China is investing billions in building pathways to Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
The Silk Road was established during the Han dynasty, beginning around 130 B.C. Markets and trading posts were strung along a loose skein of thoroughfares that ran from the Greco-Roman metropolis of Antioch, across the Syrian desert, through modern-day Iraq and Iran, to the former Chinese capital of Xian, streamlining the transport of livestock and grain, medicine and science. In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced that the Silk Road would be reborn as the Belt and Road Initiative, the most ambitious infrastructure project the world has ever known—and the most expensive. Its expected cost is more than a trillion dollars. When complete, the Belt and Road will connect, by China’s accounting, sixty-five per cent of the world’s population and thirty per cent of global G.D.P. So far, sixty-eight countries have signed on.
If bridges, pipelines, and railroads are the arteries of the modern world, then China is positioning itself as the beating heart. Since 2013, it has loaned about forty billion dollars a year to developing countries, according to David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Some analysts worry that China is delivering the money without the World Bank’s required protections for the environment and for people uprooted by major infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, said that he and other leaders in the region embrace the benefits. “The Chinese are going to grow their influence,” he said, at a recent session of the Council on Foreign Relations. “And this is one coherent framework within which the Asian countries—Central Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian—can participate in this.”
Like most Chinese official-speak, the phrase “Belt and Road” obscures more than it clarifies: the “belt” will be composed of land routes running from China to Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Middle East; the “road” refers to shipping lanes connecting China to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In the fall, the photographer Davide Monteleone traced stretches of one of the land routes, travelling from Yiwu, in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, to Khorgos, home to one of the world’s largest dry ports, and to Aktau, in Kazakhstan, on the Caspian Sea. Few of the Chinese whom Monteleone encountered, from shopkeepers to restaurant owners to railwaymen, had much interest in the Belt and Road Initiative. “What concerns us is what puts money in our pocket tomorrow, not an abstraction three, five years from now,” a worker in Lanzhou New Area, in northwestern China, told Monteleone.
In Chongqing, an inland city of eight million, and “kilometre zero” of a new international railway, Monteleone rode a ferry on the Yangtze River, in order to capture a panorama of the city. “It’s dazzling, foggy, monstrous, compressed, and expansive,” he told me. Fifty-one towers have been built in the past three years. Looking at Monteleone’s photographs, I tried to find a familiar shape in the neon skyline of the city where I was born, but I recognized nothing, except the dark waters of the Yangtze, rippling in the foreground.