Stone Cattle Roads: China’s Hard Power Projector


One of the foundational myths of China is the stone cattle road. It relates an important action by the Kingdom of Qin, which would first unite China, and their first significant conquest of the rich and fertile Kingdom of Shu (modern Sichuan). In it, the King of Qin shows an ambassador from Shu a ‘herd’ of golden cattle, which the King had made of stone and gilded with gold. Mistaking them for real cattle, the Shu ambassadors referred their discovery to their king, who asked for some of these cattle as a gift from Qin. The King of Qin declared his willingness to offer them to the King of Shu, but since these cattle don’t travel well, a road would need to be built through the mountains separating their kingdoms. The King of Shu agreed and helped build the road between their kingdoms. Shortly after he received the inauspiciously immobile cattle, he received a second, unexpected visit from the Qin via the road. This time, it was an army that marched unseen through the previously impenetrable mountains separating Shu from Qin. Subsequently, Shu was conquered by Qin, providing them with the riches of Shu and making them the preeminent Chinese state. This story is one of the most famous in Chinese history, and the first move towards Chinese unification under what eventually became the Qin dynasty (Keay, 2009, p.80). The story illustrates the potential dual use of infrastructure; almost any infrastructure built for civilian purposes can be used militarily.


Today much has been made of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure investment strategy adopted by the Chinese Government and the flagship policy of China's President Xi Jinping (World Bank, 2018). It is considered by academics and policymakers as an integral part of China’s rise to the status of a superpower, and potentially hegemony over Asia (Smith, 2021).

Figure 1: G Noel Celis/Pool (2019). Chinese President Xi Jinping, for whom the BRI is a flagship policy [Photograph]

Commentary on the BRI usually focuses on what has been termed debt trap diplomacy, first coined by professor Brahma Chellany in a 2017 article for Project Syndicate, which posits China lends money for infrastructure knowing the target country will be unable to pay the debt, and subsequently taking the infrastructure as collateral (Chellany, 2017). This, it is said, allows the acquisition of economic footholds in various countries and control the flow of trade into and between these countries (Chefitz and Parker, 2018, 11-12). It could also be a means of increasing political capital by giving foreign governments infrastructure they can take to their electorate to keep themselves in power; United Front in Sri Lanka promised new infrastructure investments financed by China to develop (Hameiri and Jones, 2020) and Pakistan has been marketing its continued construction of Gwadar port as a driver of development in its historically underdeveloped region of Baluchistan, in part to appease Baluch separatists (Kupecz, 2012, 102).


Others, such as China analyst Thomas Eder, are not convinced of China’s Machiavellian credentials and believe the initiative to be a a way to prop up China’s oversized infrastructure companies (Eder, 2019). With home markets saturated to the point that entire city districts are built with little prospect of ever being used, the Belt and Road use provides new markets to these companies which can no longer build within China. It may be paid for with Chinese money, and the chances of getting all that money back are slim, but they will likely get some of it back and prevent the collapse of one of China’s largest and most successful domestic industries (Wallace and Jie, 2021). Defenders of the BRI, such as political scientists Shahar Hameiri and Lee Jones, argue the idea of debt trap diplomacy derives from anxiety over increasing Chinese influence, and that most countries dealing with China have benefitted from the relationship, with their assets remaining unseized. In favour of their statement stands the piecemeal implementation of the BRI, and its projects originating in the home nations’ governments (Hameiri and Jones, 2020).


Figure 2: Barcroft Media (2021).Qingdao Port, the Origin Point of Multiple Belt and Road Routes [Photograph].

However, the theory of debt-trap diplomacy has been primarily focused on extending China’s soft power. In contrast, the narrative of the stone cattle road can be instructive for engaging with the BRI through a hard power lens, and the potential dual use of much of the infrastructure that has received investment as part of the BRI.


The idea for this first arose under the ‘string of pearls’ theory first expounded by Unites States' political researchers (Maritandou, 2021, 3). This proposed that Chinese investment in strategically important maritime areas, such as Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, the Straits of Mandeb, and the Straits of Malacca are Chinese attempts to control choke points and prepare the ground for military expansion into these regions (Marantidou, 2021, 6). China’s desire to control these areas are seen as attempts to secure the oil supply from the Middle East (upon which it dependents for energy), which passes almost exclusively through the Straits of Malacca, and to control the entrance to the Suez Canal, which dominates trade between Europe and Asia (Vines, 2012). This theory has become particularly popular within Indian foreign policy and security circles, where investments in Indian Ocean countries including Sri Lanka, the African east coast, and Indias its rival Pakistan, are seen as attempting to encircle and contain Indian influence (Sachdeva, 2018, 285). The establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, at the mouth of the Red Sea bordering the Indian Ocean, is seen as evidence of China’s ambitions to use growing investments and relationships to project power against its geopolitical rivals (Ghiselli, 2021, 8).


Figure 3: World Bank (2018). Map of the Belt and Road Investment Locations and Routes [Illustration].

However, is there any proof of this? Or is it, as is said by some of the debt-trap diplomacy, an illusion born of anxiety over China’s expanding influence? China has opened a military base in Djibouti, but no other foreign military bases exist, despite more than a decade of fears of a Chinese naval base at Gwadar in Pakistan and the willingness of the Pakistani government (Kirchberger, 2015, 268). China’s infrastructure investments are also primarily economic, focused on ports, rails, and roads; not geared towards military application. The roads are also built according to the wishes of the local governments of the invested countries, seeking economic benefit (Hameiri and Jones, 2020). Furthermore, China's 2019 defence white paper stated it would never seek hegemony or spheres of influence (State Council of PRC, 2019, 7).


However, all of this was also true of the King of Shu and his stone cattle road, which was built at his initiative to increase the wealth of Shu. If we consider this analogy, we would expect to see military power exercised only after the solidification of economic and infrastructure ties. The real question is whether these investments can facilitate the projection of hard power.


Figure 4: DigitalGlobe (2018). Chinese island-building in the disputed South China Sea [Photograph].

Firstly, one must examine the content of the treaties of the infrastructure projects. By Chinese law even civilian infrastructure must be built to military standards; the 2017 National Defence Transportation Law Articles 2 and 3 specify infrastructure must be geared towards “strengthening the construction of national defense transportation, promoting the development of military and civilian integration in the transportation field, and guaranteeing smooth progress of national defense activities.” (National People's Congress, 2016, C1, A2-3). This is part of a larger project of civilian-military fusion that analysts Blake Berger and Daniel Russel have dubbed "first civilian, later military"; China establishes a civilian presence with the capacity to support a military presence later (Berger and Russel, 2020, p. 19). These expanding infrastructure investments have been occurring since the beginning of the century, with the Belt and Road Initiative beginning in 2013 (Lin et al, 2021, 22). Since 2016 however, China has been exercising its military muscles ever wider; in 2015, they began building naval and air bases on disputed islands and shoals in the South China Sea (BBC, 2015), through which the majority of China’s oil imports travel after leaving the Malacca Straits; in 2017, China opened its first military base in Djibouti; in 2018, the Chinese navy forced a climb down for India in its own backyard after both countries sent a naval task force to the Maldives in response to a declaration of a state of emergency in the Indian Ocean nation (Ghiselli, 2021, 10). Perhaps the best example of this is Gwadar in Pakistan. It is located near the vitally important choke point at the Straits of Hormuz, which has a stranglehold on most Middle Eastern oil exports, upon which both China and the West rely. In 2013 China’s state-owned Overseas Port Holding Company gained full control of the operation of Gwadar, at the same time citing the increasing militarisation of central Asia as a cause of increased interest (Pehrson, 2013, 4). This is even before China began its aggressive posturing toward Taiwan, after having secured the South China Sea militarily and subdued Hong Kong.


Naturally, queries over the validity of comparing a modern infrastructure project to ancient Chinese history. The modern state of China bears little resemblance to Qin technologically or ideologically; modern BRI infrastructure is radically different and more diverse than a single road. China is no longer dynastic or explicitly expansionist, since it is led by a Communist government and has spent much of its history since the end of the Chinese civil war repudiating Chinese history, such as the destruction of the 'Four Olds' (customs, culture, habits, and ideas) in the cultural revolution (Xing, 2005, 61). Furthermore, the geopolitical landscape has changed radically since Qin invaded Shu 2000 years ago. Additionally, is it possible gain any real insight from considering the stone cattle road when examining the BRI and modern China?

Figure 5: Zak Bickel (2015). The growing rivalry between the USA and China is sometimes compared to Thucydides Trap [Collage].

Firstly, similar comparisons are a staple of political commentary. The idea of 'Thucydides' Trap', often applied to the current situation between China and the United States (Farah, 2018), is the application of an ancient historical lesson to modern geopolitics, heedless of technological, ideological, or geopolitical context. Comparisons are also made between the domestic politics of the United States and ancient Rome based on observed similarities, again despite separations of time, distance, and culture (Murphy, 2008). Secondly, although the BRI and the stone cattle road are different in scope and scale, they bear similarities. Both have the expressed purpose of facilitating trade, but both carry the capacity for military use, as evidenced by the invasion of Shu then, and China's National Defence Transportation law now (National People's Congress, 2016). Furthermore, although modern China is now Communist, there has been a policy of reviving traditional Chinese culture in the Chinese government in recent years (Yang, 2017, 9). The BRI itself is subject to this, being presented by Xi Jinping as a modern recreation of the ancient Silk Road; the initial fund for the BRI was called the 'Silk Road Fund' (Brinza, 2022). It is hardly a stretch to examine the BRI through one historical precedent when its creation was directly inspired by another. It is no less reasonable to consider the stone cattle road in relation to the BRI than the Silk Road, or the idea of the Thucydides Trap in relation to the United States and China relations. In fact, China's increasingly assertive posturing combined with its own self-reflection on China's past necessitates attempts to understand modern Chinese policy within a Chinese historical context, including comparative precedents such as the stone cattle road.


While the Belt and Road differs from the stone cattle road, it never served purely military purposes since it provides multiple foreign and domestic functions. Nonetheless, it still carries the potential to be used for military as well as commercial purposes, as evidenced by the 2017 National Defence Transportation Law and China's increasing willingness to assert itself militarily in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Policymakers and commentators frequently compare modern China with ancient parallels such as the Silk Road or Thucydides' Trap. The account of the stone cattle road has the potential to provide them not only with a new lens to view China's intentions in its investments abroad, but also encourage them to engage with Chinese policy through Chinese eyes.




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