On July 11th, 1405, an immense armada of Chinese sailing ships set sail from Suzhou under the command of Admiral Zheng He, at the behest of Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty. There were 317 ships in the fleet, carrying about 28,000 crewmen. Over 60 of the ships were large, roughly 500 feet long, versus the more common Chinese ships of 100-foot length. It was to be the first of seven such voyages into the Indian Ocean by Zheng He, visiting Southeast Asia, Thailand, Arabia and the Middle East, India and the Horn of Africa.
The purpose was trade and exploration, and to assert a Chinese presence. They took gold, silver, porcelain and, of course, silk. They brought back exotic animals such as ostriches, zebras and camels, as well as ivory. There was also a giraffe, which was thought to be a qilin, the mythical Chinese unicorn thought to be symbolic of prosperity and good fortune. This showed heaven's favour on the expedition and the rulers who commissioned it.
It was by no means China's first trading foray. They had sold silk for thousands of years, and the Silk Road was well established about 200 BC when the Han dynasty began. One route went South to India, and other went North through Uzbekistan to the Persian Empire. It carried silk, tea and porcelain, bringing back horses, carpets, glass and precious metals.
Even Zheng He's route had been blazed by merchants and diplomats of the Tang dynasty (618-907) and the Song dynasty (960-1279), who traded to Malaya, India and Sri Lanka, and the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Ethiopia and Egypt. Kublai Khan (1260-1294) supported the Silk Road by a postal system, infrastructure, and loans to finance caravans.
Seen in this light, China's new Belt and Road Initiative is a re-establishment of the international trading network that previous Chinese rulers had encouraged. It is strangely named, because the 'Belt' part is the overland routes for road and rail, and the 'Road' part refers to the sea routes. Together they constitute a new Silk Road, perhaps the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken, one that will take years to complete. To facilitate it will be massive construction, including road and railway, a power grid, and intermediate facilities.
It shows that China is determined to re-establish a trading route that will see widespread trade with the world. President Trump might back protectionist policies with tariffs that make Americans pay more for their imported goods, but China is committing itself to the international trade that will enrich its citizens. They know that the future is not self-sufficiency, but specialization, by which people become richer by buying from those who can produce more cheaply, thus leaving them with more to spend on other things.
China's past saw a great trading nation that exchanged goods with distant parts of the world. It is determined that China's future will capture that spirit, and is taking the steps that will facilitate it. This is to be applauded. It will make for a more interconnected world, and as Bastiat observed, when nations send goods across frontiers, they rarely send armies. Trade deals involve negotiation rather than warfare, and negotiated deals don't kill people; they enrich them.