A new sunrise over Asia

By Vanora Bennett

Two people in sun against backdrop of wall in Central Asia - Silk Road

Oxford University historian Peter Frankopan, Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and the author of the acclaimed Silk Roads: A New History of the World, is giving the 2016 annual Chris Cviić Memorial Lecture at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s London headquarters. Here he talks about his book and his understanding of the Silk Roads region of Asia as the cradle of civilisation.

Modern China’s Belt and Road Initiative to connect by land and sea with the global economy is seen by many as the most important development shaping the 21st century. But it is not the first time in history that a far-sighted polity has created wealth and worldwide influence by being quick to reach out along the Asian trade routes once known as the Silk Roads.

A thousand years ago, the city-state of Venice opened up a fabulously lucrative trade with the East. This brought Europeans a first real stake in Asia’s legendary wealth and culture, stimulating the subsequent growth of Western power.

“What Venice did in the early Middle Ages was to construct a series of belts and roads - as you would call them today if you were in Beijing – that is, a foreign economic policy that was joined up. I’m interested in the parallels between Venice, as it reached its heyday, and with what China is currently doing across Central Asia, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond,” explained Mr Frankopan before his lecture on “The One Belt, One Road Initiative in History: the construction of foreign and economic policy in the Adriatic in the Middle Ages,”

“Venice did well by anticipating a world that was taking shape rather than by reacting to it, and that is what some countries today, particularly China, are doing now. By contrast, the US and Europe are reacting to events – but that is one of the prices you pay for democracy,” he added.

The view set out in Mr Frankopan’s book is that the cradle of human civilisation – the true “centre of the earth” - is not where Euro-centric history has put it for the past few hundred years, in the Mediterranean Sea separating Europe and Africa, but right in the heart of Asia, “the region between east and west, linking Europe with the Pacific Ocean.”

These lands gave birth to the civilisations of antiquity. They suffered eclipse once global power shifted to the West, but, despite fragilities, are now rising again as the countries of Central and greater Asia.

Asked what lessons history can teach Westerners engaging with this region, Mr Frankopan replied:

Western European history tells us enlightenment flows from Europe. This can feel smug and self-satisfied, since in the long sweep of history it is the rise of western Europe that is the odd man out. Five hundred years ago, the equivalent of the EBRD would have been in Merv or Damascus.”

“Our way of looking at history and trying to work out what the future will look like needs a very serious reconnect,” he added. “With the world in a significant stage of transition, where there are extreme challenges and fragilities ahead, the greatest threats - and the greatest opportunities - are not coming from the West but from the territory that links Turkey to the Pacific coast of China.”

“There’s been a choppy last 18 months across the Silk Roads, with economic slowdown. Our attention has been mostly on the City of London and financial institutions. But this is a real moment of fragility right across the spine of Asia. When countries run out of funds and there are sudden adjustments in standards of living - as in most central Asian states - that can produce a shuffling of the cards leading to major dislocations.”

If Lesson One is to pay attention to the countries around the spine of Asia, Lesson Two is to learn to see them as parts of a connected whole.

“It’s not just China that is changing. If you look at Turkey, or the rebirth of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the return of Iran to the family of nations, or escalating pressure in Kashmir, these are all interrelated problems. We tend to look at things in silos. But it seems more instructive to see it as a whole region, shaking under a lot of pressure. A century ago, one man being shot in Sarajevo led to a world war. What history shows is that those fragilities are not to be underestimated.”