China’s New Silk Road: Central Asia and the Imperial Legacy of the Great Game

The Lion Eyes the Bear. Punch cartoon from 1878 by John Tenniel reflecting Anglo-Russian paranoia in Central Asia.

Tom Harper
University of Surrey

In the vein of its rich history in Central Asia, China’s quest for economic development has seen it return to the region that was once spanned by the Silk Route. While Central Asia has served as the cross roads between Eastern and Western civilisation for centuries, it also once provided the chessboard upon which the Great Powers of the past had battled each other for land and influence. In sum it is one of the most strategic regions of the world, whether it be the Great Game of the nineteenth century or the superpower conflict of the 1980s.

In line with the power politics of the past, the region has seen a new Great Game where today’s strongest nations compete for the region’s natural resources.[1]  With the close of the twentieth century, Central Asia re-entered the spotlight as a result of the War on Terror and, more recently, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路). In light of these developments, the imperial struggles of the past two centuries take on a new importance, as they continue to influence the perceptions of China’s return to the region. These perceptions, real or imagined, have fuelled the struggles of the Great Powers in the region and China’s involvement is simply the latest chapter in a centuries long struggle.

China and Central Asia: The Return of the Dragon

While Central Asia was traditionally perceived as Russia’s sphere of influence since the mid nineteenth century, China’s involvement in the region has largely predated this, dating back to the days of the Silk Road (丝绸之路) which connected Chinese trade with the Islamic world and later with Medieval Europe since the Han dynasty in 114 BC. Central Asia had brought to China both danger and opportunity with the trade of the Silk Road corresponding with the threats coming from China’s borders, most notably that of the Manchu invasion that removed the Ming dynasty in 1644.[2]

The Proposed Route of the Belt and Road Initiative

With the demise of the Soviet Union, since the closing days of the twentieth century, China has returned to the region alongside the United States and Russia, the latter being the region’s traditional hegemon. In the midst of Beijing’s concerns over Xinjiang province, which borders the region, and Russian paranoia over Chinese influence in the region, it would appear that the imperial past, and with it, imperial fears and aspirations could re-emerge.

The Lion Eyes the Bear

Possibly the most notable experience that has shaped the region has been the power play between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century. Both powers observed each other with suspicion regarding their moves in Central Asia, as seen in British fears over Russian moves towards British India, depicted in William Dalrymple’s The Return of a King. These suspicions have characterised the strategies of the Great Powers in Central Asia and Eurasia.

As a result of these fears, Britain took an interest in Afghanistan, which was seen as a potential launch pad for a Russian invasion of India.[3] The dispatch of the Scottish spy, Alexander Burnes,[4] to Afghanistan lead to Anglo-Russian intrigue over each others intentions in the region. Such fears cumulated in the First Anglo-Afghan war, better known for the slaughter of Elphinstone’s army at Gandamak in 1841. This experience, alongside the mutual suspicions, whether it be the Anglo Russian intrigue of the Great Game or the Sino-Russo-American tripartite competition of the present day, continue to haunt the region. However, this was not the only experience of Great Power rivalry that would haunt Eurasia.

The Crisis of Twentieth Century Imperialism

Amidst the increasing Anglo-Russian paranoia over Central Asia, the geographer Halford J. Mackinder penned The Geographical Pivot of History in 1904, during the closing years of the Great Game. Mackinder’s essay warned the then British leadership over what he perceived to be the empire’s over reliance on maritime power to ensure its dominance in Central Asia and Eurasia. He believed that Britain’s maritime supremacy would be challenged by a land based empire emanating from what he termed as the ‘Heartland’.[5] The rise of this rival would be aided by the development of rail, which enabled such a power to transport an army as quickly across land as it could be by ship. While Mackinder’s warning fell on deaf ears in his native land, it found a receptive audience in Germany in the strategist Karl Haushofer, whose ideas would influence Nazi strategies during the Second World War, most notably in the pursuit of Lebensraum, or living space, in the East, as shown by Operation Barbrossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union.[6]

The shape of things to come? Mackinder’s World Map.

Even at the end of the Second World War, Mackinder’s theories found a new lease of life in American strategies during the Cold War. This advocated intervention in geopolitically significant regions as well as containing the Soviet Union, as shown by covert assistance to the Mujaheddin during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As with the Great Game, the invasion was a result of the fears of the Great Powers, in this case Soviet fears over a possible American intervention into the USSR’s border states as well as over the USSR’s sphere of influence among the Muslim republics of Central Asia. With the closing of the Cold War, a new chapter of the Great Game was being opened, with Beijing becoming one of the major participants in it.

The Bear, the Eagle and the Dragon

Even after the demise of the USSR, Eurasia has remained the chessboard for the Great Powers. Where once the British and Russian empires battled for the Indian subcontinent, today’s empires now seek access to the resource rich Caspian Basin. This has typically manifested itself as a Russo-American affair, in line with the idea of a second Cold War, but a Chinese dimension has arisen following China’s return to the region.[7]

As a result of China’s growing demand for natural resources, the New Great Game has become a Sino-Russian-American power play. With this has come the same perceptions and threats that dominated the region. In keeping with British fears over Russian expansionism, Beijing was concerned by the intervention of the United States in Afghanistan in 2001, fearing that the struggle against Islamic militancy was simply a cover for further American involvement in the region as part of a bid to encircle China and Russia.[8] However, the region is also symbolic of Beijing’s bid to return to the role that China once occupied prior to the nineteenth century.

China’s New Silk Road

Possibly the biggest symbol of China’s return to Central Asia as well as of China’s aspirations has been the Belt and Road Initiative, which is often touted as a new Silk Route. Such a move is symbolic of the influence of Chinese experiences in the region, which fosters the idea of China’s return to the ‘China that once was’ rather than China’s rise.[9] By returning to Central Asia, China seeks the role that it had once played prior to the advent of the European empires of the nineteenth century.

At the same time, the initiative has also revived the spectres of the Great Game and the power politics of the twentieth century. It’s focus on the construction of rail infrastructure echoes Mackinder’s warnings over the Heartland, in a bid to wean Chinese trade off the maritime routes, which are under the threat of a potential naval blockade by the United States. The region also appears to be characterised by the competition between Chinese land power and American sea power much as it had once been dominated by the Russo-American rivalry of the past. This development has also led to Russian fears that the initiative will undermine what was its traditional sphere of influence. The fears surrounding China’s New Silk Road illustrate the region’s continued role as the chessboard for the games of the Great Powers that it had been for centuries.

Tom Harper is a doctoral student at the University of Surrey specialising in Chinese foreign policy.  His current research focuses on the perspectives of Chinese engagement in Africa.


[1] Li Mingjiang, China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative: New Round of Opening Up? RSIS Commentary, No. 50, 11th March 2015

[2] Liu, Xinru, The Silk Road in World History (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010) 122.

[3] William Dalrymple, The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (London, Routledge, 2013) 65.

[4] Rupert Colley, Alexander Burnes-Hacked to Death in Afghanistan, 2nd November 2011

[5] Halford J. Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’, Geographical Journal, 23:4, April 1904

[6] Gearoid O’Tuathail, Critical Geopolitics (Routledge, London, 1996) 119.

[7] Li, Xing and Wang, Wan, ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt and the China Dream Relationship: A Strategy or Tactic?’, Sociology Study, 5:3, March 2015.

[8] Stephen Blank, ‘International Rivalries in Eurasia’ in Key Players and Regional Dynamics in Eurasia: The Return of the Great Game (Routledge, London, 2010) 40.

[9] Thomas Zimmerman, The New Silk Roads: China, the United States and the Future of Central Asia, Centre on International Cooperation, October 2015

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