Four hundred years ago Sir Walter Raleigh asserted that "whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself." (1) In the present time of extensive economic globalization and deepening interdependence, this reality seems more than ever to determine and sharpen geopolitical tensions. The post-cold war world order, with the United States as sole hegemon, is slowly changing. (2) As scholars, politicians, diplomats, and citizens are increasingly noticing, the world's economic center of gravity is shifting east. (3) With this evolution in power dynamics, the US and China are at a standoff, with dominance in north and southeast Asia at stake. The US and Europe are still trying to understand and meet these changes, whereas Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China, appears to have taken Sir Walter's proverb to heart. (4) In 2013, Xi Jinping announced his vision of the Belt and Road Initiative at the University of Astana, in Kazakhstan. Just like the Silk Roads of yesteryear, which for more than 2000 years were the arteries of the prosperous civilizations of Asia, the BRI's aim is to bind west, south, and east Asia with Europe and Africa in a web of infrastructural connectivity, commerce, political cooperation, and military and energy security. (5) This may be history's biggest cultural and political project, encompassing more than sixty countries and with an estimated cost of between six and eight trillion U.S. dollars, and will arguably have fundamental regional and global implications for decades and even centuries to come. (6)
Given the sheer size, the economic, cultural, and military ramifications, and geopolitical importance of BRI, it is not surprising that the West is scrambling to understand these developments and to identify a strategy to react. "The Great Game," as Kipling put it in 1901, is set to begin once again. (7) There is, however, a significant difference between the nineteenth century battles between the British Empire and Russia, and the current struggle between the West and East: while the West understood Russia's aims and ambitions, it does not seem to have any clue how to respond to this new challenge to its power. As Henry Kissinger noted in 2015, "We can't handle these challenges. We are not good at it, because we don't understand their history or culture." (8) The Silk Roads are nevertheless rising once more, (9) and they will continue to do so, whether we understand them or not.
This paper poses the following question: What is China's vision behind the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia? Is Xi Jinping doing something that Westerners and traditional IR simply cannot understand? The aim of the paper is therefore twofold. First, by analyzing Xi Jinping's speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and various visual materials--all depicting the dream behind the BRI--this article describes the BRI through the eyes of those envisioning it. Second, the history of Chinese thought grounds this study, hence this paper aims to provide an opportunity to examine the capacity of Western International Relations (i.e. traditional liberalism and classical realism) to explain Chinese policies and actions.
The Silk Roads: The World's Central Nervous System?
To understand a vision is to unravel its history and its future. An answer to the question being raised all over the world, "What does China think?'' should therefore start in its past. ''What past?'' one may ask, since due to what Edward Said famously named "Orientalism" (the idea of Western "natural superiority" and the perception of inferiority or even unimportance of the East) most have deemed this past unworthy of serious study. (10) Interestingly, a scientist (an anthropologist avant la lettre) whose name has been forgotten once said the following about the West: "I want to write and learn about all cultures on the planet, but not about those barbarians in the West, I am not going to squander any paper on them." Long before the birth of the great trading city of Amsterdam, or the universities of Oxford and Paris, or even before the palaces of Rome and the places of worship of Greece, cities and civilizations beyond our imagination emerged from the spine of Asia. For more than three thousand years, these civilizations of the East--from the Persians, the Mughal Empire in India, the Mongols, or the Han-dynasty, to the great cities of Babylon, Tashkent, and Bactria--overshadowed the West in any conceivable respect. The scientist may have been right about the West at that time, but, as Peter Frankopan would say, the West's one-sided view of the East's past is certainly wrong now. (11) Given this rather ill-considered ignorance, it is not surprising that the old powers are still in doubt how to respond to the Chinese challenges to their might.
The Silk Roads, contrary to what the name seems to visualize, were not roads at all, but rather a vibrant organism edified by interconnecting civilizations. This network, just like in a body, emerged from trade-pathways nourishing the world (blood vessels), intertwining political, cultural and religious beliefs (nerves), a monetary credit-system infrastructure and progressive tax legislation (fuel), mighty urban centers (Merv, Samarkand, Kashgar, Kabul, and Shenzhen: organs) and intellectual safe havens in Baghdad, Bukhara, and Balkh (cortex). (12) These cities, whose name most have forgotten, were famed for their tolerance, trade, advancement of ideas, science, religion, and decadence. This immense network, which started with a road linking 600 B.C. Persia (in Asia Minor) with the heart of Asia, expanded during the Han Dynasty (200 BC). (13) The growing ambitions of the Han emperors lead to the acceleration of the interlocking of the world. Under China's control, millions of barrels of silk (obviously), gunpowder, paper, jade, and spices went West, while gold, silver, slaves, and weapons went East. (14) The greatest appended value of the Silk Roads were however not these commodities, but rather the exchange of culture, philosophy, science, and religion that followed to traders on their paths. The Silk Roads were therefore not only a catalyst of prosperity, but also of cooperation and tolerance despite differences in race, language, and belief.
While this was indeed a time of relative peace, China's exploration and conquests also lead to the (military) expansion of its physical and intangible horizon to the borders of Asia and beyond: thereby forcing the title "Middle land" or "Land under Heaven (Tianxia)," which China, still uses to define itself. (15) This all-inclusive Tianxia-system encouraged a conversion of differences. However, not all states and cities wanted to be under imperial control. (16) Tianxia Yitong, or "uniting the world through conquest" reflects the other side of the peaceful appearance of the Silk Roads. (17) To be accepted in this system, cultures, cities, and people had to conform, which signified not only a material, economic, and geographical unification, but also a convergence of the world of thought (read: the imposition of Sino cultural and political values). This Tianxia, following from the Chinese power reflected by its grip over the Silk Roads, therefore meant and means above all, "China."
The Road to Regaining China's Lost Historical Greatness: The Belt and Road Initiative
In part as the result of the success of the Silk Roads of old, China has long seen itself as the world's preeminent civilization. Rightly so, libraries worth of historiography would suggest. (18) However, in the early modern era, the world's center of power shifted to the West. In less than ten years, Christopher Columbus connected the Americas with Europe and Vasco di Gama opened the waterways into Southeast Asia and Indo-China. These discoveries not only turned our understanding of the world upside down, but also had a remarkable effect on the political, intellectual, and economic center of gravity. (19) Europe, which was once just insignificant smear at the corner of Euro-Asia, transformed into the heartland of trade and science, as well as religious dominance and violence.
The rise of the West and European imperialism was met with little opposition: China fell behind in its desire to directly dominate the world. As an extension thereof, this led to the diminishing of Chinese technological, economic, and military supremacy. This imbalance in power, capability, and will culminated in China's loss in the Opium Wars, leading to what is now been called "the hundred years of humiliation." (20) In this period China lost multiple wars, was conquered and occupied, shame replaced pride, and China lost its perceived meaning. This (inter)national conception and perception of insignificance did not end until the 1945-1949 communist civil war. Shortly thereafter, in 1953, Mao Zedong launched the Chinese dream, a giant project to revitalize the nation trying to regain China's lost historical greatness. (21) While echoing his forebears, Xi Jinping strives to rebuild its dominance and power in the East. By 2049, the one hundredth anniversary of the People's Republic, he feels the world order of the past, with China as its leading civilization in the east, has to be restored. (22)
This ''Hundred Year Marathon to Power'' is not, however, without its complications. To name just a few: China's dependence on energy supplies calls for securing Chinese dominance in the region; the need for the creation of a healthy external market for Chinese surplus goods asks for the deepening of global economic integration; and the growth of Chinese interests in the world demands for enormous technological advancements, the development of strong maritime and ocean forces, and an increase in military capability. (23) To realize the goals set in 1953, all of those needs need to be met...