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5 December 2018

China’s new trading “Silk Road” will be as influential as the original

The country’s Belt and Road programme is less a revolution than a reversion to a previous state.

By John Bew

In January 2017 a freight train arrived in Barking in east London, carrying 44 containers of clothes and suitcases to be sold on the high street. This would have been an otherwise unremarkable event but for the fact that it had set off 18 days previously from the heavily polluted city of Yiwu in central Zhejiang province in China, weaved its way through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France, before popping out of the Channel Tunnel into England’s green and pleasant land. With much fanfare, London became the 15th European city to be connected to China’s One Belt, One Road programme, the 21st-century incarnation of the old Silk Roads – the trading routes that connected a string of peoples and places from across the Eurasian landmass to western Europe, and left an indelible mark on the shape of modern civilisation.

According to Peter Frankopan, professor of global history at Oxford, the challenge of a historian or observer of contemporary affairs is to “see the bigger picture” – understanding the ways the world is connected, and providing “a more accurate vantage point” on the global landscape. One of the charms of his writing is that he paints on these vast canvases with a deft popular touch. He begins his latest book by invoking the signature tune of the 1993 Disney film Aladdin, “A Whole New World”, to make sense of what he sees as the defining geopolitical transformation of the modern era: an irreversible shift of power from the Atlantic communities to the “world island” of Eurasia, in which the driving force of development is the juggernaut-like rise of China.

For Frankopan, this is less a revolution than a reversion to a previous state in which the Silk Roads of antiquity, linking the Han, Byzantine and Persian empires, comprised the most important civilisational arteries of the world. This was the subject of his bestselling book of 2015, The Silk Roads, and his latest offering – which began life as an epilogue for a new edition – can be seen as a sequel, taking the story up to today.

Frankopan’s skill is to ingest vast quantities of information without over-clogging his writing or slowing the pace of his prose. He is also adept at deploying discoveries at the cutting edge of the historical profession, from the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (using data gathered from drones and satellites to piece together a picture of the civilisations that once lined the old silk roads), to techniques used to analyse carbon and nitrogen isotopes in human remains to demonstrate the richness and variety of nomadic diets.

Today, one explanation for Eurasia’s growing importance is its richness in minerals, fuels, foods and other natural resources. Almost 70 per cent of global oil reserves and 65 per cent of natural gas reserves are in the Middle East, Russia and central Asia. More than half of global wheat production takes place across the same steppes and plains, while south Asia accounts for nearly 85 per cent of global rice production. Those who envisage the future in terms of cyberspace and artificial intelligence are apt to miss the vital importance of raw materials for modern technology, such as silicon (75 per cent of which is found in Russia and China).

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Meanwhile, the flow of Eurasian money westwards includes the acquisition of cultural institutions such as newspapers, major architectural landmarks or football clubs and is also wildly distorting property prices, from London to Vancouver.

In India and China, the ever-expanding middle class dwarfs any comparable transformation in the West during the Industrial Revolution. A new Starbucks opens in China every 15 hours. The country also has an insatiable thirst for French wine that is seeing it swallow up vineyards. Boulangeries are next as investors speculate on the likely market opportunities as the Chinese move beyond a rice-based diet. Then consider the impact on global tourism, given that currently only 5 per cent of Chinese have passports.

Where the book really comes alive is in its depiction of the economically vibrant but politically stunted central Asian corridor, to which so few Westerners travel. Central-Asian republics such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan are reaping the benefits of a combination of developments, from the dividend of multi-billion-dollar Chinese Belt and Road infrastructure initiatives to the discovery of new gas fields and other mineral sources such as copper and mercury.

One of the most striking trends in this region is the birth of major collaborative projects between nations that historically viewed each other with suspicion, from the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (supported even by the Taliban) to the Central Asia-South Asia power project. The Uzbeks and Kazakhs are particularly enthusiastic about their burgeoning special relationship but there are many other instances of cooperation, such as regional conferences to settle the contested legal status quo of the oil-rich Caspian Sea.

Frankopan is less sparkling on the contemporary foreign policy challenges facing the West and the “great game” in which America and China are already engaged. While pointing out the human-rights abuses, regime kleptocracy and economic vulnerabilities besetting many silk-roads countries, he slightly overdoes the dichotomy between a West where the trend is towards “decoupling and going it alone”, and Eurasia, where the story is of “deepening ties and trying to work together with one another”. One of the most significant diplomatic developments of the post-Cold War era – the building of closer ties between the US and India – is downplayed to fit this broader narrative of Western drift.

Likewise, the Trump administration’s more aggressive stance on Iran or trade and cyber-security with China is presumed to be a wrong turn when there is a plausible – if uncomfortable – scenario in which it might actually yield some success. In the era of Belt and Road, however, no one in the West has the will, imagination or wherewithal to concoct anything like the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt postwar Europe. Towards the end of the book, there is a telling quote from Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, to illustrate this new reality: “Other countries have lots of ideas but no money. But for China, when it comes with an idea, it also comes with the money.” 

John Bew’s books include “Realpolitik: A History” (Oxford University Press)

The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World
Peter Frankopan
Bloomsbury, 300pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special