China’s Silk geopolitics

By Johan Galtung

China is changing world geography, or at least trying to do so.

Not in the sense of land and water like the Netherlands, but in the sense of weaving new infrastructures on land, on water, in the air, and on the web. It is not surprising that a country with some Marxist orientation would focus politics on infrastructure–but as means of transportation-communication, not as means of production.

Nor is it surprising that a country with a Daoist worldview focuses politics on totalities, on holons and dialectics, forces and counter-forces, trying to tilt balances in China’s favor. How this will work depends on the background, and its implications.

Two recent books, Valerie Hansen, Silk Road: A New History (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Knopf, 2015) see them as arteries connecting the world, globalization, before that term became a la mode. Not that loads of goods moved all the way in both directions, parts of the way, maybe further. Europe had much less to offer in return; however:

“Viking traders from–Norway–coarse, suspicious men, by Arab account–were moving down the great rivers of Russia–trading honey, amber and slaves–as early as the ninth century–returning home to be buried with the silks of Byzantium and China beside them”. (Frankopan)

The Silk Roads – so named by the German geographer von Richthofen in 1877 – connected China and Europe (Istanbul) over land from -1200; more precisely from Xi’an to Samarkand by a northern and southern road (Hansen for maps). And the Silk Lanes connected East China and East Africa (Somalia) from +500 till +1500 when Portuguese-Spanish and English naval expansion started a Western takeover by colonization.

The modern Silk Road East-West, Yiwu/China to Madrid/Spain. Although the transit time for goods or people to transit the route is 21 days, this is 30 days faster than a ship and is 1/10 the cost of shipping freight. See

For long periods run by Buddhists in the East and Muslims in the West; Islam using them to expand, from Casablanca to the Philippines. Frankopan sees the high points in the Han dynasty (-207-220, capital Xi’an for West Han), the Tang dynasty (618-902, capital mainly Xi’an) and under Mongolian, Yuan rule–for goods, ideas, faiths, inventions.

Xi’an, 3,000 years old, served as a starting point, both for Silk Roads and for the Silk Lanes, traveling the Yangzi River, or over land, to the East China Sea coast. Till the military uprising against the Tang emperor in 755 (Hansen, Ch. 5, “The Cosmopolitan Terminus on the Silk Road”); but Xi’an is destined always to play major roles.

China is now reviving the past, adding Silk Railroads from East China to Madrid via Kazakhstan-Russia-Belarus-Poland-Germany-France, to Thailand, from East to West Africa–from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic–from North to South Africa. Silk Flights. And Silk Web.

A silky cocoon is being woven, by worms in China. Too much?

Two features stand out in this approach to geopolitics.

First, weaving together Eurasiafrica, three “continents” by old-fashioned geography. Second, leaving out the other two “continents”, separated by oceans from Eurasiafrica: the Americas, Australia-NZ.

However, South-South-South trade opens lanes to Latin America-Caribbean from West Africa, and Australia-New Zealand are much closer to China than to their colonial origins in England.

That leaves us with Anglo-America, USA-Canada, isolated by two oceans that served as their protection, really left out of silky road and lane nets.

USA does not like that, hence a “pivot” to Asia, based on alliances and TPP.

With some major differences: China builds on a millennia old tradition, the USA on one and half century since Perry “opened up” East Asia. China’s domination in “their” Himalayas -Gobi-Tundra-Sea “pocket” is millennia old; U.S. massive killing in Korea and Vietnam is recent; fresh in people’s memory.

However, the key difference is between U.S. “everybody but China” policy and China’s silk nets open to everybody. Roads, railroads, lanes, flights are two-way. Chinese goods move on China-built infrastructure available to others as well. Prognosis: states in East Asia will play on both, thereby favoring China more than USA.

Is this possible, with the USA trying to replace Russia in India; playing on China-India conflicts that they, since Zhou Enlai-Nehru, have been good at solving?

Nepal, with long borders to both, tilting toward China, given Indian domination and boycott? Mongolia, friendly to both Russia and China, making little space for USA? And 10 ASEAN states in the Southeast that, given the composition have to be friends with all? There is much (Southern) China in ASEAN; Singapore, as minorities, and culturally–in something for good reasons once called “Indo-China”. We get ASEAN+, and +, playing on all horses.

There is a message in this to the Big Powers, to China and USA, India and Russia: do not put pressure, do not demand exclusive allegiance; offer positive services.

China’s silk diplomacy is nonviolent; its defense of what China sees as old patterns to be revived is not. No longer massive People’s Liberation Army defensive defense; with “modern”, provocative arms.

And there is a message to the smaller powers: choose both, even all four; leaning toward one will mobilize the worst in the other(s).

How does this tally with silk diplomacy?

Quite well, except for South China Sea. China did not colonize along Silk roads and lanes, nor chinize. Japan japanized rather than colonized and – as opposed to China – fought Western colonialism.

Silk nets open for huge tourism and trade both ways, weaving continents together when demand meets supply; that may take some time. Nevertheless, the symmetry built into Silk diplomacy makes negotiated conflict solutions, and even a (North) East Asian Community, possible. U.S. asymmetry rules out both.

In the South China Sea U.S. demands “freedom of navigation” for U.S. aircraft carriers right off China’s coast, ASEAN has navy exercises, and China militarizes. China has to respect the UN Law of the Sea, demand revision of freedom for military navigation, and make clear that the lanes are open for civilian – U.S., EU, ASEAN, whatever – trade.

All will gain from silk diplomacy; and lose from militarization.

Originally published at Transcend Media Service, TMS, here.

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