The New Silk Roads: the Present and Future of the World review

Peter Frankopan reveals how, away from Trump and Brexit, the globe is being recast

Chinese rail infrastructure: Peter Frankopan illuminates the sheer amount of change that has taken place globally in just three years.

Chinese rail infrastructure: Peter Frankopan illuminates the sheer amount of change that has taken place globally in just three years.

Sat, Dec 15, 2018, 06:00


Book Title:
The New Silk Roads: the Present and Future of the World


Peter Frankopan


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Ejiao is a traditional Chinese medicine, made from donkey hide, that is used to treat anaemia, low blood cell counts, cancer and reproductive issues. Demand for ejiao has led to a halving of China’s donkey population in the past quarter-century, a quadrupling of the price of asses in Tajikistan and an export ban on donkeys from Niger and Burkina Faso.

In Peter Frankopan’s absorbing The New Silk Roads, the Oxford historian argues that while the West obsesses with Brexit, European politics and Trump, what happens in the countries along the Silk Roads – China, Delhi, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East – is ultimately shaping the century.

The argument that western dominance is over is a familiar one, but by employing vivid examples such as the knock-on effect of Chinese demand for donkey skins to illustrate how globalisation is stepping up pace, Frankopan shows we are already well-ensconced in the Asian century.

“The shift of global GDP from the developed economies of the West to those of the East has been breathtaking in both scale and speed. According to some estimates, thanks to sharp rises in oil prices, the countries of the Middle East (and North Africa) will earn more than $210 billion [€184.5 billion] more in 2018-19 than in they did in the previous 12 months – a windfall of enviable proportions,” he writes.

As the West becomes increasingly fractious and polarised, the New Silk Road countries are working more closely together. At the centre of this is China with its giant economy and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), often referred to as a New Silk Road, which exemplifies the changes in global influence.

The New Silk Roads began as an epilogue to Frankopan’s best-selling 2015 history of the ancient trade routes linking China to the West, but instead the afterword turned into a book that is both a reading of the present and a look-forward to the future.

“We are living through a transformation and a shift that is epochal in its scale and character,” says Frankopan.

Belt and Road Initiative

China’s Belt and Road Initiative now involves over 80 countries with a combined population of 4.4 billion, 63 per cent of the world’s total. Together these countries account for nearly one-third of global output and China’s president Xi Jinping has promised it will “add splendour to human civilisation”.

It’s difficult to get a sense of what exactly the BRI is. Travelling recently in Lanzhou, a city in Gansu province that is a key staging post on the initiative, I was struck by the number of existing projects that were being listed as BRI projects, and how broad is the definition of a belt and road scheme.

Some of been critical of the BRI, saying China is trying to build political influence in other countries and buy goodwill.

In reality most countries benefiting from the BRI don’t care, although there are concerns about growing indebtedness.

As Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen says: “Other countries have lots of ideas but no money. But for China, when it comes with an idea, it also comes with the money.”

The book is a reminder of how the pace of the news cycle has become dizzying. The book covers a three-year span, yet one can see how an event like the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in a consulate in Istanbul would have been a surefire inclusion.

China is at the heart of this book, as the only country apparently capable of providing leadership among a fractious group of states and Frankopan makes good use of the dazzling statistics that are still emerging from China, even as the economy slows. In 2017, Starbucks announced that it would open 2,000 stores in China by 2021 – this means a new Starbucks outlet every 15 hours.

While he acknowledges these countries’ growing importance, he is also critical of aspects, such as the mass detentions of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang and Russia’s role in Syria.

Bin Laden marble

He uses the purchase of major football clubs by people from the Silk Road countries to illustrate how globalisation is taking on a different character.

The principal shareholder in the firm that owns the Carrara marble quarries in Italy is the bin Laden family, which means the marble used in the Freedom Tower in New York City is quarried by the family of Osama bin-Laden, who engineered the destruction of the Twin Towers that previously stood on the same site on 9/11.

At times it reads like a polemic. When he gathers together some of the negative pronouncements Donald Trump has made, it’s hard to understand how the trade war between China and the US has not escalated into, at least, a full-on cold war.

During the election campaign, Trump accused China of wanting “to rip your throat out”, saying the Chinese wanted to abuse the US “beyond belief”, adding that “the money [that China] took out of the United States [is] the greatest theft in the history of our country”.

And there is no relief for the EU, which Trump described as “possibly as bad as China, just smaller, OK? It is terrible what they do to us.”

A senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking summarised the Trump doctrine as “We’re America, Bitch.”

The counterproductive effect of sanctions on Russian firms trickled back all the way along the New Silk Roads to Ireland, where 450 workers at Aughinish Alumina, owned by one of the sanctioned firms, Rusal, were worried for their jobs.

One of the slightly dizzying effects of reading this book is realising the sheer amount of change that has taken place globally in just three years and, as the plight of the donkeys being slaughtered for ejiao shows, the evolving Asian century will bring unexpected challenges.

Clifford Coonan is Beijing Correspondent