China’s Silk Geopolitics

EDITORIAL, 16 May 2016

#428 | Johan Galtung

          China is changing world geography, or at least trying to do so.

          Not in the sense of land and water like the Netherlands, but in the sense of weaving new infrastructures on land, on water, in the air, and on the web.  It is not surprising that a country with some Marxist orientation would focus politics on infrastructure–but as means of transportation-communication, not as means of production. Nor is it surprising that a country with a Daoist worldview focuses politics on totalities, on holons and dialectics, forces and counter-forces, trying to tilt balances in China’s favor. How this will work depends on the background, and its implications.

          Two recent books, Valerie Hansen, Silk Road: A New History (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Knopf, 2015) see them as arteries connecting the world, globalization, before that term became a la mode.  Not that loads of goods moved all the way in both directions, parts of the way, maybe further.  Europe had much less to offer in return; however:

“Viking traders from–Norway–coarse, suspicious men, by Arab account–were moving down the great rivers of Russia–trading honey, amber and slaves–as early as the ninth century–returning home to be buried with the silks of Byzantium and China beside them”. (Frankopan)

          The Silk Roads–so named by the German geographer von Richthofen in 1877–connected China and Europe (Istanbul) over land from -1200; more precisely from Xi’an to Samarkand by a northern and southern road (Hansen for maps). And the Silk Lanes connected East China and East Africa (Somalia) from +500 till +1500 (when Portuguese-Spanish and English naval expansion started a Western takeover by colonization).

The modern Silk Road East-West, Yiwu/China to Madrid/Spain. Although the transit time for goods or people to transit the route is 21 days, this is 30 days faster than a ship and is 1/10 the cost of shipping freight.

          For long periods run by Buddhists in the East and Muslims in the West; Islam using them to expand, from Casablanca to the Philippines.  Frankopan sees the high points in the Han dynasty (-207-220, capital Xi’an for West Han), the Tang dynasty (618-902, capital mainly Xi’an) and under Mongolian, Yuan rule–for goods, ideas, faiths, inventions.

          Xi’an, 3,000 years old, served as a starting point, both for Silk Roads and for the Silk Lanes, traveling the Yangzi River, or over land, to the East China Sea coast.  Till the military uprising against the Tang emperor in 755 (Hansen, Ch. 5, “The Cosmopolitan Terminus on the Silk Road”); but Xi’an is destined always to play major roles.

          China is now reviving the past, adding Silk Railroads from East China to Madrid via Kazakhstan-Russia-Belarus-Poland-Germany-France, to Thailand, from East to West Africa–from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic–from North to South Africa. Silk Flights. And Silk Web.

          A silky cocoon is being woven, by worms in China.  Too much?

          Two features stand out in this approach to geopolitics.

          First, weaving together Eurasiafrica, three “continents” by old-fashioned geography.  Second, leaving out the other two “continents”, separated by oceans from Eurasiafrica: the Americas, Australia-NZ.

          However, South-South-South trade opens lanes to Latin America-Caribbean from West Africa, and Australia-New Zealand are much closer to China than to their colonial origins in England.  That leaves us with Anglo-America, USA-Canada, isolated by two oceans that served as their protection, really left out of silky road and lane nets.

          USA does not like that, hence a “pivot” to Asia, based on alliances and TPP.  With some major differences: China builds on a millennia old tradition, the USA on one and half century since Perry “opened up” East Asia. China’s domination in “their” Himalayas-Gobi-Tundra-Sea “pocket” is millennia old; U.S. massive killing in Korea and Vietnam is recent; fresh in people’s memory.

          However, the key difference is between U.S. “everybody but China” policy and China’s silk nets open to everybody. Roads, railroads, lanes, flights are two-way.  Chinese goods move on China-built infrastructure available to others as well. Prognosis: states in East Asia will play on both, thereby favoring China more than USA.

          Is this possible, with the USA trying to replace Russia in India; playing on China-India conflicts that they, since Zhou Enlai-Nehru, have been good at solving?  Nepal, with long borders to both, tilting toward China, given Indian domination and boycott?  Mongolia, friendly to both Russia and China, making little space for USA?  And 10 ASEAN states in the Southeast that, given the composition have to be friends with all?  There is much (Southern) China in ASEAN; Singapore, as minorities, and culturally–in something for good reasons once called “Indo-China”.  We get ASEAN+, and +, playing on all horses.

          There is a message in this to the Big Powers, to China and USA, India and Russia: do not press, do not demand exclusive allegiance; offer positive services.  China’s silk diplomacy is nonviolent; its defense of what China sees as old patterns to be revived is not.  No longer massive People’s Liberation Army defensive defense; with “modern”, provocative arms.

          And there is a message to the smaller powers: choose both, even all four; leaning toward one will mobilize the worst in the other(s).

          How does this tally with silk diplomacy?  Quite well, except for South China Sea.  China did not colonize along Silk roads and lanes, nor chinize. Japan japanized rather than colonized and–as opposed to China–fought Western colonialism. Silk nets open for huge tourism and trade both ways, weaving continents together when demand meets supply; that may take some time.  Nevertheless, the symmetry built into Silk diplomacy makes negotiated conflict solutions, and even a (North) East Asian Community, possible.  U.S. asymmetry rules out both.

          In the South China Sea U.S. demands “freedom of navigation” for U.S. aircraft carriers right off China’s coast, ASEAN has navy exercises, and China militarizes.  China has to respect the UN Law of the Sea, demand revision of freedom for military navigation, and make clear that the lanes are open for civilian–U.S., EU, ASEAN, whatever–trade.

          All will gain from silk diplomacy; and lose from militarization.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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16 Responses to “China’s Silk Geopolitics”

  1. Thomas Krogh says:

    Johan Galtung

    A few things.

    First, purely matter-of-fact’ish. Regarding the quote “Although the transit time for goods or people to transit the route is 21 days, this is 30 days faster than a ship and is 1/10 the cost of shipping freight.”

    Note that you have cut of a central part of it. The actual quote is “Although the transit time for goods or people to transit the route is 21 days, this is 30 days faster than a ship and is 1/10 the cost of shipping freight by air”

    So train is cheaper than flight yes, but not cheaper than sea.

    Secondly you (perhaps not surprisingly) gloss over some central elements of the Chinese position and relations. China’s neighbors are much less impressed with the Chinese strategy and “silk road” rethorics that you are. As an example Vietnam, where China is becoming so unpopular that Hanoi is indeed pivot’ing towards the US:

    Asia may well remember the Korean and Vietnam wars, but she also remember the Chinese aggression towards Vietnam in the disasterous war if ’79 where China in 3 weeks managed to accumulate approx half the causalties the US took in almost 20 (!) years of war. Asia also remember the Chinese supportfor Pol Pot, the annexation of Tibet, the murky and extremely bloody Chinese intervention in Korea, the Indian territory that China still occupies and so on.

    Asia may have ambivalent feelings towards the US, but these feelings are significantly more ambivalent – trending towards hostile – towards China. And this may indeed pivot parts of Asia towards the US, much more than anything the US itself could do.

    I will – again – suggest ýou start to challenge your own “US bad, China good” dichotomies, as they – again – fail you. Your writing – and analysis – is so much better when you challenge your own auto pilot.

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  3. Deldano says:

    Dear Mr. Rosa I would actually like a response from Prof. Galtung to the good? points made by your website’s resident troll. Is that possible? I don’t have the book and is this an attempt by Mr. “Frgoh” to mess with us or is he raising a genuine point here as he has on occasion done? Anyhow – Mr. Galtung is brilliant. Jumping around topics week after week after week. Just “tremendous” ethos and clarity. Tremendously good article. A shame Mr. Frogh is clearly not here to learn or share knowledge but here to somehow harm your website.

    • Dear Mr. Deldano, Krogh lost the right to being payed attention by anybody, especially Johan Galtung. He has better things to do with his time than to be responding to an Internet Troll’s base provocations.

      As for the quote under the pic, it is not from Galtung but from the site from where the pic was taken, as quoted below it.

      • Werner T. Meyer says:

        Dear Antonio,

        I could not agree more. Lets simply ignore Mr. K. in the future!


        Werner T. Meyer

      • Ju Jing says:

        I agree. We should not alow any body to question Prof Galtung!

      • tina modescu says:

        This is the site of Nobel Nominee Johan GALTUNG. It cannot be a site where you criticize his work.

      • Britt Vestergaard says:

        Ah wel then.

        Let’s follow the flock.

        No – absolutely no! – disagreement with Dr. Galtung. None whatsoever. Never and never.



        Don’t even think about it.


      • Per-Stian says:

        Wouldn’t surprise me if our resident Crock wrote all those posts himself. IP addresses?

        Interesting article, so thanks for that. Also interesting to note that China have chosen a more peaceful approach to gaining influence than dropping bombs and threats every time the wind blows.

        South-South-South trade is important, and hopefully that means more countries can eventually get away from post-colonialism and re-shape the structure of the global economy.

        Think this line is important to keep in mind too. It’s not about China vs USA, as per usual Western dichotomous thinking:

        “And there is a message to the smaller powers: choose both, even all four; leaning toward one will mobilize the worst in the other(s).”

        Also can’t help to notice the increasing US military focus on Asia, which Galtung probably meant with the “pivoting towards Asia” bit. Take a look at the map, US bases and countries attacked, and there is already an Iron Wall circling Iran and throughout that part of the world with regards to Russia. Now the US want NATO/Europe to do their dirty work here, while the US tries to establish a new Iron Wall near China. Hopefully it breaks their back, from overextension. Throw Trump into the mix (or Clinton for that matter, another loose cannon), and it’s hard to see too many countries on “friendly” terms with the US, or in some kind of alliance.

        When the wheel of history finally turns and makes this happen, lets hope the withdrawal happens more in line with the Soviet Union (largely peaceful) and not with a(nother) series of wars and aggressions.

        Or maybe that is what we are seeing now, somewhat in line with what the Suez war in 1956 was for the British empire?

        The world is changing, and if the Yankee planners were smart, they would ditch fantasies about a global empire and embrace more peaceful co-existence with the rest of the world instead.

  4. Britt Vestergaard says:


    Is this site only designed to be for those who never question Dr. Galtung?

    Why then not make a button “I agree with the Great Man” instead of a comments function?


    • Werner T. Meyer says:

      Dear Britt Vestergaard.

      Critical discussions are aways welcome here, I guess.
      But here is a difference between critical discussions and senseless slander.

      I know that is a difficult thing to learn for some Charlys and some Danish bigots.

      As a Swiss, I hope they try or else change their flag.

      Werner T. Meyer

      • Britt Vestergaard says:


        You remove my posts where I accept that you track, use and display my IP as you wish, and also why I, politely, disagree with the current trend on the site?

        May I ask why?

        If you choose to remove random posts of mine, at least be so kind and have such much integrity that you remove them all and simply tell me not to come here anymore. I will oblige immediatly.


    • deldano says:


  5. Herman Widdich says:

    Being a theologian by formation, on this sunday, let me add a fitting word from Peter 3:8-12 “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

    Galtung fits this bill quite well. Keep going.