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China reaches into Central Asia’s Silk Road past to build strategic ties of the future

  • Beijing is aiming for stronger relations in the region by harnessing historic bonds of the ancient trade route

  • Region is key to China’s massive belt and road infrastructure and investment projects

By Laura Zhou

June 28, 2023

Illustration: Brian Wang

When Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out the red carpet for five regional leaders at the first China-Central Asia summit last month, the event was replete with historic symbols of the Silk Road.

Billed as the country’s “first major diplomatic event” of the year, the summit was held in the city of Xian, the ancient capital of China during the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the start of the Silk Road.

Few symbols from history underline China’s contribution to ancient civilisations more than the Silk Road, a vast network of trade routes that connected China to societies in the Mediterranean region and Europe for 1,400 years. Today, the heritage of those transport links is being revived for a new purpose and showcased in Central Asia.

Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, hosted a grand welcome ceremony for the Central Asian leaders at Tang Paradise, a large theme park featuring buildings and gardens that incorporates elements of the Tang dynasty (618-907BC), when the ancient Silk Road was at its peak.

As Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative – a massive modern-day infrastructure and investment project that borrows from the themes of the Silk Road – enters its 10th year, Beijing seems increasingly inclined to tap the shared regional heritage as a powerful symbol of China’s ties in Central Asia.

“China wants to send a clear signal to the Central Asian countries that this is the historic bond we should cherish and we should revive together,” said Yu Hong, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.

“By stressing the ancient bonds of the Silk Road, China also wants to strengthen its ties with Central Asia while further pushing forward the Belt and Road,” he added. After the summit, China’s foreign ministry published a “list of achievements” by the six leaders that included cooperation and partnerships in dozens of areas, including infrastructure, energy and security. Among them, the list called for “cooperation in joint archaeology, cultural heritage conservation and restoration, museum exchanges and the recovery and return of lost cultural objects” with Central Asia.

Tim Winter, a senior research fellow with the NUS’ Asia Research Institute, said the Silk Road seemed to have become an important platform for promoting the idea of shared futures that were built on shared past.

“The historical connections between China and Central Asia also are an attempt to open up the institutional and people-people forms of connectivity beyond just infrastructure and trade. This also helps communicate to Chinese citizens the importance of regional engagement to the future development of China,” he said.

Winter, an expert on heritage diplomacy, said the fields of archaeology, anthropology and architectural conservation, had formed the basis of understanding of Silk Road history.

“Heritage is not just about building ties over the cultural past, the Silk Road is about connecting histories and futures,” Winter said.

Coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, the term “Silk Road” was first used to describe the 7,000 miles, or 11,265km, of routes, along which valuable commodities such as silk, porcelain, jade, gunpowder, livestock, grapes and figs were traded between China and Rome.

But beyond commerce, the Silk Road has also provided captivating stories of adventure as well as fascinating exchanges across diverse religions and cultures.

At the heart of the route was Central Asia, home to present-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The region was a crossroads for merchants travelling between China, Persia, India and the Roman Empire. Traders passed through bustling cities, like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, which were famous for exotic bazaars filled with silk, spices, precious metals, gems and other goods.

In 2013, during a speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan on his first overseas trip as China’s president, Xi first proposed the infrastructure and investment plan that would become known as the Belt and Road Initiative – a blueprint to promote Chinese economic cooperation and connectivity with countries in Eurasia and beyond.

Over the last decade, Central Asia has emerged as an integral arena for the belt and road strategy. According to official Chinese data, in 2020, more than 60 per cent of Chinese investment in Central Asia was related to infrastructure, and in 2022, China’s trade with the region reached a record of US$70.2 billion.

However, questions have emerged about China’s loans and investments in Central Asia, where Beijing has had to contend with a host of problems, including corruption, environmental damage, and fears that China will take control of land, natural resources and job opportunities.

Playing up ancient bonds could help ease those concerns, according to Yu, in Singapore.

“Many people in Central Asia are very familiar with the concept of the Silk Road,” he said. “They tend to be more accepting of the concept of the belt and road if you put it that way that it is the modern version of the historical Silk Road.”

Throughout the Soviet era, many archaeologists were deployed to uncover the history of the Russian steppe.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, large-scale research projects stalled as the number of experts dwindled, and technology and funding sources dried up.

Yang Shu, head of the Institute for Central Asian Studies at Lanzhou University, said a deeper archaeological collaboration could also help Central Asian countries better understand their own histories.

“The archaeological evidence is most convincing because you can’t make it up,” Yang said.

“Such cooperation could not only help Chinese better understand Central Asia, but would be a great benefit to Central Asia’s own historical development.”

In 2000, Chinese archaeologists began conducting field research in Central Asia, and in 2012, a joint team of Chinese and Uzbek archaeologists started surveys and excavations at the site of the ancient city of Mingtepa in Uzbekistan, work that Chinese media said was intended “to study the civilisational processes of ancient cities and the cultural lineages and routes of the ancient Silk Road”.

Mingtepa, which flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD, was an important commercial and cultural centre on the Silk Road, and is believed to have been the nearest ancient city in Uzbekistan to China.

In April, China announced the opening of the Silk Road Archaeological Cooperative Research Centre in Xian. According to Shaanxi Daily, Chinese archaeologists were expected to begin expeditions to the Ferghana Valley this year.

As a well-known trade hub in Central Asia during the Silk Road era, the Ferghana Valley was a key transit point for Chinese silk and other luxury goods destined for Mediterranean and European markets.

The valley played a particularly significant role in a chapter of Chinese history. In 138BC, during the Han dynasty, Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, who was dispatched to establish diplomatic relations and open trade routes with the people of Central Asia, ended up spending a decade there after being captured and detained by a tribe of the Xiongnu nomadic people.

According to historical records, Zhang married a Xiongnu woman and learned about the culture, economy and trade routes of the region before eventually making his way back to China. His valuable experience and information about the region helped in preparations for future diplomatic missions throughout Central Asia.

It was also in the Ferghana Valley that Zhang discovered the Ferghana horse, a breed known for its speed, endurance and agility. The horses were introduced to the Chinese imperial court, and were believed to have played a crucial role in military campaigns to defeat the Xiongnu, which eventually helped to cement China’s status as a dominant power in the region.


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