The new Silk Road is a project unique in its size, which aims to better connect Europe and Asia by land and sea and to create infrastructure along the routes.
Many of the projects are financed and implemented by China itself.
Duisburg - When the containers are loaded onto ships on the Rhine in the port of Duisburg, they have traveled more than 11,000 kilometers by train from the factories in China.
Duisburg is one of the endpoints of the so-called New Silk Road, one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects of all time.
The official name of the project initiated by China is One Belt, One Road (one belt, one road / BRI).
More than 100 countries have signed cooperation agreements with the People's Republic for the construction of railway lines, roads, ports and airports.
The government in Beijing has announced around one trillion dollars for this comprehensive program by 2025.
She had already invested or firmly planned almost $ 730 billion by 2019.
The New Silk Road: The Background
In antiquity, the “Silk Road” was the name given to the caravan routes through which silk came from China to the western world and European goods were transported to the Far East.
The most famous route led from Istanbul and Damascus through Persia via the Pamir Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert to Xi'an, which was then one of the largest cities in the world - and in phases also the Chinese capital.
Less well known is the maritime Silk Road, on which ships sailed from Chinese ports along the Southeast Asian coast to India, Arabia and Africa.
With the beginning of the European conquests in Asia from the 15th century and the growing maritime trade, the decline of the Silk Road as a trade route began until it was completely forgotten.
The Chinese government's “One Belt, One Road” project is now often referred to as the new Silk Road, as it ties in with the idea of overland freight transport between China and Europe.
Just as the old Silk Road comprised several caravan and sea routes, the new Silk Road also consists of a whole network of different traffic routes.
The name One Belt, One Road refers to the two main corridors.
Silk Road Economic Belt
The Silk Road Economic Belt describes the land routes that start from China and run through Asia and all the way to Europe.
In total, the New Silk Road consists of six different corridors:
China - Laos - Thailand - Malaysia - Singapore - Indonesia
China - Myanmar - Bangladesh - India
China - Pakistan
China - Mongolia - Russia
China - Kyrgyzstan - Uzbekistan - Turkmenistan - Iran - Turkey
China - Kazakhstan - Russia - Ukraine / Belarus - Poland - Slovakia - Germany
Maritime Silk Road
The sea routes of the Maritime Silk Road follow their ancient models and are also divided into several routes:
China - Vietnam - Singapore - Myanmar
China - Philippines
China - Singapore - Malaysia
China - Indonesia - Malaysia - Singapore - Thailand
China - Cambodia - Thailand
China - Malaysia - Pakistan - India - Sri Lanka
China - United Arab Emirates - Iraq
China - Djibouti - Saudi Arabia - Sudan
China - Greece - Italy - France - Spain
Many of the countries involved are expanding their infrastructure themselves, while others have completely leased important ports to China. The Middle Kingdom invested heavily, especially in Africa, in order to bind as many states on the resource-rich continent as possible. The result was a railway line between the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa, in which a new port is also being built. Little Djibouti is even hoping to become the Singapore of Africa with China's help. The Chinese financed a new port and a railway line to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. China also established its first overseas military base there. The country is thus in good company: The USA, France and Japan also use Djibouti as a military base to combat piracy in the Horn of Africa.
The New Silk Road in Europe
In Europe, too, China has invested large sums in the One Belt, One Road project.
The main ports for the Maritime Silk Road are Piraeus in Greece, Trieste in Italy and Sines in Portugal.
Trieste in particular plays a major role in the economic zone in Central Europe known as the “Blue Banana”.
This includes a banana-shaped corridor from southern England via the Benelux region, western Germany and Switzerland to northern Italy.
The transport via Trieste instead of northern ports such as Rotterdam and Hamburg shortens the delivery time from Shanghai by ten days and from Hong Kong by nine days.
For Germany, the course of the new Silk Road overland is of greater importance.
The new or second Eurasian Continental Bridge was built as early as 1990, a 10,780 kilometer long railway line through Central Asia, which complements the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.
This is known today as the north-northwest corridor.
The main line of the Trans-Siberian Railway has been running from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast since 1904.
An offshoot leads from this route to Harbin in northeast China, from where there is a direct connection to Beijing, other northern Chinese cities and Korea.
Another route branches off east of Irkutsk to the south and leads through Mongolia to Beijing.
New Silk Road: The Trans-Eurasia-Express from China to Germany
In 2008, Germany, Russia and China agreed a joint venture between Deutsche Bahn, Russian RZD and the Chinese China Railway Corporation to build a new railway line. In the beginning, this was mostly meant when people spoke of the New Silk Road in Germany. In 2010 the first freight trains started operating on the route between Moscow and the Rhine port of Duisburg, followed by regular connections through Central Asia to Chongqing on the Yangtze in western China in 2012.
Currently, the vast majority of goods transport between China and Germany is still by sea. However, the volume on the railways is growing from year to year. Due to the higher costs and faster pace, the new Silk Road is mainly used for urgent products such as spare parts and groceries. In addition to the higher costs, one problem for the attractiveness of the rail is the loss of time due to the different track gauges in Russia and Western Europe or China. At the moment the containers still have to be reloaded at the border between China and Kazakhstan and Belarus and Poland.
Germany still benefits from the new train connection. In Duisburg, for example, the number of jobs at the port company has quintupled since 1998. A whole new industry was created around the freight trains arriving from China, which not only creates jobs, but also flushes taxes into the clammy coffers of the Ruhr area city.
The EU, the USA and also the G7 group of the largest industrialized countries now want to initiate huge infrastructure programs themselves in response to the New Silk Road.
The EU is working on what is known as a connectivity strategy which, among other things, aims to promote digitization in poorer countries.
At their summit in Great Britain in June 2021, the G7 also decided on an infrastructure program for the world called Build Back Better World, which could amount to hundreds of billions of US dollars.
Exact financial commitments have not yet been made there, however.
The New Silk Road in Debate
However, the new Silk Road has been criticized from several quarters. On the economic side, many experts fear that it will be too dependent on China. They see the One Belt, One Road project primarily as a demonstration of power and as an approach to gain global influence. Countries not only in Africa had to borrow for Chinese investments. Djibouti, which dreams of new wealth as a trading center with China's help, is in the chalk with its partner from the Far East with 1.4 billion US dollars.
On the other hand, there are many proponents of the new Silk Road.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they feared a one-sided dominance of the economic power USA, which is now being balanced out again.
Not surprising: especially in countries that are skeptical of the USA, approval of cooperation with China is high.
In Pakistan, China has already invested US $ 60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of the Silk Road project, and the Gwadar free port.
This secures China easier access to the oil ports of the Middle East.
The New Silk Road and the Environment
A major problem in connection with many of the New Silk Road projects is their environmental damage. The huge infrastructure projects such as roads and railways, new ports and pipelines could destroy numerous nature reserves. A WWF report indicated that the construction corridors overlap with 1,739 key biodiversity areas. This includes areas that are home to 265 threatened species, including 39 critically endangered species. China is also promoting the construction of coal-fired power plants in some countries - despite global efforts to protect the climate.
Proponents of the new Silk Road hope, however, that participating countries such as Germany, but also China itself, will seize the opportunity to present themselves as pioneers of a paradigm shift. The One Belt, One Road project could thus become a model for sustainable development in global freight transport.