In a recent article on relations between China and India by the historian Srinath Raghavan, I was struck by the following line: “Not since the late 19th century has infrastructure been so prominent an issue in great power relations.” Raghavan had in mind the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s new alternative to the Asian Development Bank, which will be used to fund projects such as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt. China presents them as futuristic projects that exemplify a “win-win” logic in international relations. But perhaps, as Raghavan’s reference to the late nineteenth century suggests, they are more old-fashioned and zero-sum than China’s liberal rhetoric suggests. In particular, the Silk Road Economic Belt – which will run from China through Central Asia to Europe – reminds me of nothing so much as the Berlin-Baghdad railway.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to transform Germany, by then already the dominant power in continental Europe, into a global power with the resources to rival the British empire, Russia and the United States. As part of this new Weltpolitik, Germany planned to build a railway linking Berlin with Constantinople and Mesopotamia – then part of the Ottoman empire – and eventually the Persian Gulf. The railway would cut the time it took to transport raw materials for Germany’s rapidly growing industry, which until then had travelled by sea. Some even saw it as a new Silk Road. But it would also displace British influence in the Middle East (the term was itself coined by Alfred Thayer Mahan in response to the German railway plan) and reduce Germany’s vulnerability to a naval blockade by the Royal Navy. The railway could ultimately be used to transport troops in wartime as well as goods in peacetime.
The comparison between the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Berlin-Baghdad railway fits into what Edward Luttwak has called the “inevitable analogy” between imperial Germany at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century and China now. The basis of the analogy (“Germany’s past, China’s future?”) is geopolitics: China now, like Germany then, is a rising Eurasian land power that is developing naval capabilities and challenging the pre-eminent naval power of the day (Britain then, the United States now). In particular, analysts such as James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara have compared the development of the PLA navy with that of the German imperial navy from 1898 onwards. But, while building a fleet, Germany also sought to extend its influence throughout the Eurasian landmass as well – as China is now also doing with the Silk Road Economic Belt.
As in Germany at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, there is in Chinese strategic thinking today a tension between the projection of power by land and by sea. “Navalist” strategists such as Admiral Yang Yi argue that sea power is essential for China’s rise. But others such as Wang Jisi have argued that China should “rebalance” its foreign policy by focusing on the area from Central Asia to the Middle East – in other words, land power. Precisely because the expansion of its naval capabilities is increasing tensions with the United States, China should “march west” – in other words, “pivot” to the area from which the United States is perceived to be “retreating”. This could help make relations between China the United States less competitive and more co-operative – for example around counter-terrorism – and offer Beijing additional strategic leverage against Washington.
The analogy with the Berlin-Baghdad railway suggests that the Silk Road is a strategic project, with implications for the balance of power in Asia, rather than simply a “win-win” economic project as it is presented by China. The thinking behind the Berlin-Baghdad railway was strategic as well as economic: it would cut trade costs but also strengthen Germany in strategic terms by displacing Britain in the Middle East. Similarly, as I have discussed elsewhere, the objective of the Silk Road is to increase China’s influence in Asia at the expense of the United States. The Silk Road Economic Belt may help develop central Asia (and China’s own western regions) – just the Berlin-Baghdad railway was meant to, and did to some extent, develop Anatolia and the Middle East. But at least in terms of China’s emerging strategic rivalry with the United States, the Silk Road is zero-sum.
The similarities between the Berlin-Baghdad railway and the Silk Road Economic Belt also suggest that “geo-economics” is perhaps not as new as it is sometimes claimed. Luttwak wrote of a post-war or post-Cold War displacement of military methods by the “methods of commerce” – “with disposable capital in lieu of firepower, civilian innovation in lieu of military-technical advancement, and market penetration in lieu of garrisons and bases” – even as international relations continued to follow a logic of conflict. But the Berlin-Baghdad railway illustrates the way that, even at the height of classical geopolitics at the beginning of twentieth century – the era of imperialism – states such as Germany were already using economic as well as military means to pursue strategic objectives. Conversely, infrastructure projects notwithstanding, the “methods of commerce” have not yet completely displaced military methods – as China’s military spending illustrates.