PROGRESS ON TRACK: Workers sort out railway tracks in Hami, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Intensive railway construction in Xinjiang has consolidated the region's status as a transportation hub in west China and contributed to the momentum of the region's growth (CAI ZENGLE)
The very mention of Silk Road evokes memories of the good old times for the western region of China. In times past, countless hardy and courageous merchants used their camels to carry silk, fine chinaware and tea and ventured warily along a series of ancient trade routes that stretched thousands of km from west China to the Mediterranean Sea, linking China with central Asia and even Europe.
Now, plans are afoot to bring back the glory days as China proposes a modern version of the world-famous trade route.
In a speech at Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev University in September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to establish a silk road economic belt, similar to the Silk Road of more than 2,000 years ago, to boost political and economic ties between China and Eurasian countries. The trans-Eurasian project would target more than 3 billion people and represent the single biggest market in the world, one with unparalleled potential.
In the government work report to the Second Session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislative body, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated that the government will push forward the establishment of the Silk Road Economic Belt.
During the NPC annual session, Zhang Chunxian, Party chief of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, said the Central Government's policies for the proposed belt will be released soon.
Renewal of ancient route
The economic belt will greatly benefit China's underdeveloped western region, which boasts abundant energy and mineral resources.
To tap the potential of west China, the Central Government launched the Go West strategy in the 1990s. Now, the Go West strategy has been elaborated upon following the conception of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. This move will promote the Go West strategy, boost the harmonious development of the eastern, central and western regions of the country and advance the opening-up of inland cities, said analysts.
Sun Weidong, a consular official at the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan, said the economic belt will become an updated version of the Go West strategy. In addition, the government hopes that the project will open up west China to Eurasian countries and correct the developmental imbalance with the east coastal region.
Bai Yongxiu, deputy director of the academic committee of the Northwest University in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, said the proposed belt has vital significance in terms of economy and national defense.
"China's security lies in the west, so does its energy, mineral resources and most of its land resources," he said. "After decades of rapid development, the eastern region only has limited potential, whereas ample room for development lies in the west."
Another reason for the initiative is to consolidate China's trade ties with central Asian countries.
Trade between China and central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, reached $46 billion in 2012, surging 13.7 percent year on year and about 100 times the trade volume of when the two sides first established diplomatic relations, according to Ministry of Commerce.
Energy trade has accounted for the bulk of trade volume between China and central Asian countries.
"Central Asian countries have abundant natural gas and petroleum resources while China has a huge demand for them. The two are highly complementary and have great potential to cooperate in that regard," said Lei Yingjie, Director of the Xi'an Municipal Development and Reform Commission. "The proposal to establish such a belt is to a large extent for securing China's energy supplies."
"Central Asia, known as the energy resource base of the 21st century, boasts abundant natural resources," said He Lunzhi, Director of Xinjiang University's Economic Research Center.