China has signed another $64bn (£50bn) worth of deals for its 21st century Silk Route scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – taking the total to a whopping $3.67trn (£2.87trn).

It comes days after Chancellor Philip Hammond said Britain was committed to helping China realise the potential of the BRI, calling the policy a “vision”.

The scheme aims to re-create the ancient trade routes that used to span Asia and Europe carrying goods to and from China called the Silk Route.

President Xi Jinping is trying to reassure sceptics the project will deliver sustainable growth for all involved, despite the risk that some poor countries will be saddled with unsustainable debt.

Many of the countries that have signed up have borrowed cash from Beijing to build ports, railways and other facilities to join up with the “route”.

Mr Xi has also extolled the project for its potential to deliver development with less impact on the environment, as he called for more countries to join in.

“More and more friends and partners will join in Belt and Road cooperation,” he told a summit this week. “The cooperation will enjoy higher quality and brighter prospects.”

Washington is worried the multi-billion dollar scheme, which was also praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, will increase Beijing’s strategic influence.

European countries have generally signalled their willingness to join in the programme, but some are fearful of the risks of not acting as a bloc.

Britain has already started sending trains to China along the route, after the first laden with containers left east London in April 2017 for Yiwu in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang.

“The Belt and Road Initiative has tremendous potential to spread prosperity and sustainable development, touching as it does, potentially 70% of the world’s population, a project of truly epic ambition,” Mr Hammond said

What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was an ancient network of tracks and paths linking China with its neighbours and as far away as Europe.

It originally involved “trains” of men with horses and camels carrying goods on long-established routes over land.

It was also a maritime network, linking major ports in lands that China traded with.

Goods, including silk, but also other textiles, ceramics, precious items and technology, were carried and traded along the route.

After it was established in the Roman period, or possibly as far back as China’s Qi dynasty, it has been credited as being the path along which paper, gunpowder and spices made their way to the West. Horses and developments in metallurgy, meanwhile, made their way east.

It has been claimed the Silk Road was also used for the transport of slaves.

It fell into disuse with European improvements to sea transport and wars in Asia and became obsolete after the building of the Suez Canal.

A paper mill outside of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

The Silk Road Economic Belt is an attempt to recreate the Silk Route linking Europe and China.

The modern Belt aims to use railways, carrying real trains, and roads to link Chinese cities with trading destinations in South Asia, Central Asia, Russia, South East Asia, Turkey and Europe.

The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is a set of sea routes that China is seeking to establish in collaboration with countries in South East Asia, Oceania, Africa and Asia, including Russia’s Northern Sea Route.

Although the scheme became feasible with the connection of China and Kazakhstan’s railway networks through a mountain pass in the early 1990s, a breakthrough was made in 2008 when the first train reached China from Germany.

Other countries have been added as rail and road networks have been improved.

Which countries will it include?

So far, 126 countries and 29 international organisations have signed documents of co-operation.

Countries that are heavily involved include:

:: Kazakhstan, where $9bn will be spent on improving roads and rail;

:: Ethiopia and Djibouti, where a new multi-billion dollar railway has cut journey time from the Red Sea coast to Addis Ababa from three days to 12 hours;

:: Italy, which has signed up to $8bn worth of deals to develop ports to export food and products to China;

:: Indonesia, where a new rail link from Jakarta to Bandung has cut journey times from three hours to 40 minutes;

:: Pakistan, where goods will be shipped by rail and road to ports in Gwadar and Karachi, which are being developed to allow onward shipment to Africa and West Asia.


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