A new Silk Road
In 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping proposed a bold vision for globalisation and economic development – the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) also known as “One Belt, One Road”. The BRI hearkens back to the ancient Silk Road route, a network of trade routes that connected nations and enabled the transfer of goods, people and ideas for hundreds of years. Along this route, missionaries travelled, and bringing their sacred texts with them, they would go on to shape the religious identities of whole civilisations.
The BRI is an ambitious modern infrastructure development that will link up the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, and impact 4.4 billion people across 80 different countries. The BRI will span a third of the world’s GDP and a quarter of total global trade of goods and services. Comprising two main components, the BRI is made up of the Silk Road Economic Belt, which will be laid out along 6 economic corridors, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Notably, the China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor will link Singapore up to Southern China, and the Maritime Silk Road has Singapore situated strategically between the Mediterranean and the Chinese coast. Because of the BRI’s scale and how it will affect global connectivity and infrastructure in the developing world, it is worthwhile to take time to study and understand the implications of this effort, especially for global missions.
Lest it be said that the BRI is just talk, China has taken concrete steps to make this vision a reality. In 2014, China set aside $40 billion in the Silk Road Fund to finance development initiatives in railway construction, hydropower, natural gas and clean coal along economic corridors. The BRI will be backed by the Chinese-affiliated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has been given an initial backing capital of $100 billion. In 2015, China’s State Council authorised an action plan including principles, priorities and an organising framework to make this a reality. In October 2017, the BRI was enshrined in the ruling party’s constitution, a sign of national commitment and political will. The BRI is thus an expression not only of economic ambition, but is closely tied to the ascendancy of China as a major world power, and pivotal to national pride and the personal prestige of China’s leaders. It is a project that cannot, and must not fail.
Singapore’s moment as a gateway
For Singapore, the BRI promises to be a major economic driver with significant impact on our people and businesses. As a global financial centre, Singapore stands to gain from this massive development initiative, which at maturity, could total as much as $4 trillion and is likely to power growth over the next decade.
It is thus no surprise that both countries have made the BRI national priorities. In September 2017, President Xi and Prime Minister Lee reaffirmed principles of collaboration for both countries in BRI areas including infrastructural and financial connectivity and third-country collaboration. Minister Chan Chun Sing also recently cited the “33-85” figure as a sign of the close Sino-Singapore relationship – 33 percent of all outward investments related to the BRI flow through Singapore, and 85 percent of inbound investment for the initiative flow through Singapore to China. A Straits Times article on 7 Dec 2017 noted that Singapore had surpassed the USA as the top Chinese overseas investment destination.
Singapore is preparing itself to reap the dividends of the BRI. In his 2018 Budget speech, Minister Heng Swee Keat announced the creation of a new Infrastructure Office run by IE Singapore and the Monetary Authority of Singapore to help local firms tap BRI opportunities in the region. The Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, a joint Government-to-Government project by the two countries to enhance regional connectivity along the Southern Transport Corridor, is an example of Singapore’s major investment in BRI-related infrastructure.
Consider the implications
For churches and missions agencies who may be less attuned to these shifts in political and economic headwinds, the key question to consider is – what does all this mean for global missions and the advance of the gospel?
Here are some key questions for us to think about:
1. How does the BRI remind us of God’s sovereignty over the nations? What response ought we to have?
Who would have envisioned that within a short span of time, globalisation and economic development would force open parts of the world once closed to missions? Unprecedented socio-political and economic upheavals, such as the 2010 Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, massive human displacement and migration flows in the 2011 Syrian refugee crisis, and now the Belt Road Initiative, have made this possible. We have seen the creation of unprecedented access to unreached people groups all across the 10-40 window, from the vast nations of China and India, to the Central Asian and Southeast Asian Muslim nations.
With the BRI, physical infrastructure is being built for missionaries to access once unreached groups through legitimate and welcomed business means. Together with the flow of global capital and investment in Asia, there are new multiplied inroads for the gospel of Christ. God is truly amazing. Surely, we ought to fall on our knees and worship our great and sovereign God
2. How does the BRI remind us of Singapore’s unique role in global missions and in missions history?
While Singapore’s leaders agonize over how to maintain our precarious political balancing act between the great powers, it seems that God has other ideas. The Singaporean church has been set in the centre of the East-West balance of power with open doors to both sides, and amidst unprecedented information and people flow.
The ancient Silk Road allowed the gospel from the West to travel East. Likewise, in ancient Rome, the building of roads allowed the gospel to travel on it. In the early modern period, with the invention of steam ships and railways, the gospel rode on it. In short, more roads are opening up around us, and as a physical gateway to the nations, Singapore is well situated to make an impact for the gospel in the days ahead.
Our people are also able to play the role of “cultural gateways” too. As we face the “Asian Century”. Singaporean churches comprise of Mandarin-fluent, English-educated, ethnically Chinese members, who are more than able to function in both spaces – the worlds of the Western church, and Han Chinese culture. Furthermore, Singaporeans are well-acquainted and familiar with Muslim, Hindu and Southeast Asian cultures as reflected in our national demographics. Is it too much to suggest that God may have uniquely design the willing Singaporean believer to be the modern Silk Road missionary? Never in the history of the world could there have been a better timing for Singaporean Christians, with our cultural inroads and professional skills to be useful for the gospel than the BRI.
3. How should the BRI make us think about Singapore’s place in the world as a gateway to the nations, and the immediate opportunities presented through the people passing through this island?
With the BRI, countries once disconnected from each other will now be linked up by rail and train, ports and ships, and increased political and economic relationships – and Singapore and SEA will be right at the centre of this. As part of the China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor and the Maritime Silk Road, Singapore will be a key node for transport and traffic for Europe and the Mediterranean travellers en route to China.
Overseas businesses are likely to continue seeing Singapore as a preferred spot from which to tap on this regional development, which means international and regional offices based in Singapore. Their employees, posted for stints abroad, will come from all the nations, and they will be based here as our neighbours, tenants, colleagues and friends. Like All Soul’s Church and Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London, or Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Times Square Church in New York, will our churches open their doors to the nations that pass through us? Will we seriously see them as God’s gifts to us and teach them the gospel, and through them, the world?
4. What mission opportunities are there for tentmakers and mission-minded business people in the BRI?
While the phrase “tentmaker” has become less common place, we ought to remind ourselves that in the New Testament, it was the apostle Paul who recognised that an economic agent could also be a gospel agent. Business people with investment and projects in regional settings and must travel for the gospel should think of themselves as participating in a regional or global gospel advance. Friendship and personal evangelism ought to be heavily emphasised in the church’s efforts to disciple and train lay members. This is especially true of bilingual members, who should be encouraged to embrace the missional call of a tentmaker. Missions innovations, like “Packing Hope” to crowdsource delivery of theological resources to the developing world, could also be a part of the churches’ strategy to prepare travelling business people for missions.
Christian organisations could think about how to harness this group of lay people, who have been given unprecedented access, for the advance of the gospel.
In conclusion, God is doing something amazing in our midst through the BRI. It should be understood and watched by churches and Christian organisations. As we read the Bible with one hand and hold the newspaper in the other, we ought to be engaged with these global developments around us, being sensitive to the times, and God’s will for history.
Let it not be said of us that we failed to steward the gospel in our day, even as God opened up the doors to the nations all around us. Amen.
Written by Caleb Yap, who strives to live life reading his Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.