While the eyes of the world focus on China’s aggression in the seas to its east, China’s leaders are looking west. At the end of March, China’s National Development and Reform Commission joined its ministries of foreign affairs and commerce to release an expansive blueprint for what it calls the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road—often shortened to “One Belt, One Road.” If successful, the ambitious program would make China a principal economic and diplomatic force in Eurasian integration. One Belt, One Road calls for increased diplomatic coordination, standardized and linked trade facilities, free trade zones and other trade facilitation policies, financial integration promoting the renminbi, and people-to-people cultural education programs throughout nations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Some have characterized it as China’s Marshall Plan, but Chinese leaders reject the comparison. As they see it, what they are doing is integrating Eurasia rather than drawing dividing lines, and focusing on economic growth rather than political influence. Yet therein lies the danger; if China does not skillfully balance investments and diplomacy with its search for political influence, it may find itself tangled in conflicts for which it is not prepared.
ON THE ROAD
Although the exact details of One Belt, One Road vary by map to map and proposal to proposal, generally, the overland belt, comprising roads, rail links, energy pipelines, and telecommunications ties, seeks to link China, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Russia. The maritime “road” will sail from China’s coasts through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea (through the Suez Canal), with stops in Africa along the way. One Belt, One Road builds on earlier calls by Chinese academics to march West as a response to the United States’ strategic pivot to Asia. The name of Beijing’s dual programs harken back even further, to the ancient Silk Road, recalling China’s historical role in trade promotion