I often ask my students: imagine your day if there were no electricity. The iPhone would be useless; there might be difficulties getting to the university; the lecture theatre would be plunged into darkness; there would be insufficient light to study and no TV in the evening.
At a second level, a whole range of consumer goods, including books and newspapers, would disappear. The Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) investment in electricity provision literally empowers the people whose lives are transformed as a result.
The second effect I would highlight is trade facilitation. In the United Kingdom there is a saying that “time is money”. The more time it takes to move goods, the more costly they will be, and less trade will be the result.
Building new infrastructure is one way to improve the situation, but the China-Europe freight trains point to another way to achieve the same result. By improving logistics and smoothing customs procedures, China and its trading partners have demonstrated a less costly way to achieve the same result.
In an interview, Jean Monnet, the Father of the European Union, once said that a civilisation needs rules and without rules that everyone accepts, you have nothing.
Looking outside the framework of my own work, I would say that the biggest contribution is China’s support for a rule-based international order, especially at a time when it is under so much threat.
A book I wrote, Revitalising the Silk Road, has been well received and is being used in university courses. I wrote the book because, at the time, there was much speculation and debate about the (hidden) motives behind the launch of the BRI but not much was written about what was actually happening on the ground – the roads, railways, ports and pipelines.
I have been working at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) since last July. The institute itself is designed to encourage dialogue on current issues by connecting researchers around the world. I was asked to set up a research project that I called the New Silk Roads to embrace China’s BRI. When we announced the project to IIAS members, we received more than 700 respondents from 77 countries who wanted to work with us.
Two years ago, I was honoured to be invited to the first Belt and Road Forum for International Co-operation. I hope to attend the forum again this year – I have already accepted the invitation to attend the international think tank that accompanies the main forum. It was impressive to see many of the world’s leaders supporting messages of international co-operation.
Let me plead for my own little dream. I want a virtual Silk Roads museum. It would cover the routes of the ancient Silk Roads, starting with the epochs of their greatest civilisations. The museum would include 3D views of historical artifacts as well as examples of poetry, drama, literature, dance and music. It would tell of ancient societies and cultures, of the ideals that inspired them.
Let it help us rediscover the humanity that unites mankind along the vast, endless stretch of the New Silk Roads.