The imposing Sher-Dor Madrasah, sitting at the heart of the Registan in the center of the capital of the ancient Timurid Empire. (Photo by the author.)
Once the heart of the Timurid Empire, the city of Samarkand now sits in the middle of Uzbekistan, relegated to a splendid tourist attraction. Sitting atop the city with a clear view in every direction is the great astronomer Ulugh Beg's observatory, from where he mapped the stars while his grandfather's empire ebbed away.
Samarkand was at the heart of the ancient silk trading routes, which went cleanly around Russia, crossing Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran to reach Turkey and Europe's shores. Track forwards to today, and this straightforward route across the continent is being replicated by China. The first freight train left from Yiwu in China's Zhejiang province en route to Tehran in the wake of President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Iran.
Beijing, it seems, has the ancient silk routes in mind.
My recent visit to Uzbekistan was part of a longer trip that included stops in Islamabad, Beijing and finally Tashkent. With conferences and workshops at each stop, the goal was to understand China's Silk Road Economic Belt strategy from the ground up. This particular trip was aimed at trying to understand some of the recent shifts around the vision, now that President Xi has so clearly thrown his institutional weight behind it.
While no such trip is every wholly conclusive, I walked away with two clear impressions. First, in Pakistan, China is uncertain about how it is going to mitigate the complicated local political dynamics it is getting dragged into as local authorities quibble over where different strands of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) should go. Second, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan is hesitant to completely fall into China's embrace, but prefers it to Russia's entreaties.
The lesson from Tashkent was hammered home at Ulugh Beg's monumental observatory. Built in the 1400s, it was a testament to Timurid ambition. Inheriting a weak tribe, the great Timur the Lame turned their fortunes around and built an empire that spanned the ancient Silk Road from Beijing to Turkey's Asian shores. As our guide pointed out, this meant that he was able to levy taxes along the entire route. He left a mighty inheritance to his sons which meant his grandson, Ulugh Beg, could build his monument to the stars. The ancient routes brought prosperity, scientific advance and grandeur that lived through the ages.
Nowadays, Beijing's long-term ambitious are less clear, though the short-term direction is obvious. Having decided that China's west needs to be reconnected to the world, Beijing has poured massive investment into Xinjiang and across the border into Pakistan and Central Asia. While the exact route of the CPEC through Pakistan is not certain (hence the bickering in Islamabad), the general path, linking Kashgar to the seas, is clear. Similarly, in Uzbekistan, the plan to develop train lines from Tashkent through Ferghana to Kyrgyzstan points to a project that will help develop faster train links across Central Asia to China. And sending a train down the route from Yiwu to Tehran shows that these routes through the region exist already.
The loser in all of this Eurasian connectivity is Russia. A historical player in the region (and one which Timur attempted to dominate a number of times), Moscow has chosen to express itself through the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union, an attempt to re-create the Soviet economic space whereby fiscal rules and customs tariffs in the heart of Eurasia are determined by the Kremlin. But the EEU is largely seen as a paper tiger; policy-makers I spoke to in Beijing are uncertain it will survive. they point to tensions between powers in the Union (eg. blocked trade between Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia), and they say it seems unlikely the already faltering Kyrgyz or Armenian economies will welcome higher tariffs on their external trade while their domestic markets are opened up to Russian monopolies. Anyway, seen from Beijing, the single customs and trade bloc is actually a convenient trading and transit partner, offering one clear market from China's western borders to Europe's eastern flank.
Even if Moscow chooses to frustrate China's silk route strategy, the opening of Iran shows its increased viability. The ramifications are hard to predict. In ancient times, eventual overreach and imperial intrigue weakened the Timurids and they lost control of the Silk Road. Samarkand today is testament to their faded glories. For China, it may be too early to predict over-reach, but certainly the slowdown at home is having ramifications abroad.
Already, softening domestic gas needs have led to the suspension of the Line D gas line bringing hydrocarbons from Turkmenistan to China through Uzbekistan. In Pakistan, security concerns persist, but more intriguing is the possibility of China exploring opportunities in Chabahar, Iran, a port not far from Pakistan's Gwadar and in a far less sensitive part of the country, thereby suggesting a more convenient and cheap route to the seas.
While Chinese state planners declare there is room for all of these projects under President Xi's 'Belt and Road' vision, in truth it means China has options and has constructed a vision which can go in any direction it chooses. This keeps Beijing in the driving seat, careful not to over-promise to any one country while maintaining opportunities with all. It also provides Beijing with the perfect vehicle to keep its domestic capacity moving, with new markets and opportunities found over every hill and in every valley across its western borders.
The longer term problem for China is the responsibility that will eventually fall to it. While Beijing may see itself as a provider of goods and opener of markets, it is in reality reconnecting the continent in order to place itself at the heart of a new latticework of infrastructure and trade routes emanating from Urumqi. Not only is China going to be bound to these markets, it will also increasingly find itself in an awkward place when trying to sidestep involvement in local issues.
Already visible in Pakistan in complaints around routes planned by the CPEC, this haranguing is something which is going to become increasingly common as Chinese planners and builders find themselves marching into difficult places with no clear understanding of local dynamics. And while such complications can be sidestepped in distant Africa, in neighbouring Eurasia it has ramifications with direct links home.
In tracing the ancient Silk Road, China needs to find a way to navigate through the many cultures and civilisations that live along it. As China displaces Timur to become the guarantor of the ancient silk roads, the logic of non-interference can no longer hold.