NEW SILK ROADS, OLD PREOCCUPATIONS

The China story is fast los­ing its nov­elty, at least in Asia if not in Europe, and is now ubiq­ui­tous both along­side the route of the old silk road but, equally im­por­tant, also out­side of it

India Today - - UPFRONT - By T.C.A. Ragha­van T.C.A. Ragha­van is a re­tired diplo­mat and au­thor

Pe­ter Frankopan, an Ox­ford his­to­rian, is well-known as the au­thor of The Silk Roads: A New His­tory of the World. That book was a 2015 best­seller—a nonWestern per­spec­tive on world his­tory cen­tring on the Silk Roads. In it, Is­tan­bul, Khiva, Herat, Merv, Sa­mar­qand, etc, fig­ured promi­nently as cen­tres of world his­tory. Ex­plain­ing his­tory from this per­spec­tive meant dis­card­ing, or at least cor­rect­ing, the tra­di­tional Euro­cen­trism, char­ac­ter­is­tic of much of Western schol­ar­ship that traced a lin­ear move­ment from an­cient Rome to Euro­pean and US dom­i­na­tion in the 19th and 20th cen­turies. Clearly, changes in global power equa­tions are re­quir­ing his­to­ri­ans to relook facts and con­struct new frame­works of ex­pla­na­tion.

The Silk Roads was his­tory writ­ten on a grand scale, with nar­ra­tive zest, its text made ac­ces­si­ble by be­ing reg­u­larly punc­tu­ated with con­nec­tions drawn be­tween seem­ing un­con­nected pro­cesses and facts de­signed to draw the reader in and stay with the nar­ra­tive till the end. Its last sen­tence—‘The Silk Roads are ris­ing again’—pro­vides the point of en­try for The New Silk Roads in which the at­tempt is to bring the story in his first book up to our own times. Hence the sub­ti­tle: ‘the present and fu­ture of the world’.

The open­ing pages ex­plain the ra­tio­nale for the new book: ‘I wanted to ex­plain that how­ever trau­matic or com­i­cal po­lit­i­cal life ap­pears to be in the age of Brexit, Euro­pean pol­i­tics or Trump, it is the coun­tries of the silk road that really mat­ter in the 21st cen­tury…. I wanted to re­mind the reader that the world’s past has been shaped by what hap­pens along the Silk Roads. And I wanted to un­der­line that so too will the fu­ture.’

In do­ing so, Frankopan gives us a rapid run through cur­rent global geopol­i­tics punc­tu­ated by a strik­ing se­ries of facts and con­nec­tions. For in­stance: ‘one of the most vi­brant cen­tres for tech star­tups in the world to­day is Iran’; Turkey’s em­bassy in So­ma­lia ‘is the largest Turk­ish diplo­matic mis­sion in the world’; ‘Boe­ing’s cor­po­rate re­search sug­gests that Chi­nese air­lines will buy more than 7,000 pas­sen­ger jets in the next 20 years’, etc.

The book uses a large can­vas that cov­ers South and Cen­tral Asia, China, Rus­sia, Iran, the Arab World and the East coast of Africa. A cri­tique of Trump runs through and forms al­most its pre­dom­i­nant theme. Its other ma­jor theme is the rise of China. This is a story fast los­ing its nov­elty, at least in Asia if not in Europe, and is now al­most ubiq­ui­tous both along­side the route of the old silk road but, equally im­por­tant, also out­side of it.

The book is en­gag­ingly writ­ten and draws on sources in a num­ber of lan­guages, but out­side of Trump and China, the reader is left strug­gling to de­ci­pher what else ex­actly it says. If the aim is to jux­ta­pose China to­day, all of whose ac­tions are pre­sented as deeply thought through by a mother brain some­where in the mid­dle king­dom, with a mav­er­ick Trump pres­i­dency that ap­pears to lack strate­gic vi­sion that leaves the ques­tion unan­swered that many of Trump’s ac­tions vis a vis China have a greater ex­tent of bi­par­ti­san sup­port than is gen­er­ally con­ceded. But as one ric­o­chets be­tween Trump and China and savours the gen­er­ous sam­pling of in­ter­est­ing con­nec­tions and events, we are left yearn­ing for the au­thor of the The Silk Roads and the his­to­rian writ­ing about the past rather than the present.

THE NEW SILK ROADS: The Present and Fu­ture of the World by PE­TER FRANKOPAN Blooms­bury `419; 335 pages

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