The New Silk Road: A look at the Belt Road Initiative

Second year student Charles Stevens discusses his new project The New Silk Road, which will investigate various proposals and promises of the new Belt Road Initiative. Deputy features editor Catriona Aitken writes about the details shared in their conversation.

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Photo: Charles Stevens

Second year History student Charles Stevens has a strong interest in the famous Silk Road, which refers to historic economic links between China, the Eastern Mediterranean and, ultimately, the world. Mr Stevens recently founded a project, The New Silk Road, which will explore the various proposals and promises of the new Belt Road Initiative. This project will involve an epic 10,000-mile journey which will see himself and two friends travel through around 18 countries over approximately 60 days in the summer of 2018. The group hope to discover more about what the Belt Road Initiative policies really involve, and the potential global and long-term benefits and ramifications.

The Saint spoke to Mr Stevens about how the project came about, and what he hopes to achieve.

The Saint: Can you give us a bit of background to how your New Silk Road project originated and what it entails?

Charles Stevens: There’s a lot of aspects to it. I travelled a lot in the area in 2015, and something that I noticed was a lot of the unilateral changes taking place as a result of this initiative. You were seeing huge, large-scale infrastructure projects being put up, energy pipelines going out, and new rail links being forged. So, you were seeing the whole culture of the region, specifically Central Asia, being impacted by these globalising forces. As of yet, there hasn’t really been a project undertaken which focuses on The New Silk Road exactly, and its potential importance for the world. The map [from our website] is of what was called the first Silk Road Train, which went London to Yiwu, and is basically an attempt, mainly between China and Western Europe, to cut shipping times. If you transport cargo by the sea, it takes about 45 days to get from China to Western Europe, if you do it by rail it takes about fifteen days. So, it’s got some pretty large impacts to global trade dynamics and supply chains. We’re basically exploring those.

We’ve got three aims. Our first aim is to understand the level of change through firsthand observation. The second aim is to engage with as many key actors and stakeholders along the route as we can and try and understand how it’s impacting them, how they interpret the changes that are taking place and how it fits into the wider macro picture. The third thing we’re going to look at is its interactions with the historic Silk Road and its cultures, histories, languages and archaelogies.

It’s a long way, but it should give us time to really get a sense of it.

Photo: Charles Stevens

TS: What factors drew you to looking at this Chinese economic policy over other initiatives?

CS: The way that this policy is being implemented is that it’s very much seen as being a 21st Century version of The Martial Plan. But it’s much more mutually beneficial than [that], so although it’s a Chinese-led initiative, it’s very much being positioned by China as something that the whole world can take part in. 65 countries are currently involved. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily correct to say it’s just a Chinese initiative, but why specifically Chinese economic policy? Because, well, it’s China! You’ve seen some of the most rapid economic growth in the last 15 years here of any country in the world. There are large things going on and understanding this is, I think, important to understanding what’s going to happen next.

I think one problem with the policy, though, is that a lot of it is very theoretical. It’s an international development project which has a projected timeline to 2049; it’s still in the pipeline. It’s something that, because of the ways the Chinese Politburo and Central Bureau works are very secretive, the amount of information that we have about what China is actually wanting to do is limited.

Photo: Charles Stevens

TS: This theme of linking the past and future comes across as quite a prominent feature of your project, is that correct?

CS: Yes, and I think that if you look at Chinese history, the country held sway over a tributary sway across East Asia. China is a country which very much sees itself as a leader and that’s what this is trying to do. This is as much a peaceful attempt to return to this position as it is an economic programme.

TS: Have you ever done a major challenge or trip like this before?

CS: I did a trip beforehand where I cycled from Beijing to Tehran, along the Silk Road across Asia, that was about 6,000 miles. In 2015, me and a friend were doing that, we were trying to set the world record for it, which we did. That was a previous trip with very different aims, but it was the observations from that trip which have led to this. It’s been the precedent for this. It was an amazing trip, although I don’t think I want to sit on a bike again for 4 months! I’ve sort of had enough of that.

As for the logistics and the organisation of [this new project], it’s something I’ve had experience doing before. In terms of the specific focus on international development policy and a more sort of research angle to it, it’s new. So what’s going to be different in that regard is that it’s going to require a lot more organisation with the various people, in terms of who we need to communicate with in Almaty in Kazakhstan, for example, or who we need to speak with in Teraspol in Poland. So, that’s going to require a lot of work.

TS: How did the three of you involved in this trip come together?

CS: Tom is a very old friend of mine from home who’s very interested in this stuff. I am as interested in the past as the present and want to maximise the understanding we can gain on the Silk Road. So, since Tom in America has a greater interest in things like engineering, he can look at the actual development of it.

TS: Aside from the general aims of the project, is there anything you personally hope to gain from this experience?

CS: Understanding. Understanding what this means for Britain as a country, what this means for Scotland. Where are the opportunities in the future? There’s been a lot of hype around it, and we want to see if its really matching up to the hype.

We are trying to create public exposure, so trying to provide another avenue for explaining what this is and engaging with it, but not in a theoretical way. There’s a difference between sitting down and talking about these things from St Andrews, and actually going there and looking at these things. People can get engaged in different ways.

TS: What preparation are you doing to organise the plans and funding you will need?

CS: You can divide [the project] into three parts. In Europe, we’re centering most of what we’re doing around various ports and Entrepôts, which are intermodal hubs. We’re looking at key financial and economic centres, so we’re going to be going, for example, to Moscow. The second part will see us going through Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, though we’ll have to see about Armenia because of the geopolitical situation. They’ve been building some great railroads there, and they’re doing new construction on the port on the Caspian Sea, which they’re hoping to connect-up with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Whilst we are mainly visiting historic Silk Road sites in Iran we would love to be able to see the Tehran to Mashhad, which they’re hoping to link up with the railway lines in Central Asia. You’ve got the main route, the Trans-Siberian railway, and they’re trying to construct another coherent route which goes along the bottom. So that’s something they’re looking at and trying to develop. Finally, we’ve got the third part, which is in China, looking at some of the manufacturing hubs and districts in, for example, Yiwu, which is a town in Eastern China the biggest manufacturer of small goods in the world.

We’re still in our very early stages. In terms of projections, we’ve got ideas, but we still don’t have anything confirmed. But, we’re pretty confident we can get things sorted, may that be through partnerships with the universities, through academic institutions, or through, potentially, business interests.

We’ve got a very comprehensive schedule of where we’ll be staying every single night. Where it is possible to stay in basic accommodation, we will. In terms of places, where we have contacts and links to, we’ll stay there. Or sometimes we’ll be camping, or sleeping in the back of the car, because if you’re in the middle of Kazakhstan there’s not much there!

TS: Finally, in what way, if any, would you encourage other students to engage with this topic?

CS: I think it’s very simple really. It’s an initiative which is going to have a projected spending of a minimum of $4 trillion dollars. Anything which has four trillion dollars spent on it is important. If I put it simply, it’s something that’s going to impact us all. Economically, geopolitically. It’s basically restructuring the balance of power towards China, so this is a decisive pivot in which the world is going to tip again towards China. By understanding it, you’re in a better position to react to it.

Mr Stevens’ passion for challenging himself, travel and this latest project was evident throughout our conversation. In an increasingly globalising international economic environment, Mr Stevens desire for understanding is admirable. What I saw was a student who was actually facing his academic interest head on, and questioning it and analysing it, and I have no doubt that this will lead to some very interesting discoveries when the trio return.

Amended on 25 March at the request of Mr Stevens.

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