New Silk Roads tell the story of Asia

People's Review - - OP-ED -

Peter Frankopan's (Frankopan) book, The Silk Roads: A New His­tory of the World, has been an un­ex­pected hit in the UK, stay­ing on best-seller lists for weeks. What does Frankopan, a his­to­rian at Ox­ford Univer­sity and direc­tor of the Ox­ford Cen­ter for Byzan­tine Re­search, think of the Chi­nese "Belt and Road" ini­tia­tive? Re­cently he talked to Global Times (GT) Lon­don cor­re­spon­dent Sun Wei about the past, present, and fu­ture of global trade. GT: In your book, you talked about the his­tory of the an­cient Silk Roads. Why shouldn't the West ne­glect the his­toric sig­nif­i­cance of the Silk Roads and the nonWestern coun­tries' con­tri­bu­tion to world his­tory? Frankopan: There are prob­a­bly two dif­fer­ent ways of an­swer­ing this ques­tion. First, why should we study his­tory? Un­der­stand­ing the past helps us un­der­stand the present day, and hope­fully will help us to un­der­stand the fu­ture. Mark Twain said that "His­tory does not re­peat it­self, but it rhymes." You can learn from the past, you can learn from see­ing changes in power, peo­ple deal with cri­sis, how peo­ple dealt with chal­lenges, how peo­ple dealt with over­sup­ply of money and in­fla­tion. You learn from see­ing how peo­ple in the past have gone about do­ing things - and how they have been suc­cess­ful (or have failed). As far as look­ing at Asian coun­tries, there is an­other fa­mous say­ing, "His­tory is writ­ten by the win­ners." It's fair to say that de­spite the great his­tory of China, In­dia, Iran, and Rus­sia and so on, the last 300-400 years has been the "Euro­pean Age." A hun­dred years ago, more than 80 per­cent of all goods shipped from China were shipped on Bri­tish ships. Europe dom­i­nated the world. That era means that his­tory is writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of how these coun­tries be­came im­por­tant. Part of my book is to ex­plain how Europe be­came so dom­i­nant, be­cause for a lot longer in hu­man his­tory, Europe was not im­por­tant at all. Europe was at the wrong end of the land mas­sive Eurasian con­ti­nent. A thou­sand years ago, you didn't come to Ox­ford or Cam­bridge to study, as al­most all the great cen­tres of learn­ing were in Asia. Even 500 years ago, there were greater and stronger cen­ters of learn­ing in China, In­dia, Cen­tral Asia and Egypt. But the world is chang­ing. As it does so, it is im­por­tant to ex­plain that the shift of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal power to Asia is not new or revo­lu­tion­ary, but a re­turn to how the world used to look. This is not one that is wak­ing up af­ter 2000 years of be­ing asleep. What has hap­pened in Asia has been hugely sig­nif­i­cant in shaping ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing play­ing the most prom­i­nent role in how Europe be­came im­por­tant in the first place. Em­pires of Spain and Por­tu­gal, the Dutch and above all Great Bri­tain were all about try­ing to take con­trol of Asia, its trade, pol­i­tics and re­sources, and they bor­rowed from its cul­ture too. It seems to me that we need to un­der­stand that world bet­ter than we usu­ally do. We look at his­tory too of­ten as in­di­vid­ual small geo­graphic units rather than con­nec­tions. The story of Asia, which is very di­verse and dif­fer­ent, and its fun­da­men­tal role in his­tory has never re­ally been talked about. GT: You talked about the "New Silk Roads" and also men­tioned Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping's Belt and Road ini­tia­tive in your con­clu­sion part. Why do the Silk Roads, old and new, have a spe­cial role in con­nect­ing the na­tions with dif­fer­ent his­tory, cul­ture, and re­li­gion? Frankopan: There are many rea­sons why the Belt and Road ini­tia­tive is im­por­tant. First, it's im­por­tant for China to keep its own econ­omy grow­ing, es­pe­cially in the western prov­inces of the coun­try. The big project of in­fra­struc­ture is very im­por­tant for China. I spent lots of time in the last six months look­ing at the rise of big ci­ties, mega ci­ties in China. To sus­tain these large ur­ban pop­u­la­tions, China needs to make sure it has ac­cess to en­ergy re­sources, food and a good re­la­tion­ship with neigh­bors. The lan­guage of the Belt and Road ini­tia­tive talks about co­op­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. China is not just act­ing for it­self, they are also fac­tor­ing in other coun­tries' ben­e­fits too. That seems to me a pos­i­tive and en­light­ened way of deal­ing with the world around you. If you have a big house made of gold and mar­ble that looks won­der­ful, but your next door neigh­bors are poor, then it be­come a prob­lem. The best way is to spread some wealth and en­sure the whole neighour­hood is pros­per­ous, as that is in every­one's long-term in­ter­ests - in­clud­ing China. We all have com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships with our neigh­bors. We spend a lot of time deal­ing with them, and those who live next to us can be most prob­lem­atic at times; but they can also be the peo­ple who help us most. These kinds of re­la­tion­ships take time to build. To es­tab­lish trust among peo­ple from dif­fer­ent lan­guages and cul­tures, you need to in­vest to­gether, to spend time talk­ing to each other and learn­ing to trust each other. That's not an easy thing to do. All the coun­tries along the Belt and Road route are very in­ter­ested in try­ing to find ways to dis­cuss prob­lems, to share ideas about their own economies, but also about se­cu­rity, in­tel­li­gence, and ter­ror­ism. That lan­guage of co­op­er­a­tion is very dif­fer­ent to what we've seen here in Europe in the last two or three months. Xi's sig­na­ture for­eign pol­icy, Belt and Road ini­tia­tive is eco­nom­i­cally very im­por­tant for China's longterm fu­ture eco­nomic growth, en­ergy and re­sources needs, and sta­bil­ity of the whole re­gion. There is no point in China be­com­ing more rich and pow­er­ful, if the states around it fail. Find­ing ways which in­fra­struc­ture can be put in place, find­ing ways of co­op­er­at­ing at gov­ern­ment level, find­ing ways that loans can be given to help so­ci­eties grow in other coun­try, seems to be the cor­rect model to grow. The Belt and Road ini­tia­tive is try­ing to an­tic­i­pate what the world might look like in the next 20 or 30 years, to pre­pare for it and to put huge amount of money into the projects like rail­ways, roads, en­ergy sys­tems, and al­low fu­ture to be planned for. That's smart pol­i­tics. GT: You wrote an ar­ti­cle for Huff­in­g­ton Post ti­tled "Asia's Silk Road Re­vival shows the Age of the West is com­ing to an end." Why? Frankopan: When I talk about the age of the West world be­ing at an end, I take as my start­ing point the view of the his­to­rian that all cul­tures and po­lit­i­cal cen­tres even­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence de­cline and fall. I think that what we are see­ing across the world at the mo­ment - a rise in re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism, prob­lems in the Mid­dle East, an in­vig­o­rated Iran, grow­ing am­bi­tions in South and South­east Asia as well as China - are all part of a change in the world's cen­tre of grav­ity. It is no co­in­ci­dence that Rus­sia and Turkey, two piv­otal coun­tries that are very aware of their po­si­tion be­tween East and West are now be­gin­ning to look to­wards the for­mer, and away from the lat­ter. But there is no doubt­ing the scale of change. A hun­dred years ago, one quar­ter of the world was con­trolled by the Bri­tish. Bri­tain built its em­pire of join­ing those dots to­gether, which was Bri­tain's "One Belt and One Road." Even 30 or 40 years ago, you could go to China by ship from Lon­don, with­out leav­ing Bri­tish ter­ri­tory ( You went to West Africa, Cape Town, Canyon, Mum­bai, Sri Lanka, and then through Hong Kong). Now that net­work is gone. Bri­tish trad­ing sta­tions were all the way across the Mid­dle East and Rus­sia, and they were very care­fully pro­tected. It's no sur­prise that China is try­ing to build a sim­i­lar sys­tem too. It's a cor­rect strate­gic thing to do, and fol­lows the model of em­pires of the past that are grow­ing and seek­ing to build con­nec­tions for the fu­ture. The dif­fi­culty for China is to an­tic­i­pate what prob­lems will arise along the way, es­pe­cially if change is rapid. When you have a big pow­er­ful friend, it's very hard to say no when they asked for some­thing. China must be very care­ful not to ask for too much in the ne­go­ti­a­tions with other coun­tries GT: The West has grow­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with China, es­pe­cially when China is build­ing a new net­work ex­tend­ing across the globe. How can China avoid such pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of thoughts? Frankopan: That's the most dif­fi­cult ques­tion China will face in the next decade. Ev­ery step that China takes from a defensive po­si­tion is con­sid­ered by the rest of the world as an ag­gres­sive po­si­tion. It's very danger­ous. It's very im­por­tant to work out how to neu­tral­ize this con­cern. Like ev­ery re­la­tion­ship, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the key - and the only way that works. Try­ing to ex­plain what you are try­ing to do and why is very im­por­tant. There is a mis­match of ex­pec­ta­tions as China grows from the mil­i­tary, geopo­lit­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic per­spec­tives. There are things one can do to try to pre­pare and plan, and there are ways in which China can present bet­ter. China does not al­ways wel­come crit­i­cism, par­tic­u­larly at the gov­ern­ment level. The first thing that any suc­cess­ful politi­cian, busi­ness­man, long-term plan­ner learns to do is learn to lis­ten. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers in China need to be pre­pared and will­ing to lis­ten to other voices.

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