NEW DELHI – The phrase “Silk Road” evokes a romantic image – half history, half myth – of tented camel caravans winding their way across the trackless deserts and mountains of Central Asia. But the Silk Road is not just part of a fabled past; it is an important feature of China’s current foreign policy.
The historical Silk Road comprised an overland and a maritime route, both of which facilitated the transfer to Europe of South and East Asian goods and ideas, from Chinese tea to inventions like paper, gunpowder, and the compass, as well as cultural products like Buddhist scripture and Indian music. Likewise, the Silk Road – primarily the overland route, which also passed through the Arab world to Europe – gave China access to Indian astronomy, plants, and herbal medicines, while introducing it to the Buddhist and Islamic faiths.
Thanks to Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who steered his naval fleet across the Indian Ocean seven times in the early fifteenth century, the Chinese wok became the favorite cooking vessel of women in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. Chinese fishing nets still dot the waters off Kochi.
In 1411, Zheng erected a stone tablet – translated into Chinese, Persian, and Tamil – near the Sri Lankan coastal town of Galle, with an inscription appealing to the Hindu gods to bless his efforts to build a peaceful world based on trade and commerce. Six hundred years later, Chinese President Xi Jinping is espousing a similar goal – only he is appealing to political leaders throughout Europe and Asia to advance his cause.