New Silk Roads tell the story of Asia
Published: Aug 15, 2016 11:23 PM

Editor's Note:

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 non-Western countries' contribution to world history?

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?

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 long-term 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?

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.