Book review: The New Silk Roads
Continuing his thesis that western dominance is coming to an end, Peter Frankopan has written as prescient a modern history as possible.
In 2015 Peter Frankopan published his bestselling 'The Silk Road' with the rather bold subtitle 'a new history of the world'. His sequel, or indeed extended conclusion, may lack an originality of title but the subtitle is no less bold. 'The New Silk Roads: the present and future of the world' condenses its timeline from 2350 years of history of the previous work to the three years since 2015.
The original was sectioned into 26 chapters with titles such as 'The Road to Gold' that allowed Frankopan to nimbly charter the history of the world through the context of trade. In his new work he continues this structure, although the roads are leading to a mere five, more abstract constructs such as ‘rivalry’ and ‘future’. Frankopan’s skill is that he able to step back a few more paces from the world map and global events than most modern commentators, whilst encouraging us to use history as a way of looking forward than regressing into the past. With an inclusive writing style that is reminiscent of Tom Holland, he chooses intricate detail to illuminate an observation rather than to prove a point.
The central thesis, like that of its predecessor, is that western dominance is coming to an end. In its place are the countries that harbour the essential resources of the future. The fossil fuel reserves of countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and many of the countries around the Caspian Sea area, point to an immense potential economic shift of power to the central Eurasia.
As China seeks to improve the connectivity of trade across the east, it is investing heavily in other nations as a way of not only improving the fluidity of trade outwards, but to more efficiently obtain the natural resources it needs to power its industry. Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” project, his attempted ownership of the Silk Road concept, has allowed China to enjoy a growing influence over distant countries by patronage. The predominately singular direction of these roads has not gone unnoticed; the Kenyan president is quoted as saying “just as Africa opens up to China, China must also open up to Africa”. As 89% of Chinese Belt and Road projects have Chinese contractors, many question why local economies are being displaced by the Chinese in such tenders.
Although Frankopan’s analysis of the last three years does not completely ignore Brexit or Trump’s election, it is the lack of focus on these events that prove his world foresight. As Western nations lose their pre-eminence and begin to blame one another, Asia connects and reaches out. Where Trump tries to ostracise an “enemy” such as Iran, China and Russia is only too happy to become the replacing patron.
However, the book is not a great paean to the rising eastern powers. Where China’s global infrastructure project aims to bring peace and stability across Asia, recent events seems to suggest the opposite. Frankopan does not hesitate to highlight the deep concerns over their human rights records, particularly focusing on China’s abuse of the Uighur Muslims in the western provinces where more than 100,000 have disappeared into “re-education camps”. The book also examines Russia’s role in Syria, with Frankopan alluding to the fact that Putin has used the seven-year civil war as a shop window to showcase his weaponry for sale – a viewpoint that is as disturbing as it is eye-opening.
Frankopan has written as prescient a modern history as possible, although time and events won’t cease after publication. Recent events not detailed in this book, such as the murder of Khashoggi and the Skripals’ poisoning, confirm the importance of Frankopan’s work; one cannot predict the future - that is not history’s role, however, it can give us the understanding of why they may have happened.
The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World by Peter Frankopan, Bloomsbury, £14.99.