A fresh look at history that grasps the centrality and resurgence of the Silk Roads tells us that China isn’t just looking to Britain to turn a quick buck, says Peter Frankopan.
Are you happy with the history of the world as you were taught it at school and as you understand it now? You might know a little of ancient Greece. Something of ancient Rome. Then, if you are anything like anyone else educated in the UK, you’ll have a bit of a gap.
Then there’ll be a bit of Norman Conquest, the Battle of Hastings, several goes at the many wives of Henry VIII and a quick whizz round the Enlightenment. Add it all up and your teachers would have been fairly sure that they’d shown you a direct line explaining the rise of the West and the characteristics that make it the bastion of tolerance and democracy that we all so like to think it is.
Who cares about Henry VIII?
The problem with all this, says Oxford academic and author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan, is not so much that it is wrong, but that it is rather a niche way of looking at history. “Most of the world doesn’t live in western Europe, isn’t familiar with the European languages” and really couldn’t care less about how horrible a husband Henry VIII was. “That comfortable story where we are more tolerant, more heroic, braver and more enlightened than other parts of the world… it doesn’t look like that from 90% of the world’s perspective.”
How many people know that women got the vote in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan long before they did in Britain? A child growing up today in São Paulo, Shanghai, or sub-Saharan Africa has a different history to us – and we all need to look at “what is actually important in this global story we have” and how interconnected we have all been.
To Frankopan, that means looking not to the UK, but to the meeting point of global history – the places that we in the UK know all but nothing about – “such as the Ukraine, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Iran, Central Asia… China”. These are the places from where the Silk Roads fan out in all directions and “where all of our great commercial exchanges have happened in history”. Those of us of Caucasian descent – ie, from a mountain range between the Black Sea and the Caucusus – must ourselves have arrived here from along the Silk Roads.
A different view of history
This is where our first laws were made and where our first cities were built. “Civilisation itself comes from Mesopotamia” and this is where “all of our languages collided. Indo-European meets the Semitic languages. The Altaic languages of the steppes and Turkic meets Tibetan… and its religions have bounced off each other”. This is all very interesting, but perhaps a bit academic? Not so, says Frankopan: looking at the world from the point of view of the Silk Roads might help “explain this transition period that we’re going through today”. By which he means, the rise of China.
If we want to understand the world today, says Frankopan, then it helps to look at what is passing up and down the Silk Roads. Because the old Silk Roads are still there. Railway tracks, pipelines, air routes – all follow the original webs of trade, just as Britain’s modern infrastructure follows the lines of our old Roman roads.
And just as the old web of trade of 2,500 years tied the world together through its exchange of silks, spices, textiles and ceramics, so today it is tying ours together – the rare-earth metals, to take one example, which are so vital to all our modern technology, are to be found almost solely in China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia – “classic Silk Road territory”. To understand our history, it’s essential that we understand who was trading what with whom. It’s no different now, says Frankopan: to understand recent developments, we need to look at the traffic on the Silk Roads.
Xi Jinping walks the new Silk Road
If Turkmenistan is sending gas to China, what is coming back the other way? What’s being traded for those rare earths? And how are the various players choosing who to trade with today? We like to think that trade is all about finding the best prices, but “it doesn’t always work like that, particularly when there are state players involved”. Note the deals made during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s
visit to Great Britain last week, for example. China’s interests aren’t necessarily just about price, but security and resources too.
“China has a very different profile on these kinds of mega-structure considerations,” says Frankopan. In other words, the Chinese think about these things in a different way to us. So we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the Chinese want to invest in the UK just to make financial returns. If it was just about money, why would we make investing easier for the Chinese than for anyone else? The rise of China as an economic and political power means it makes sense for Britain to look in both directions (east and west), as, say, Turkey does, says Frankopan.
What’s China really after?
But if we think the Chinese are just here to find a home for their investments, then that’s a mistake. Perhaps we haven’t thought it through enough, says Frankopan. What history teaches us, whether it’s the British in India or the ancient Greeks in Central Asia, is that “very often a first wave of investment is done between equals”. However, at some point your “investor and trading partner looks to develop a competitive edge over your local industries and your local investors that is irreversible… that is something that I think is probably not understood by our government, which has very strong vested interests in looking for short-term wins”.
Why is that? Here in Britain we have no money and a huge need for investment in infrastructure. China has cash and is, for the first time in 100 years, “looking beyond its frontiers” to invest – and build influence. To our generally “very clever” civil servants – and our politicians “who may or may not be equally clever” – that looks like an opportunity. To those with more of a “concept of these great rhythms in global history”, it might look like something rather different.
What does the future hold?
How does Frankopan see the future panning out, I wonder? The last chapter of Frankopan’s book looks at just how the old empires at the centre of the Silk Roads are rising again. What will this global power shift look like in 20 years’ time?
Frankopan isn’t going to make forecasts without pointing out that it is a relatively pointless undertaking: “this time 100 years ago, the conviction in Germany…was that the next 100 years were going to be the century of the Slavs and the Slavonic peoples. That the rise of Russia and related areas was inexorable. The growth of the steel industries, the growth of natural resources, the population size, meant that it was inevitable that Russia would have its moment in the sunshine.” World War I changed all of that.
Move forward to today and it seems unlikely that anyone could really have foreseen the huge dislocation that the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have created. That said, anyone asking about the global economy, geopolitics, financial institutions or investment strategies has to look to the old Silk Roads. What is being discussed in and around Moscow, Tehran, New Delhi and Mumbai, Beijing, Shanghai and the Western provinces of China has to be at least as important – or more important – than anything discussed in the West, whether we like the individuals controlling those areas or not.
The recent collapse of commodity prices and the financial dislocations that has caused have led some in Europe to indulge in “a bit of dancing on graves”. But that is almost certainly premature. These contractions and confusions are “relatively normal in the rebirthing process” of a region. The new Silk Roads are here to stay – as is the power of the countries that they run through.
Who is Peter Frankopan?
Peter Frankopan is senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, and director of the Oxford Centre of Byzantine Research. His academic focus is on the history of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Russia and on relations between Christianity and Islam. He studied at Jesus College and Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, and has since lectured at universities all over the world including Harvard, Princeton, NYU and King’s College London.
Frankopan has authored two critically acclaimed books. In 2012 he published The First Crusade: The Call from the East, which analyses the Crusades from the perspective of Constantinople, followed this year by The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
In addition to academia, he chairs the Frankopan Fund, which awards scholarships to promising young scholars from Croatia. He is also a co-founder of A Curious Group of Hotels – established with his wife in 1999 – which currently owns four hotels dotted across England, France and the Netherlands.
• The Silk Roads: A New History Of The World by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, £30). Read our review of the book.