive marginalisation of Asia that reached its extreme with the European colonisation of much of the continent in the 19th century.
However, with the 20th century, as a result of the world reorganisation following the two world wars and the loss of centrality of the old continent, the market radically changed: at the same time, after the death of Mao Tse-Tung, China started a series of internal reforms that allowed it, in a few decades, to grow exponentially as an economic and commercial power: it can be said that, at the conclusion of more than 40 years of reforms starting from Deng Xiaoping and arriving at Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China, radically transformed from a developing country to a superpower, has begun to project itself no longer as an economic partner, but as a geopolitical Leader, in the international arena, and this new strategy is revealing all its long-term vision in the BRI, which, after centuries of dominance of the Atlantic route, relaunches the concept of the Silk Road and proposes a different world order that would shift the commercial pivot again from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and the Heartland of the world.
However, for better understanding, we must avoid any potential fascination, since the BRI is a project that goes far beyond the Silk Road, including international coordination policies on infrastructure, tourism and scientific expeditions; not only that, it also implies close cooperation and synergies in the field of finance and trade. The whole BRI project requires staggering amounts of money just to finance an operation that spans four different continents, involving Oceania, Asia, Africa and Europe, with 71 nations involved: the estimated trade volume, between 4 and 8 trillion dollars, is supported by private capital, state-owned enterprises and public-private partnerships. The Chinese government has planned, through bilateral agreements, several corridors for the movement of goods, involving different routes crossing continental Asia and the Indian Ocean to flow into the Mediterranean and Central Europe.
The Chinese project, which aims to promote interconnections between Asia, Europe and Africa, is not only an extraordinary project in economic terms, but also a real Chinese alternative to Western-style globalisation: it completely excludes the American continent, which would remain isolated in such a scheme, just as it was historically until 1492. It will be interesting to see how and if the West will be able to respond to this articulated plan based on the Chinese worldview. At the moment, due to the failure of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and the European Union, there still seems to be no unified strategy capable of proposing an alternative to the idea of the World put forward by Beijing.