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Xi'an Silk Road conference

A construction worker adds the flag of Tanzania to a display of nations participating in a Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce convention in Xi'an, China. The One Belt/One Road initiative could see more than $5 trillion spent on infrastructure in 66 countries as China expands its economic trade network. 

XI’AN, China — Here at the start of the Silk Road, China expects to sell itself to the world.

With an estimated multi-year budget approaching $5 trillion, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s One Belt/One Road initiative envisions a grid of railways, shipping ports, airfields and cultural exchanges distributing the nation’s economic power. Its rapidly expanding China Global Television Network has OBOR as a frequent topic.

“When you are growing, people want to know what you’re thinking about,” the networks’ deputy director for digital news Zhang Shilei said. “With OBOR, we are promoting globalization.”

Xi’an officials emphasize their city’s fundamental place in Chinese economy in a myriad of ways. Historically, they present the world-famous Terra Cotta Warriors of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s 220 B.C. mausoleum, which rivals the Egyptian pharaohs’ tombs in both age and splendor. Currently, the Shaanxi Provincial Government surrounding Xi’an has overseen billions of dollars’ of investment in a trade logistics complex sending freight across Eurasia.

Terra Cotta Warriors

The 8,000 Terra Cotta Warriors entombed with Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang in 221 B.C. illustrate China's claim to a culture that extends thousands of years beyond the tumultuous events of the 20th century. The city of Xi'an takes pride in its historic assets as much as its central role in China's One Belt/One Road initiative.

Even linguistically, Xi’an claims primacy. A common phrase in Mandarin Chinese for “to go shopping” is “my dong she,” which literally translates “buy east and west.” It refers to Xi’an’s Silk Road heritage, where the city’s East Market traded in luxury goods and its West Market handled the latest foreign caravans.

In another quirk of Chinese language, the “One Belt” part of OBOR refers to the land routes while “One Road” covers ship traffic. Xi’an’s inland freight port intends to send goods through Kazakhstan to Europe, across the Himalayas to India and through Pakistan to North Africa.

“Some have interpreted that as maybe another kind of bipolar competition similar to the Cold War,” said Abraham Kim, director of the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. “But the U.S. and China, as much as we talk about each other as competitors, our economies are very closely tied together. That’s different from the Cold War, where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were isolated from each other. You can’t describe this as a zero-sum game.”

However, it is a game where the United States hasn’t exactly taken a seat at the table. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that President Donald Trump abandoned was widely seen as a framework for the United States and Asian nations to counter-balance China’s economic dominance. With TPP gone, the One Belt/One Road initiative is the biggest game around.

“I don’t think the Chinese get the credit they deserve for being very strategic in how they expand their influence in the world,” said UM Law School professor Sam Panarella, who has accompanied dozens of UM students on exchange programs to China studying comparative water and environmental law. “Look at Laos. China is spending billions of dollars on stuff there that might not have any utility, but the U.S. has stepped out. As we step back, they step in.”

One Belt/One Road could take another leap later this month, when President Xi opens the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing Oct. 18. Like a five-year “State of the Union” address, the party congress meetings showcase the Chinese government’s coming plans.

“I think they’re going to talk a lot about that OBOR strategy,” Mansfield Assistant Director Suhan Chen said. “It’s the time when Xi will send a signal to the world which directions he will prefer. OBOR is a new idea of how China will get along with people in the world, not only working with superpowers but other countries as well. It provides a new way to unite and collaborate with Third World and developing countries.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.