Part I  (Click for Part II)

By Yasemin Dobra-Manço

The following article was published in The Yangtze Review: A Journal of Contemporary China Studies, Issue 2, Spring 2015 (San Francisco: Long River Press), pp 39-49. The  article is based on a paper entitled "Safeguarding Maritime Heritage: from Fort Ross to the Eurasian Silk Road" presented by the author in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Second International Congress of Eurasian Maritime History, organized by the Historical and Cultural Center, Lichnost Peterburga, and the International Association of Maritime Studies at Piri Reis University in Istanbul, July 22-25, 2014.

A new era of soft-power competition has been ignited by the People’s Republic of China as its contemporary outward-looking economic and foreign policy initiatives are implemented. According to Chinese officials, in this new era China will be playing a more proactive role in shaping the future economic development of Asia, as well as the global economy. This new visible foreign policy arises out of China’s development vision of a rejuvenated land and maritime Silk Road which can provide new opportunities for local, regional and international initiatives. These unprecedented foreign policy goals will also enable China to employ soft power and cultural diplomacy to promote an image of China as a benevolent, responsible global player. With the skilful development of cultural diplomacy, as one aspect of China’s public diplomacy-based strategy, China may develop a distinctive approach to find strategies to satisfy human needs, according to its principles, values and ideology. This emerging process, based on China’s understanding of its interests, will also be founded on China’s international objectives and aspirations for world order. Understanding how China will seek to implement its worldview during this point in history launches a new area of scholarly study.

The recent Boao Forum for Asia in March 2015 clearly demonstrates China’s intent to expand its influence throughout Asia and the world. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has described the above initiatives as a "central focus" of China’s foreign policy in the year 2015. The announcements of the "New Silk Road Economic Belt" and "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" (collectively termed the "One Belt One Road," or OBOR initiative) began to be extensively discussed by policymakers, think-tanks, the media, and in academia after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013. The newly established Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is part of China’s opening-up strategy linked to its foreign policy, has also become a top priority of the Chinese government and has attracted considerable global interest. As a case in point, 57 countries in 2015 have sought to be founding members of the AIIB, despite differences in social systems, ideology and U.S. concerns that the bank may become an arm of China’s foreign policy.

In the last two years, China has also successfully set up the USD 50 billion Shanghai-based New Development Bank (NDB) created by the five emerging economies of China, Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa, and established the China-financed USD 40-billion New Silk Road Fund. It has been estimated that China will invest USD 1.25 trillion abroad by 2025. Thus, China has drawn attention and enthusiasm from a vast geographic area, stretching across Eurasia, from the Far East and Central Asia, to the Middle East and Africa, and across the Western Pacific to Latin America, where China has made infrastructure investments, provided loans, and focused on commercial ties with nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. Recently, China’s ability to foster relations with resource-rich developing countries was observed in its bilateral relations with Pakistan when China pledged USD 46 billion worth of energy and infrastructure projects.

These agreements and investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are seen to be a major manifestation of the OBOR initiative which will create a network of roads, railways and pipelines linking Kashgar in China’s western province of Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Gwadar Portand, and enable China to have easier access to the Arabian Sea. China is working to develop other economic corridors with Central Asia and Europe, as evidenced by its newly opened landmark railway that links the Iberian Peninsula to China. Plans for Africa are ongoing, while proposals for other continents emerge from China, such as a Eurasian-North American transcontinental railway system that connects China, Russia, Canada and America via the Bering Strait. China is also in the process of developing a mega waterway project to link the Pacific and Atlantic through a new shipping canal across Nicaragua. Although China is a not an Arctic nation, Chinese news sources have reported that China’s Jilin province may be involved in opening a new ocean route passing from the North Pacific Ocean island of Sakhalin, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Bering Strait, and Arctic Ocean to reach Norway, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other European countries. Other news reports have been highlighting China’s interest in Antarctica.

From an economic perspective, China’s growing influence will open new doors to regional markets and build on the cumulative benefits of China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization. China can further seek to expand its economic influence by its ability to act in the international arena through forums and organizations, such as the United Nations (U.N.), Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and International Maritime Organization, the European Union, the Group of Twenty, the BRICS grouping, and the newly created Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.

As a major foreign policy goal, China inevitably will need to create cooperative partnerships to support its regional and global cultural diplomacy strategies with the aim to strengthen China economically, politically, and militarily. The success of Chinese leaders’ efforts to establish productive bilateral and multilateral cooperation, along with its image-making strategies, will depend on effective policies, as well as on China’s domestic situation, credibility and international standing.

Since its founding, the foreign policy formation of the People’s Republic has largely been shaped by two legendary statesmen, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. However, after fifty decades of cultivating "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" and a style of low profile diplomacy, a more assertive foreign policy approach has emerged with a noticeably bolder Chinese posture. It seems for China, the time has come to be bold and attractive, while offering economic incentives for managing international issues for the benefits of cooperation and the pursuit of Chinese interests on a global scale.

In light of the above, China has increasingly emphasized the importance it gives to respecting the diversity of civilizations and has called for dialogue and mutual learning. Chinese officials have stressed that because the planned 21st century Silk Road initiatives not only concern trade and commodities, but also involve cultural collaboration and people-to people exchanges, China is eager to apply its will and ambition to create opportunities to enhance communication and dialogue. While these initiatives aim to improve connectivity between nations and enhance people’s lives, China maintains that by focusing on wide consultation, mutual contribution and shared benefits, the common development needs of countries with different ethnicities, religions and cultures can increasingly be met.

At the Boao Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed that a conference of dialogue among Asian civilizations be held to provide a platform upon which to enhance interactions among the youth, people’s groups, local communities, the media, and to form a network of think-tank cooperation so as to enrich Asian people’s cultural life and contribute to more vibrant regional cooperation and development. These proposals follow an appeal made from China’s president in 2014 for new types of think tanks to improve governance and enhance China’s soft power, so as to further China’s interests through culture, media and academia.

Such statements reveal that China is seeking to rise as a leader of cultural diplomacy, not solely for its own benefit, but as a world leader that encourages ways of examining how new forms of global interaction might lead to developing effective and peaceful responses to disagreements and challenges. These new forms of interaction may arise out of the China-led Silk Road development vision which can provide new opportunities for local, regional and international initiatives. Most importantly, these developments will improve people’s lives, while also improving transportation, communications, shipping, port facilities, railways, highways, logistics, and the physical infrastructure that is necessary for regional cooperation and closer cultural, economic, political relations.

Chinese officials have pointed out that a path of development for regional integration needs to be found which is suitable to the whole region, and is based on cultural understanding that can overcome political misconceptions that exist between countries in order to cultivate a community with a sense of common destiny. The Silk Road initiatives in this respect are a key to embracing different societal values, as the concept of a common destiny becomes ever more important to global interaction and peace. The need to spread tolerance and understanding of cultural diversity is not only in the interests of regional development in Asia, but also is essential to counter polarization and extremism between cultures and religions.

In an increasingly globalized world, China and world leaders need insight on how the world’s citizens not only see cultural heritage from their own perspective, but also from the perspectives of others. With increased appreciation of the diversity of cultures, the world’s youth in particular will be better prepared to discuss complex relationships of common social, ecological, environmental, political, scientific and economic issues, so as to derive new ways of thinking and acting.

In terms of China, countries along the Belt and Road can serve as connections for China to exercise its soft-power diplomacy and economic influence. Over time, China will have increased means to transmit Chinese culture, ideology, traditions, language, political and social values, historic perspectives, and aspects of national identity to these nations as it aims to strengthen societal relationships and enhance socio-cultural cooperation.

Thus, Chinese foreign policy and Silk Road initiatives can spur cultural diplomacy which can improve mutual understanding between countries, and reduce the potential for conflict while they seek to promote stable development. If multilateral approaches are successful, these initiatives can also enhance the interests of individual nations, and not just serve China’s interests, as reflected in the supportive statement of a U.N. official. On April 9, 2015, Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary-general of the U.N., stated that China’s Belt and Road initiative fits well in building up infrastructure and in helping fulfil U.N. goals. Commending China’s multilateralism as a major part of its foreign policy, he called on countries to embrace "an international solution" in today’s interconnected world, which is in the national interests of member states.

Another means for China to further improve its international image and cultural diplomacy efforts will be through support for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), especially because UNESCO has included the eastern sections of the Silk Road and Yuan Dynasty sea routes on its World Heritage List (WHL).

This new development regarding maritime and cultural heritage protection along the Silk Routes was announced in June 2014 in Qatar when UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee for the first time added a section of the Silk Road to its WHL. This initial section of the Silk Road, now known as the Routes Network of Tian Shan Corridor, crosses through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China (the three nations that jointly applied for the nomination). Being the first Silk Road heritage site in the world, it is considered a milestone which has laid a valuable foundation for the future nomination of other routes. The section is about 5,000 kilometres long and consists of 33 historical sites along the route, including 22 in China, 8 in Kazakhstan, and 3 in Kyrgyzstan. The sites range from historic buildings located in cities, to ruins in remote and inaccessible deserts.

Highlighting the cultural value of the Silk Road, UNESCO declared that the outstanding universal value of these routes is not only found in the cultural elements such as towns, villages, historic buildings, docks, bridges, and post houses, but also in the ecological natural elements along these routes, such as mountains, lands, rivers, and plants. The expansion of 21st century trade and economic ties between the continents of the world via the maritime Silk Road will also draw attention to UNESCO’s interest in maritime heritage and underwater archaeology, and the protection of ports, shipyards, lighthouses, fortifications, naval and nautical artefacts, and underwater shipwrecks.

Due to the new concept of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and the UNESCO decision to add the eastern sections of the Silk Road to the WHL, scholarly interest has already intensified to re-examine sea and land routes, and to better understanding the history of the cultures along these networks which evolved and transformed over millennia.

According to UNESCO’s description of the eastern section of the Silk Road, these routes are defined as the "Routes Network of Chang’an-Tian Shan Corridor," which comprises a 5,000 kilometre section of the extensive Silk Roads network, stretching from Chang’an/Luoyang, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang Dynasties, to the Zhetysu Region of Central Asia. The routes network took shape between the 2nd century BCE and 1st century CE and remained in use until the 16th century. The network linked multiple civilizations and facilitated far-reaching exchanges of activities in trade, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, innovation, cultural practices and the arts. The 33 components in the routes network include capital cities and palace complexes of various empires and Khan kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of The Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings.

Engagement with local heritage sites often enables citizens to be connected to deep-rooted traditions and to contribute to the prosperity, economic growth and development of their communities, while also acquiring an opportunity to better understand the history and the development of their nation. Because nations around the world have different traditions, values and attitudes, collaboration will require an appreciation of cultural diversity. In addition to the economic considerations, Chinese officials have stressed that national perspectives will be taken into consideration as important aspects of the China-led concepts, as well as different concerns and visions of nations.

International relations with local populations will inevitably play a major role in the development of large multinational projects because infrastructural developments ideally should be combined with local development initiatives and plans. This is especially important since local communities are increasingly concerned about the preservation of their identity and their resources. International interest in Silk Road heritage sites may therefore at times give rise to tension as communities will be competing for new forms of recognition, the acknowledgement of their existence, history and values. For non-Westerners, the difficulties of operating in a "Western" cultural tradition could also be a problem that might be faced by local heritage projects that are conceived in the West for the Silk Road. A concept promoting Asian-style multilateralism, where Asians are the primary decision-makers, is also a topic of debate. While these discussions and debates pose challenges, they also serve as reminders to communities that as they develop a deeper appreciation of their heritage, they must learn to work in a spirit of international cooperation developed in line with international practices.

As populations increasingly fear the deterioration of their heritage, and large-scale investments that may alter their traditional culture and way of life, international cooperation with UNESCO can to some degree counter these fears. Many UNESCO designated national and regional heritage sites have demonstrated that they have not threaten traditional lifestyles, or put local culture in jeopardy, especially due to the involvement of national governments who need to be accountable to the public. There are many examples of rural areas where the tourism industry has served the public good, revitalized economies, generated income for businesses, and created employment for local residents.

Global concerns are also increasing regarding environmental protection and the impact of climate change on cultural heritage sites. These concerns will require active engagement with the leaders of initiatives in order to formulate environmentally sound policies, and to ensure that projects are committed to protecting the invaluable property of nations and the common property of humanity.

Furthermore, attention must be given to the protection of Silk Road "intangible cultural heritage." The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Emphasis is increasingly being placed on confronting the threats to intangible cultural heritage, which includes living traditions that have been passed from one generation to the next. This includes living history, such as oral histories.

Therefore, cultural heritage is not solely defined by physical heritage resources, but also encompasses valuable, but often unseen, parts of cultural heritage known as intangible cultural heritage. Local communities play a crucial role in meeting the threats to intangible heritage, and in understanding the relationship that intangible heritage has to the everyday lives of people. These valuable aspects of heritage can also contribute to the cultural diplomacy efforts of nations by showcasing traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, traditional song and dance, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

The author would like to bring to attention the notion of maritime heritage which can be viewed as a broad legacy that includes not only physical resources, such as historic shipwrecks or prehistoric archaeological sites, but also archival documents, knowledge of traditional seafaring, and the scientific, local or folk knowledge of indigenous cultures. International cooperation for cultural heritage preservation that includes intangible heritage and national treasures along the Belt and Road should therefore be supported by local and cooperative partnerships.

Over many decades, China and the international community have gained experience in dealing with the delicate issues of cultural heritage. Contemporary international heritage preservation interest in the Silk Road began in 1988-1997, when UNESCO launched the "Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue" as part of the World Decade for Cultural Development. This vast project consisted of the study of land and sea routes which linked East and West, and other routes which transported goods, promoted important cultural and scientific exchanges, and acted as bridges between many civilizations.

Contemporary commercial interest in these routes was generated when discussions began in the early 1990s, with a European call for a New Silk Road that would connect Europe with Central Asia via an International Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), which was followed by U.S. interest that intensified in the late 1990s.

It was during this period that UNESCO began encouraging countries located along the Silk Road to cooperate for nominations for World Heritage status. After 2006, China began working with other Central Asia countries to apply for WHL status for the Silk Road but due to academic disputes over the network of overland routes, progress was not made until the next decade when the academic struggle to some extent was overcome. Since the beginning of 2014, after the decision by UNESCO to include the eastern section of the Silk Road on the WHL, China made a major effort to provide guidance and a spirit of leadership to realize projects of common interest, and has brought to attention the fact that China has two millennia of experience in trade, foreign relations and exploration along the Silk Road.

The opening up of the "Silk Road" is widely agreed to have originated twenty centuries after the arrival of the first Chinese mission to the West. The Han Dynasty is often credited with the birth of the Silk Road, when Chinese envoys sought to learn the geography of the regions beyond China, and as a result of their explorations, the Han Dynasty opened-up to trade with the territories west of China during the 2nd century BCE. Based on historical records, the development of these networks of routes arose from the missions and explorations of the imperial envoy Zhang Qian. During the 15th century Ming Dynasty, records of the maritime voyages of China’s navigator Admiral Zheng He, document the opening of the maritime Silk Road to Chinese exploration.

The phrase "Silk Road" is a Western term derived from the literal translation of the German "Seidenstraße," and was coined by the German geographer, cartographer and explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. It is a misleading term due to the fact that no single road has ever existed. It now generally refers to the trade networks that have linked the Asian and Mediterranean worlds since antiquity, often involving both maritime and land routes, and is used as a metaphor for the exchange of knowledge and ideas among diverse groups of people.

One of the reasons for the decline of the Silk Road was due to decreased trade over the land routes, and an increase in transcontinental sea trade. It was during the 15th century, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire that the most direct trade routes between Europe and Asia came under Turkish control, and also in this century that Portugal became the first country that successfully circumnavigated Africa, enabling the Portuguese to sail across the Indian Ocean. European voyages of discovery by the Spanish, English, Dutch, and French resulted in growing competition and conflicts over the control of trade routes and goods.

Click for Part II