Will the new silk road change the world?

6 minutes of reading

Since 2013, China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), also referred to as the New Silk Road, has been building a network to connect China with the rest of the world, with railways, highways, ports, airports, industrial areas, data centres and telecommunication networks. As part of this strategy, China has been financing and building infrastructures in a number of third-world countries in Asia, as well as Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe. Is this New Silk Road about to change the world? Will it be open to everyone or under Chinese control? Is there a place for Europe? Below we consider three fictional and highly distinct scenarios in order to explore various possible futures, some frightening, some fascinating.

Scenario 1 – 2050: A new, shared Silk Road

In 2050, it has never been easier to travel overland from one end of the continent to the other. China’s infrastructure construction initiatives, which were initially strictly reserved for builders from the People’s Republic of China, gradually opened up to international businesses and financing during the 2020s and 2030s. The networks have been connected and brought into line with other projects supported by other states. Today, rail is so effective for transporting goods that pollution-heavy maritime transport has largely been reduced. A dense network of high-speed train lines also facilitates international passenger transport, without the need for planes. Now anyone can travel from Paris to Athens or Istanbul overnight on a nine-hour train ride, while in Asia, the Indian metropolis of Calcutta is just six hours away from the Chinese province of Yunnan. This newfound, all-encompassing proximity has led to progress in a number of areas: in Africa, the facilitation of trade has rapidly increased prosperity; in the Middle East, the increase in travel between neighbouring countries has led to greater cultural understanding and a lasting decrease in tensions. Large-scale energy networks are used to efficiently pool renewable energy sources, which supply the intermittent energy needs of certain regions, some highly remote.

In addition to transport routes, shared funding for construction projects has also helped the world adapt to climate change. Some regions have benefited from a global effort to find local, sustainable solutions in areas vulnerable to sea level rise. In certain cases, international consortia have financed and built facilities needed to support life in deltas and coastal plains. Floating cities have emerged. Agriculture has evolved, adapting to new local weather conditions and favouring biodiversity and local consumption. Under the auspices of the UN, an international institution has finally been created to coordinate adaptation to climate change around the world, control the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and regulate other polluting activities. China, which is now actively involved in proposing new international guidelines, has helped other countries establish common standards that have universalised the principles of the circular economy. By opening its doors to numerous actors and systematically engaging with local communities, this shared Silk Road has improved international relations around the world.

Scenario 2 – 2050: A new, restricted Silk Road

101 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the five-starred red flag flies next to surveillance cameras above the main transport corridors, from Cape Town to Vladivostok, from Brest to Singapore. China’s tremendous resilience against Covid-19 and the subsequent crises has positioned it as the leading power for the surrounding countries. While the United States and Europe were trying to hold their societies together and keep their local economies afloat, China accelerated its infrastructure funding and construction programme around the world. The logistics corridors connecting China to the rest of Eurasia have been expanded beyond their initial routes, and now extend across every continent. In Asia, Africa and Europe, in order to maintain some semblance of social stability, cities have adopted smart surveillance systems, with cameras and facial-recognition algorithms operated by Chinese companies, which offer the best technologies in the industry. Port, airport and highway concessions soon followed, since China offers advantageous economic conditions to weakened states. Economic control over the most strategic roads and ports has gradually been paired with security controls. Security contractors from the People’s Republic are at every infrastructure checkpoint to ensure seamless traffic flows, while also allowing the government to track people and goods in real time. In addition to physical, technological and on-the-ground surveillance, a dense satellite belt allows for close-up monitoring from space. Some states have adopted the automated social credit system, which is now deployed and operated for free by Chinese tech giants.

In this context, China enjoys strong support in order to maintain political stability in certain strategic areas. Violent conflicts have grown increasingly rare under their omnipresent surveillance, leading some to proclaim a new era of pax sinica. This situation helps to maintain stable regimes, in order to supply China with raw materials and export its production. As such, Chinese standards have spread to its client states, willingly or by force: on the highways and railroads, long convoys can be seen travelling from one end of the continent to the other, transporting construction modules that are used to assemble standardised, factory-built buildings on-site, in record time. When the effects of climate change plunge certain parts of the world into chaos, all eyes turn to China, which then decides whether or not to provide its substantial aid, depending on its interests. Bailout plans for troubled regions are used to fund and implement a massive relocation of the population to newly developed—and surveilled—smart cities. Over the years, global food security has become a key issue, for which China offers its aid and its organisational, agricultural and geo-engineering capabilities (its rainfall monitoring techniques are widely used), in exchange for the local implementation of a birth-control plan in recipient states.

Scenario 3 – 2050: A new European Silk Road

By 2050, Europe has turned itself into a major power that rivals China, the United States, and other new forces. In the 2020s, Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis were a jolt to the system, along with the growing awareness of Europe’s dependency on international tech giants, as well as its vulnerability to disinformation campaigns. Europe then developed an ambitious plan to return to the international scene in force, while affirming its democratic values and resolving to protect the planet. New digital services companies were hurriedly put together, built on the principles of privacy and equal access to high-quality information. Existing European economic giants were consolidated and reoriented to focus on sustainable, low-carbon solutions for other regions around the world. In the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, some projects initially launched under the New Silk Road programme were modified or entirely revamped to account for the aspirations of the population or to focus on adapting locally to climate change; European companies participated in this concerted dialogue and became champions of regional resilience, using digital technology with restraint and good intentions.

But this struggle for influence between rival powers also creates its share of tensions, which take different forms depending on the local issues. Each region is pushed to choose a side or face sanction. Some try to strike a balance, like Singapore and Thailand, which fails after numerous political ups and downs: Thailand is overtaken by China’s influence with the construction of an Indo-Pacific canal in 2042, allowing Chinese vessels to bypass the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, which was finally absorbed into America’s zone of influence. Some states sink into violent influence conflicts, like Taiwan or Panama, while others choose to open themselves to Europe, thereby enjoying support for their democratic institutions, while also receiving advice and substantial investments to carry out an ecological transition and build up local resilience to increasingly frequent extreme weather events. Cyberattacks and digital sabotage disrupt a number of projects, while suspicious incidents regularly cut off logistics corridors, leading to supply disruptions that encourage local trade. The internet, once a single network, has partially splintered into multiple networks regulated by separate powers, travelling through parallel underwater cables under surveillance. Tensions also flare up over regions that produce strategic natural resources like rare metals, which each power needs to ensure its digital, political and industrial sovereignty.