China's OBOR Diplomacy & Silk Road Relations in the 21st Century

© 2016 Copyright Yasemin Dobra-Manço

As a new web of international relations is being spun by the China-led Silk Road initiatives, socio-political and economic transformations may have an impact on a wide-range of issues, ranging from regional integration and security, to enhanced cultural understanding. The purpose of this paper is to examine new opportunities that could promote the development of closer bilateral and regional relations with China. The aim is not to present the China-led initiatives in the framework of geopolitical rivalry, but instead to present them as an opportunity for coordinated cultural diplomacy efforts on the part of numerous nations to promote mutual understanding, international cooperation, and devise constructive solutions to problems faced by nations and international actors.

In June 2016, finance ministers from nearly 60 countries attended the first annual meeting of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development institution which will serve as the financing arm of a massive China-proposed global development program based on connectivity, known as The ‘One Belt-One Road’ (OBOR). This foreign economic policy initiative envisions vast projects estimated to be worth $890 billion (it is believed that China will invest USD 1.25 trillion abroad by 2025).

Since 2013, under China’s President Xi Jinping, this strategic framework has been put forward for building OBOR (which consists of both the "New Silk Road Economic Belt" and the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" – collectively termed OBOR), and is now viewed as one of the most consequential changes in Central Asian regional geopolitics since the turn of the century. Furthermore, China’s GDP has overtaken Japan’s to make it the largest economy in Asia and the second largest in the world, helping to reinforce its geopolitical regional footprint.

This period of power transformation which draws attention to China’s rising power status, may offer opportunities for closer China-Caspian-Central Asia relations, despite confrontations and disputes. However, as global institutions adapt and restructure to these changing times, the geopolitical landscape will be vulnerable to reconfigurations, competition for territory and resources, rivalry for control over geographical locations such as ports and harbours, as well as other sources of wealth and influence, such as land and maritime routes.

Yet, there is hope of cultivating mutually beneficial relations between nation-states and international institutions by means of China’s multi-directional ambitious foreign policy as a result of the mega-projects which are underway.


As a result of this unprecedented Silk Road revival, new forms of cultural-heritage awareness arising out of China’s cultural diplomacy and connectivity strategies can be built on mutually beneficial activities such as people-to-people exchanges, tourism, education, environmental protection, and cultural heritage preservation. This paper aims to underline the importance of such cooperation which can support, or be strengthened by, civil society participation in coordination with OBOR.

Since the announcement of OBOR, 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 the planned 21st century Silk Road initiatives not only concern trade and commodities, but also involve cultural collaboration. 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. Proposals have already been made to enhance interaction among the youth, local communities, the media, and academia by initiating the formation of think-tank networks to improve governance and cooperation so as to enrich people’s cultural life and contribute to more vibrant regional development.

The above proposals reveal that China is seeking to rise as a world leader of cultural diplomacy, to win hearts and minds with public diplomacy, not solely for its own benefit, but to encourage new forms of global interaction that might lead to effective and peaceful responses to disagreements. Most importantly, China emphasizes that the aim of these developments is to improve people’s lives, while also improving transportation, communications, shipping, port facilities, railways, highways, logistics, and the physical infrastructure that is necessary for regional and international cooperation.

Moreover, Chinese officials have stressed that the path of development for regional integration requires an understanding of cultural diversity that can overcome political misconceptions that exist between countries so as 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 and making the concept of a common destiny central to global interaction and peace. Thus, OBOR could be essential to countering polarization and extremism between cultures, religions and nations.


Emerging opportunities for cultural collaboration can be based on new developments, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) decision in 2014 to add the eastern sections of the Silk Road to its World Heritage List (WHL). This 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 United Nations recognized Silk Road heritage site in the world, it can be considered a milestone which has laid a valuable foundation for the future nomination of other Silk Road routes.

The inclusion of other Silk Road routes in the WHL, stretching from Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, the Turkic states, and north/south trade networks, can also be considered by UNESCO in future joint applications. A joint application could include the five Caspian Sea nations: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. Such an expansion of the list could include more sites near Caspian Sea coastlines, and ports along the maritime Silk Road. The designation of additional sites can include, but not be limited to the following: underwater archaeology, trading settlements, fortifications, naval and nautical artefacts, and underwater shipwrecks. Such recognition could further contribute to the protection of ecological natural elements along these routes, such as harbours, mountains, rivers, and plants. One site already on UNESCO’s WHL, and known for its outstanding universal value, is the Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower.

As global concerns are increasing regarding environmental protection and the impact of climate change on cultural heritage sites, partnerships will require active engagement with leaders at the local and national level in order to formulate environmentally sound policies, and to ensure that projects are committed to protecting the environment, which can be considered the common property of humanity.

Lastly, attention can be given to the protection of Silk Road "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, archival documents, knowledge of traditional seafaring, and the scientific, local or folk knowledge of indigenous cultures. By helping to understand the relationship that intangible heritage has to the everyday lives of people, cultural diplomacy can also be enhanced by showcasing traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, traditional song and dance, festive events, practices concerning nature and the universe, and skills used to produce traditional crafts.

A broader picture of cultural exchanges can include literature, music, language, the arts, film, theatre, fashion, and gastronomy. Science and technology projects, museum studies, heritage education, and international exchange programs can further support OBOR goals. For professionals from different fields, the sharing of experience and expertise, dissemination of scientific data, and collaboration with educational institutions is valuable. By developing ties between communities and international bodies, multinational partnerships will be strengthened by interaction with local populations. Interested parties will also need to collaborate closely with ministries of tourism, education, antiquities, culture, and foreign affairs.

Efforts to promote heritage advocacy can also include lobbying legislators, decision-makers, policy-makers, relevant agencies and authorities for implementing appropriate legislation that supports heightened environmental and cultural heritage awareness. Support can also be gained from universities, research institutes, educators, scholars, curators, conservationists, scientists, marine archaeologists, historians, economists, public officials, public relations and marketing professionals, public affairs specialists, mass communication experts, tour-operators, urban planners, cultural associations, artists, environmental groups, coalitions of local communities, non-governmental organizations, public-private sector entities, and business organizations.

Regarding inclusion in the WHL, once a site is designated, domestic and global attention rapidly follows, especially from the tourism sector and the media. After a site has been defined as a “World Heritage Site,” the resulting prestige helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for intensified heritage preservation. Generally, this leads to greater heritage advocacy and education, and a greater interest in safeguarding other sites. A country may also receive financial assistance and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee.

Because the identification of heritage sites for the WHL is a complicated process (with criteria and standards set by UNESCO), individual nations can themselves expand on their own national heritage lists. By doing so, communities can develop a deeper appreciation of their own heritage, find new ways to strengthen their economies, capitalize on tourism and formulate national heritage plans that bring international prestige and status. These initiatives can provide the international community with additional means to re-examine and better understand how Silk Road trade and national treasures, both of the past and present, continue to leave imprints upon the cultures that developed along interconnected trade networks.


Due to its unique geopolitical position and natural resources, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the role of the Caspian-Central Asian region in international affairs has increased considerably. In contrast, insufficient international attention has been given to the intangible and physical heritage of the region, where ancient cities thrived and empires extended east and west of the Caspian Sea. The five Caspian Sea littoral states, along with neighbouring nations, are closely bound by geography. The coastlines of these nations, which serve as a strategic bridge between Europe and western Asia, are also closely bound by geography and hold the largest landlocked body of water on Earth. The region also connects the maritime activities of the Persian Gulf with Europe and Central Asia. To the east, China is closely bound by geography to the Caspian-Central Asian region through land borders with 14 countries, in addition to China’s borders with its maritime neighbours.

Due to the struggle for geopolitical control of the vast oil and gas reserves of the Persian Gulf, Black Sea region, and areas of the Caspian Sea basin, the Caspian region is a main center of world geoeconomic and geopolitical competition. The energy supplies needed by Europe, China, Japan, the United States, and other nations, along with planned and existing oil and gas pipelines, increase the potential of conflict and threat to the environment.

Due to disputes between the five states bordering the Caspian over where to demarcate the maritime borders and how to share energy resources, negotiations have not yet produced a solution agreeable to all five states. The future use and control of the Caspian Sea’s large volumes of oil and natural gas reserves, including offshore deposits and onshore fields, might in part be determined by extra-regional players who represent the interests of diverse nations. OBOR, whose goals prioritize connectivity, regional development and investment, already plays a role in the development of the Caspian Sea region. The leaders and peoples of this region will need to be well informed in order to capitalize on the emerging cultural, political, economic, environmental and security issues arising in this new era of global transition.


To adequately understand how China’s relations with the Caspian Sea nations have developed, and will continue to develop, it is necessary to go beyond geography in order to grasp how cultural interactions along the Silk Road have contributed to the development of history, culture, geopolitics and geoeconomics. And because societies around the world have different values, traditions, attitudes, and histories of development, future development will need to evolve from a profound understanding of numerous civilizations.

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 WHL 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 UNESCO’s decision to include the eastern section of the Silk Road on the WHL, China has made a major effort to provide guidance and a spirit of leadership for projects.


The “Silk Road” is a misleading term because no single road 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 (these routes are collectively known as the "Silk Road"). The phrase “Silk Road” is also used as a metaphor for the exchange of knowledge and ideas among diverse groups of people. 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. 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. After the decline in trade along Eurasian land routes, due to the increase in transcontinental sea trade after the 1500’s, rivalry for control over maritime routes grew. Once the Portuguese successfully circumnavigated Africa and sailed across the Indian Ocean, European voyages of discovery by the Spanish, English, Dutch, and French resulted in growing competition and conflict. In the 19th century, rivalry in Central Asia and the Caspian region was played out between the British and Russian Empires, and is known as the “Great Game.” Today, post-Cold War superpowers, potential superpowers, and emerging powers are raising tensions along these transcontinental land and maritime routes.


In the Caspian-Central Asian region today, China is seen as an importer of goods and resources, supplier of numerous products, provider of loans and firms involved in massive infrastructure investments, a donor for humanitarian assistance, and an initiator of massive deals. China’s advancement of commercial ties with resource-rich developing countries has been spotlighted by its agreements with Pakistan, where a network of roads, railways and pipelines are being created.

In addition to the AIIB, China has successfully set up the Shanghai-based New Development Bank, and established the New Silk Road Fund. Through these and other institutions China will be engaged in 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.

In terms of Europe, China is working to develop economic corridors between Central Asia and Europe, as evidenced by widening logistical outreach to transport centers such as Rotterdam, and the newly opened trans-Eurasian landmark railway linking the Iberian Peninsula to China. Due to the recent Brexit vote, it is yet unclear what role London will play in Beijing’s financial and foreign policy calculations, and as a gateway to other European cities. Media reports indicate that the United Kingdom could have a free trade agreement with China before the European Union (EU). It is unclear how the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU will bolster and/or complicate China’s Eurasia policy-making. Events that lead to a Europe that turns inward, with the likely ascendency of nationalist parties, can have global repercussions. Whether the newly emerging shape of the EU will weaken U.S. influence, or enable U.S. hegemony, has also become a topic of debate in China. In addition to the uncertainties concerning the future of Europe, the results of the U.S. presidential elections are yet to be revealed. The unexpected rise of Donald Trump and signs of isolationist leaderships, both in Europe and the U.S., are disturbing not just to China, but also to politicians, diplomats and analysts around the world.

Debates over trade barriers and Chinese exports, coupled with sentiments that China is stealing U.S. and EU jobs, could have an impact on China’s worldwide image and investments. These developments evoke mixed reactions towards Beijing, but may act in China’s interests. For example, if the U.S. terminates the NAFTA agreement, future developments could offer opportunities of new trade deals for China, as former Mexican president Vincente Fox stated in July 2016. As the U.S. Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, continues to stir up controversy related to a range of  international institutions, there are speculations that a weakened NATO (fuelled by Frances’s discussion over a Frexit), could have geopolitical advantages for China.


China’s OBOR initiative and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union are both initiatives that are designed to integrate the Eurasian landmass and create opportunities for trade and investment. The creation of such trading networks, linking the Caspian-Central Asian region, will strengthen the cultural and economic role of nations that serve as bridges between the East and West. In addition to Eurasia-led organizations, there are numerous post-2013 U.S. efforts within Silk Road regions, which include support for the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program (an Asian Development Bank initiative) and the Istanbul Process (nominally led by Afghanistan).

Besides a number of institutions that have been created since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in addition to these institutions, older organizations have taken a leadership role on the world stage, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, World Trade Organization, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. While Eurasia continues to spawn new organizations, some of which might be presented as more appropriate regional alternatives to the hegemonic Western counterparts, the possibility exists of alignment and collective action through a common strategic vision.

There are also newly emerging organizations that do not aim to provide China with geo-strategic benefits. China, for example, was excluded from negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Some analysts predict that these institutions will form the foundation of a new international economic order.

The interest of organizations in the Caspian region and Eurasia leads us to the question of how China will respond to attempts to create new orders, and how China’s diplomatic institutions, including cultural heritage diplomacy, will evolve. While a transforming world is in the making, it also remains to be seen if China can transform itself into a global actor who has a leading voice in restructuring international relations and global financial systems. It also remains to be seen whether the struggle for influence and control can be replaced by multilateral cooperation, or whether rivalries will undermine Eurasian development. Overcoming problems and threats in diverse regions of the world will require international and regional cooperation, however, obstacles to cooperation exist as described below.


Due to the many signs that world politics is changing, the world has entered a period of economic, social and political uncertainty. This period of transition and power transformation has also witnessed a period of increasing cultural clashes, clashing political values, ethnocentrism and racism, growing mistrust of globalization, and scrutiny over the inadequacies of national and international systems. Not only can the development of the prosperity of the international community be jeopardized by a lack of security and diverging geo-strategic interests, but also competing conceptions of world order, and the growing anti-establishment backlash on both sides of the Atlantic, can prove dangerous.

Because Beijing has become more ambitious in articulating its foreign policy, and due to China’s growing influence in international politics, many scholars have described China’s new approach as “assertive” or “aggressive.” Some China watchers are uneasy that China may seek to dominate regional affairs and shape the international environment as it seeks to lead in this new process of development. These observations are sometimes coupled with historical stereotypes, biases, and longstanding fears of “the China threat,” heightened by modern-day alarm that China seeks to overturn the existing world order.

The anxieties over Chinese economic, political, military and cultural influence are evident in a variety of ways that include misgivings about the AIIB’s potential conflict with existing institutions, and perceptions of China’s cultural influence as a threatening type of “infiltration.” In short, some believe that China’s investments mask the hidden agenda of an expansionist power. As China seeks to exert its influence, this new wariness in the East and West over China’s possible hegemonic ambition strains international relations. During such a period full of global uncertainties, these fears may pose further obstacles to the development of Caspian-Silk Road relations.

Thus, China has generated complex and multiple reactions by its Silk Road driven diplomacy. As China emerges as a major influential global power, overcoming the fears of Chinese economic and demographic domination will be a goal of China’s cultural diplomacy. Such diplomacy will need to be convincing and present China’s increasing power in world affairs as beneficial for global progress, especially because in its largest definition, OBOR could affect the lives of 4.4 billion people in 65 countries.


How China manages this era of transition will determine in part how successful its OBOR initiative will serve as an overarching umbrella through which China can engage with Eurasia. In addition to this evolving world order, the level of regional integration will depend on the forces of regionalism and powerful rising neighbouring states, such as India which borders the Indian Ocean. Future developments in Ukraine, which is an important area of competition between Russia and the West, will also have an impact on the security and stability of the Caspian Sea and Baltic Sea regions. The Nagorno-Karabakh settlement efforts, stability in the South Caucasus, or destabilization in parts of Central Asia can have a positive or negative impact on the cultivation of fruitful relations sought by OBOR.

Amidst these unknowns, it seems that China’s active cultural diplomacy and promotion of the construction of a community based on shared interests and a common destiny could help realize initiatives that encourage the fostering of new bilateral and regional cooperation. China’s formulation of OBOR diplomacy might therefore play a part in remaking contemporary relations and maritime order.

There are many unanswered questions as to how Chinese diplomacy will respond to a variety of domestic and external developments that link China to interdependent relationships and extra-regional powers. How China and major world powers seek to effectively manage tensions and disagreements may determine the balance of power which has often been necessary for peace in different regions of the world.


According to some observers, the Silk Road OBOR initiative could challenge U.S. influence in Asia, Africa, and the Mideast, and could usher in a new era that sees China as the undisputed geopolitical powerhouse. China’s position on the South China Sea in particular has caused alarm in the U.S. and among some of China’s neighbours. But in the eyes of Beijing, the defence of its historic rights and sovereignty is being tested. Taking this into account, it is feared that tensions could unexpectedly escalate the situation and lead to a grave crisis. Observers are concerned that an accidental gunshot could put policymakers in both countries under huge pressure from public opinion as nationalistic bluster intensifies. These possibilities, coupled with the Chinese view that the U.S. presence in the Caspian-Central Asian region is part of an effort to encircle and contain China, could inflame matters. For China, maintaining regional stability and preventing war from occurring in its periphery is a strategic goal.

In terms of the U.S., many experts maintain that the U.S.-China bilateral relationship must be guided by common interests and broader prospects of cooperation on a wide range of issues that are vital to peace and development, including climate change and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. During a recent CCTV interview, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that “not only are our economies interdependent,” but “the China-U.S. relationship is the most important relationship in 21st century.” However, as China and the U.S. embark on a new chapter in history, Albright reiterated that the U.S. a Pacific power.

How China perceives the changing regional environment regarding its national security, the U.S. pivot/rebalancing to Asia strategy, and U.S. efforts to boost its alliances and partnerships by strengthening relations with nations such as Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, are some delicate subjects worrying analysts.

Furthermore, influential voices in China have warned that U.S. plans to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea could trigger a nuclear showdown (similar to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962). The planned system has been viewed in China as a clear, present and substantive threat to China's security interests, stability and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. If more forcefully challenged, China’s response to perceived American aggression, along with counter-responses, could shape the future strategic landscape of East Asia and beyond.

The development of Silk Road trade routes has come a long way since the days of early maritime navigation which linked ancient civilizations and facilitated far-reaching exchanges of activities in trade, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, innovation, cultural practices and the arts. The early travellers along these routes could not have predicted the consequences of the development of these commercial routes. Centuries ago, when the 15th century Chinese commander Zheng He commanded a large fleet from Southeast Asia to East Africa, and later in the 18th century a newly founded United States constructed a fleet of U.S. frigates to protect American shipping in the Mediterranean, none of the leaders of these nations could have foreseen this moment in time when their descendants would lead two world powers that could confront one another along the shores of the Western Pacific.


How this great historic transformation of Eurasia plays out depends on how China defends its core national interests, and on how common interests overcome geopolitical tensions. How the major powers of the world respond to China as both a rising power, and as a major power, will also shape China’s role in regional and international systems. As China becomes the dominant economic power in Asia, it presents challenges and offers opportunities for many forms of modern-day cooperation. This paper seeks to present the new opportunities in cultural interaction that are emerging as a result of China’s cultural diplomacy, soft power and active foreign policy based on OBOR.

Alongside “China’s rise” and the United States’ “pivot to Asia,” in a world of changing geopolitical goals and strategies, there may be possibilities to unite people and nations through greater appreciation of cultural heritage. China’s ambitious long-term projects must seek support from international actors, civil society, and the cultural hubs along the Silk Road trade routes. As demonstrated in this paper, the OBOR initiative can help us to learn how in the future we can better share strategic routes, and coordinate activities that are based on common aspirations for advancing prosperity and stability, such as those derived from the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

For the foreseeable future, many questions may go unanswered, such as how China will find a balance in its foreign policy between asserting its own interests, and in promoting and maintaining global peace and pursuing common development across the world. There is an increasing amount of scholarship devoted to post-2013 analysis on China's bilateral relations, but the crucial question for Caspian-Central Asian nations is how they can shape China’s OBOR initiative and foreign policy approach in a way that maximizes the benefits that they seek. 

In conclusion, this paper highlights unprecedented developments regarding global exchanges and Silk Road heritage revival that may contribute to brighter global prospects as a result of OBOR’s Eurasian cultural-heritage diplomacy. The OBOR-linked initiatives could have a positive impact on enhancing understanding between cultures, as new opportunities enable international cooperation and increased recognition of the role regions have played in connecting the Asian and Mediterranean worlds with networks across Afro-Eurasia.