How might 19th-century European notions of ancient “Silk Road” traditions find themselves reflected in contemporary Central Asian societies’ self-conceptions? How might Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative overlap with these Silk Road identifications? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Peter Frankopan. This present conversation focuses on Frankopan’s book The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. Frankopan is a professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he directs the Centre for Byzantine Research. Frankopan writes for The New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Guardian, and has a regular column in the London Evening Standard. His previous book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, received numerous international “book of the year” recognitions. He is also the author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East, and of a revised translation of The Alexiad.
ANDY FITCH: I very much respect your efforts to revitalize a somewhat vague 19th-century “Silk Roads” concept by fleshing out a broadly inclusive historical narrative emphasizing intercultural flows of people, ideas, and goods (rather than the more parochial timelines often reinforced by national governments). I admire your survey of a present-day scene catalyzed by multi-state cooperation on territorial, infrastructural, transportation, energy, and commercial concerns (rather than by inherited frictions among neighboring peoples, or petty rivalries among individual leaders). I appreciate your accounts, say, of India’s and Pakistan’s economies converging in unprecedented ways over the past few years, of Pakistan, India, China, and Russia collaborating on joint military exercises almost inconceivable not long before — of even the Taliban and ISIS seeking to participate in New Silk Roads exchanges. I understand why you would frame these geopolitical trends as perhaps the most important global dynamic right now, emanating from “the heart of the world.” At the same time, I could consult a map, and examine this greater region flanked by dominant powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran to the north and west, and Pakistan, India, and China to the south and east (with relatively low-population, under-developed, autocratic, resource-rich nations comprising the expansive interior), and I could see taking shape something more like a 21st-century variant on preceding colonial eras. So could you introduce this region and its current moment by talking about why it would or would not make sense, at least from a European or US perspective, to consider it in those neocolonial terms?
PETER FRANKOPAN: First, as a historian, I find myself drawn to various histories of exchange. And as a pluralist, I particularly value considering how, say, economic exchange takes place in multiple directions. For some time, this “Silk Roads” label primarily has suggested movements of relatively small amounts of elite luxury goods from one side of the world to the other — typically from China to the Mediterranean. We haven’t thought much about what traveled back in the other direction, from west to east. Similarly, when we’ve mythologized more long-distance routes, we haven’t really recognized the richness of interconnected regional markets all acting together. I also want to look at movements north-south, as much as east-west. And again, as a pluralist, I want to consider what else moves around: with human cultures interacting, with diseases mutating and spreading, with genetics mixing, with flora and fauna and foods (and of course ideas — with religions playing a crucial role) all taking part in these exchanges.
But for all of these questions regarding the past and present (and, I daresay, the future), one has to start with some very basic elements, such as geography and climate. How do these factors keep changing over this region and over time? How might localized conditions shape human distributions and dispersals and survival? And demographics play a similar role in helping to formulate the right questions. So where do we find large population numbers historically? Where do we see new urban concentrations today? Cities especially interest me, because even in today’s digital world (where you can order things from Mumbai, and they can arrive just 24 hours later), daily interactions still connect us more than anything else to each other: every time we step on a bus, or step into a store or workplace.
By tracing the distributions of people (and above all, of resources), I believe that we can both fulfill and move far beyond the simple sentiment that “Money makes the world go around.” To survive today, humans of course need food, functional water supplies, energy (an especially acute need at present, encompassing oil, gas, uranium, rare-earth minerals, etcetera). And yes, we must develop the capacity to pay for all of these needs, and we must develop that capacity in a globalized world — where a Midwestern farmer might have to find the right market in urban China. This means that we keep developing ever more intense intercontinental connections. And it also means that supposedly remote parts of the world likewise pick up increased significance, both in regional and global contexts.
So as a historian, I follow the action, and I follow how and where that action shifts. These shifts depend on population movements, on changes in climate, on humans tapping new resources. Had we started this conversation roughly 110 years ago, for example, we wouldn’t have mentioned oil and gas — though histories of the exploration and corporatization and exploitation of these resources shaped, in many ways, a key story of the 20th century, and perhaps even its primary driving narrative after the end of the Second World War. In terms of the carving out of states (their new frontiers and antagonisms), in terms of fundamental geopolitical struggles for supplies, access, and control, energy resources certainly have stayed at the heart of global politics for at least the past half-century. And I do believe that a study of the Silk Roads can offer a quite useful look into all of that.
Of course, as you say, a German geographer invented this concept in the late-19th century and, like all labels, it has its strengths and weaknesses. It can obscure any number of local differences, and also over-accentuate and over-simplify. But it also can help us begin to recognize and to appreciate a period of enormous change in Central Asia, particularly following the dissolution of communism in the Soviet Union. It can offer insights into the economic, political, and military rise of China. Here again I believe that focusing on certain smaller parts of the globe can help us better understand what’s happening all around the world — amid all of the overwhelming events taking place in real time, with all of the tensions and rivalries and now even trade war between Asian states and the US, or even all of the frictions within individual states and organizations (like the EU and the UK and the US), with everybody struggling to grasp where we are and where we might be heading in the 21st century.
I brought up European and American vantages from the start because your book provides such a sharp and arresting contrast between pessimistic, internally corrosive, internationally isolationist sentiments in a weary West right now, compared to a collective buoyancy in New Silk Roads nations — as the policy decisions “that really matter” once again emanate from their own part of the world, as public resources get redirected more efficiently, and as economies offer enticing space for expanded consumer sectors. At the same time, you do acknowledge that while New Silk Roads societies might be seeing a new world emerge before their eyes, it is not necessarily a free one, and it is not one in which young people can feel secure about their own access to corresponding job opportunities and future prospects. So again, to what extent could or should we parse a new regional integration taking place among self-interested state regimes, from a broader flourishing of improved conditions and life options for people throughout this region?
Here I might start with the topic of a basic rivalry between authoritarian (in some cases totalitarian) states and our so-called “Western model” of democracy. I consider it crucial right now for economists, philosophers, and commentators all around the world to address this tension, and the challenges it poses. We in the West might operate from the quite reasonable belief that openness and lack of prejudice and basic freedoms for individuals and groups can serve as the bedrock of society. And yet we see, in a rising proportion (and quite widespread distribution) of the world, the pull of authoritarianism growing stronger, not weaker. We see national governments specifically choosing to become less like us, and doing so ever more assertively on a day-to-day basis.
So we do have to ask ourselves why this might be happening right now. What in our Western model might provoke precisely this reaction? How might other parts of the world perceive and assess our own politics? Where might they see us as particularly aggressive, or divisive, or dysfunctional — with big-money interests in Congress, for example, skewing democracy and pushing up against its absolute limits? Which industries (you can take your pick) might appear to receive the most unfair beneficial treatment? When might we look like hypocrites for saying: “Well, the Western world’s so much more free than everywhere else” — and how do we understand precisely what these freedoms involve, and what cost they might come at ? What should be made of the fact that, according to the Gini coefficient (the World Bank’s standard way to measure social mobility), you have a better chance of climbing out from the bottom 20 percent economic demographic today if you grow up in Kazakhstan rather than the United States?
And how should we think about the fact that the Democracy Index downgraded the United States in 2016 from a “full” to a “flawed” democracy? What are our own flaws, problems, and sins? Why does more and more research keep pointing to the fact that democracy itself is falling rapidly in popularity in Europe, particularly with the young — with some research suggesting that, in many European states, 40 percent do not believe that democracy is essential?
So although we might consider this Silk Roads region unfree in many respects, we also need to acknowledge its competing claims for international legitimacy. The security and survival of elites is what matters in these countries. But perhaps that shapes our own systems too — and comes at the price of freedoms for those who are excluded.
Many states and societies lying across the spine of the Silk Roads have begun to update their economies quite efficiently, delivering the benefits of growth to those at the top, but also to emerging middle classes. It is true that certain parts of these societies have been left behind, and also that those critical of the government are dealt with severely — with the number of journalists imprisoned in countries from Turkey through China high and rising. This closing up of the media applies to Pakistan too, as well as to India, the world’s largest democracy (where the prime minister hasn’t held a single open press conference since his 2014 election).
So in terms of governmental transparency and accountability, you sense many societies across the region right now asking: “How might we improve on these things? What does improvement actually mean, and for whom?” And certainly one can see autocracies (as well as corrupt or inefficient regimes in places like Libya and Sudan) facing significant challenges right now. The track record for Silk Road countries becoming more democratic (or even just opening up more generally) has been pretty terrible so far. The profound disappointment of the Arab Spring, which was misread as a no-turning-back moment on the path towards democratization, needs to be seen in the sober light of day as revelatory not for the unsated demands of protestors, but for the resilience of autocracies. Despite the efforts of the US and European countries to get rid of him, Bashar al-Assad is still in place. Libya has turned into a completely anarchic state despite our debates and interventions. Egypt held one somewhat flawed election, after which we in the West couldn’t endorse a military takeover fast enough. So I do sense that we both want to have our cake and to eat it when we accuse others of reinforcing flawed systems of government — without acknowledging our own problems or our role in the problems of others.
It’s also important to recognize basic differences in the historical trajectories of the US and Europe at present, with the US much more robust, with much bigger markets, with greater capacities for global authority — even despite everything we might say about the Trump administration. And though you mentioned the US pulling back from global affairs, I do want to note significant recent increases in America’s military budget and its commitments abroad. At the same time, an ordinary citizen in Denver or Los Angeles might legitimately question whose interests get best served by the US building transportation links in the Middle East or hospitals in Afghanistan. Why should the US be involved in these continents, regions, and countries? What is the “national interest” of doing so? How should success be measured? From my perspective, I consider posing these questions in the United States and Europe as important as looking at how flawed, repressive, autocratic states in Asia are providing their own answers.
So here I wonder again about basic tensions in your own present work: with your historical approach prioritizing lateral exchanges among diverse ranges of peoples, rather than official pronouncements by centralized state actors — but with many contemporary Central Asian developments you discuss seeming driven by such state actors, rather than by less formal everyday engagements. So where do you find some of the most dynamic, more localized social transformations taking place in which countries?
Well as you suggest, we do have to acknowledge so many different variations right now. You can find a huge differential between what percentage of the population holds bank accounts in, say, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and Russia. You see a huge differential likewise in the number of women holding their own bank accounts. You see a huge differential in women’s economic status from one city to the next, or in the percentage of families who have home mortgages. And really, given all of these local differences, you can’t help seeing why anthropology remains the queen of intellectual disciplines for this region — with every single individual person and every single household and every single community fitting into these social structures and legal regimes and ways of governance differently. So this combination of historical approach and political commentary definitely raises questions about how we might most productively generalize, or how to generalize in ways that don’t necessarily bring a whole country or entire population along with it. Again, I think the answer to such questions really can change on a day-to-day basis right now.
And here for one broad example of where we might further parse such associations and generalizations, it’s hard to discuss the metaphorical paving of these New Silk Roads without quickly bringing in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, our present world’s most ambitious, extensive, and consequential infrastructural, economic, and political undertaking. Your book illuminates fascinating ways in which this rhetoric of the Belt and Road allows for countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (and even regional powers like Iran) to internalize BRI parameters and make them one’s own, to mold this somewhat mythic conception of a revived Silk Roads into an exuberant nationalist narrative. But your book likewise notes numerous ways in which rhapsodic depictions of these New Silk Roads can obscure the realities of China serving its own strategic self-interest: say by providing outlets for its industries’ overcapacities, opening an ever expanding sphere of markets abroad, promoting a domestic rebalance that can further develop China’s western provinces while taking some pressure off its overcrowded eastern coast. So here could you discuss a bit where you see fortuitous connections and where you see fundamental contradictions between, say, a public narrative of bottom-up domestic / regional integration stitching these New Silk Roads towards a harmonious whole — and a more opaque reality of top-down Chinese statecraft plowing its way towards 16+ partnerships in Europe, and towards increasingly hegemonic status in Africa, South America, even the Caribbean?
First you’re right that we do find marriages of convenience as the norm today when it comes to the shifting national interests for many of these countries. And people and resources and ideas are always (but especially right now) on the move. Many of these populations and economies have grown quite fast recently, with increased needs and with varying degrees of access to food resources, valuable mineral deposits, and so on. The growth within certain cities (and the birth of entirely new cities) can be hard to comprehend. I mean, China alone contains 156 cities with a population of more than a million people. I think the US has 10. According to some estimates, the Chinese, over a recent three-year span, used more concrete than the US used during the entire 20th century.
When you see that kind of change, when you see these new markets being built, that focuses the mind on who your nation might want to throw its lot in with. Here again the “Silk Roads” concept does provide a very convenient catch-all: tapping cultural mythologies, country-branding, and contemporary realities really across this whole region. And in terms of these mythologies, again I don’t want to overgeneralize, but Asia has historically seen many expansive empires and enormous states — particularly in comparison to Europe. Of course Asia always has had its flashpoints. But it likewise has seen long periods of profound collaboration, of highly organized states and good governance. A capable central bureaucracy, led and staffed by competent administrators, was understood as the key to stability in China for many centuries. That was also why societies in South Asia were so resilient and prominent for millennia. That’s what made Iran (or Persia) such a successful state stretching so far back into the distant past too. So with any proclamation of a New Silk Roads, many different cultures and nations have good reason to buy into ideas that speak to previous golden ages. Whether in the Middle East or Iran or Central Asia or South Asia, they can claim historical ownership of these Silk Roads.
Of course when you sit down with scholars and artists and politicians from these various countries, their conceptions of the Silk Roads will differ. That helps to explain why, at this book’s beginning, I bring in song lyrics from the Disney film Aladdin. The Aladdin narrative remains probably the most famous part of the One Thousand and One Nights, a concoction of stories that came from Persia, from the Arab world, from South Asia, from India, from China — and that all got blended together, today helping to show us how people from these many societies communicated with each other, shared ideas, shared stories. So while I agree that China has hit upon a very clever rhetoric for persuading everyone to talk about this broader collaboration, and to connect this cooperative past to the present and the future, and to assert ideas about a common direction of travel, I sense that this rhetoric gains much of its traction from the fact that it does contain some significant historical truth.
You now find Silk Road statues all over Turkmenistan. Iran has begun planning a new city, expected to cost $100 billion to build, called Silk City. So yes, a cynical response to these recent trends might say: “These labels just re-brand some new marriage of convenience.” But so too do the elastic concepts of “Europe” or “Africa,” which can be equally nebulous and misleading. We adopt or pick apart these generalized terms depending on our needs of the moment, and China’s use of the Silk Roads as a reference point does the same.
Ironically, China’s role, engagement, and connections with the historical Silk Roads were rather minimal. As a global power, a bit like the present-day United States, Chinese culture often didn’t prioritize extensive foreign travel. While there were cases of individual travelers encountering other parts of the world, these were the exception rather than the norm. That’s in significant contrast, for example, to European explorers and scholars wanting to learn about other cultures and peoples. China expected the world to come to China. Even today, less than 10 percent of the Chinese have passports. So we might in fact consider Chinese discussions about the Belt and Road less as representing a return to the past, and more as discovering a whole new world. And that is much easier said than done. When you actually do start to explore new states, new societies, new ways of doing business, you learn very quickly how little you know about the risks and challenges of dealing with others. And of course you also make mistakes — all of which we see today.
Elsewhere throughout this region, rivalries, difficulties, and opportunities have remained part and parcel of living in an inter-linked and complex world. Living in Central Asia or South Asia leaves you stuck with certain neighbors, whether you like them or not. India and Pakistan have very fractious relations with each other — and have different views on China, despite both sharing borders. Then there is the question of dealing with the regime in Tehran, which requires careful thought in its own right, especially at a time when the US keeps putting additional pressure on that leadership.
In circumstances like these, you do have to work out some kind of arrangement (for good or for bad) within a jigsaw puzzle that itself is always on the move. China’s way of building ties with its many neighbors emphasizes investing in their infrastructure, in building their roads, and water-purification facilities, and the types of energy plants that allow a city like Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan (where it gets to minus 30 in winter) to function much better. Offering loans, credit, and solidarity doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to me — with some caveats of course. And China has the cash and expertise to do all of this, as well as a strong vested interest in giving contracts to Chinese businesses employing Chinese laborers (and supporting the domestic economy).
But I think it’s fair to say that the jury is still out on how effectively some of these BRI projects get selected and administered, or whether these deals can remain financially sound. We’ll also have to see what kinds of modifications China makes to its own economy as it implements some of these international projects — both in cases of domestic political fallout, and of international repayment problems or default. We’ll have to see what happens in certain neighboring countries as borrowing money (especially big sums) puts a strain on economies, potentially compromising politicians who have chosen and endorsed these projects. But just as with anybody who takes out a mortgage and buys a house, the principle of borrowing today to invest in the future does not, by itself, seem so fundamentally wrong. And as Cambodia’s prime minister has said, many people turn up in Phnom Penh and tell the Cambodians what they should do, but only the Chinese come both with ideas and with the money to back these up.
That looks very different to the US, especially under the Trump administration, where bullying tactics and language can prove hugely counterproductive. In recent weeks, for example, Donald Trump has more or less eliminated US aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — and that has real global consequences. El Salvador already has abandoned its ties with Taipei, and officially recognized Beijing. Guatemala and Honduras still have relations with Taiwan, but I’m guessing that those will shift. China has proved adept at convincing countries that they want to work with the Chinese, and I expect that only will accelerate as Beijing builds up ties with countries right at the US’s back door. At the same time, while China has had much recent success fulfilling its own goals (sometimes without much concern about how these goals get perceived from outside), we’ll still have to see how various parts of the world interpret China’s actions and intentions. And of course these perceptions too will constantly keep changing.
Sure, and your book likewise stresses that China’s persuasive rhetoric at present doesn’t consist solely in inclusive optimistic phrasings (backed up by cash transfers), but also in drawing upon its proven expertise at bringing together smart policy, infrastructure, and investment initiatives to generate economic growth and poverty alleviation on an unprecedented world-historical scale. At the same time, as your book notes, China faces one of the largest credit booms in history, and complex strategic calculations as BRI deals increasingly bring debtor nations towards default. So if / when China’s own economic falterings make sustained BRI support more financially and / or politically perilous, if / when BRI debtor countries’ own domestic politics make existing arrangements increasingly fraught, do you sense this New Silk Roads world facing a moment of reckoning on its long-term future? Or why would that be a too narrow way to think about this broader historical trajectory playing out?
I actually sense that we in Europe and the US might overestimate these scenarios in which China benefits when countries default on its loans. I consider it implausible to think that acquiring an expensive railway line in Ethiopia truly gives China a “strategic asset.” And I still believe that our assumptions about China wanting to build an empire come mostly out of our own historical experiences as colonial powers. So I don’t see such a huge threat when a European port gets sold to the Chinese. I mean, I’m happy to be persuaded. But so far, I haven’t seen much evidence of deliberate over-lending appealing to the Chinese, or strengthening their global position much.
And it’s fair to say that many international participants directly involved in the BRI do not see it that way either. As we know, Chinese commentators often point out that China never has established an empire outside China itself. But people like Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister, also have taken a public position on which historical lessons are most useful here. Talking about a BRI project that he initially suspended, and has since restarted (at a heavily discounted price), Mahathir recently said: “Look, two years after the Europeans first arrived in these lands in the 1500s, they had colonized us.”
Or today in Europe we might have an outcry when Italy accepts investment into two of its ports, as part of the Belt and Road — with little mention of the fact that this outcome presumably will make commercial transport cheaper and quicker for long-distance and regional commerce. Though then when Emmanuel Macron announces and celebrates the sale of 40 billion Euros worth of goods (mainly aircraft) to China, complaints about China’s sinister infiltrations abroad strangely go quiet. That says a lot about our willingness to hold double standards and turn a blind eye when it suits.
But similarly, as you say, I do believe we have to think through much more precisely what actual capacity China might have to absorb the debt on defaulted loans. When you put billions of dollars into projects that go wrong, this loss doesn’t just disappear into thin air. You have to account for it somewhere. And right now, even in China, there is widespread recognition that China’s state-owned companies face a significant debt problem (separate and independent from the Belt and Road), which in fact may make things worse. So here again, the idea that it inevitably serves China’s strategic interests to simply absorb financial losses and take over distant assets doesn’t seem, to me, particularly sophisticated.
Within Beijing itself, I think it’s fair to read between the lines and see a robust discussion taking place (behind closed doors perhaps) about what exactly China hopes to accomplish through an ongoing Belt and Road Initiative. Like us, Chinese intellectuals themselves put much time into deliberating on the relative merits of international expansion, versus more concentrated domestic investment — though clearly we have seen, over the past 12 to 18 months, a crackdown by Chinese authorities about what kinds of opinions one can comfortably put into public circulation (again not just regarding the BRI, but regarding the Chinese leadership’s escalating demands for party discipline, for a purging of corruption, for defensive responses to potential domestic dissension). We’ve also obviously entered a moment of great tension and anxiety in some Chinese quarters about how to deal with resurgent trade tariffs, with expanding international pushback against BRI projects, with China’s attempts to step up and assume the position of a global power often generating unintended consequences, and again with serious domestic debate regarding China’s best use of its own resources.
We haven’t yet focused much on cultural trends, but here in terms of the potential for enhanced regional exchange to prove destabilizing as well as energizing, you likewise note the Chinese government’s acute fears of contamination from Western Asian Islamicist ideologies, particularly as religious fighters return from Syria to China and to neighboring countries. You note across the New Silk Roads accelerated trends towards harvesting data both for domestic social-control and for military advantage. And you note the reprehensible extremes of China’s treatment of its own Uighur population, with perhaps 80 percent of adults subject to forced confinement in re-education camps, with frightening official rhetoric stressing the need for these “re-education hospitals” to cleanse “diseased” brains. To what extent do you see right now, and do you expect to see going forwards, intensifying friction between New Silk Roads Muslim communities and repressive state tactics in China? And if / when retaliatory responses escalate into something further like high-profile terrorist attacks, how might you anticipate Xi’s increasingly omnipresent security state responding then — with what ramifications across western China, across all of China, across the whole region?
Well in the US and Europe, even relatively small attacks get enormous media visibility, and serve to make us all feel under threat and under attack all the time — even when you can rehearse the statistics on how many toddlers kill people with handguns, relative to the number of terrorist killings, and so on. Terror offers a very obvious (and often effective) way to undermine the credibility of a state’s leadership. Regardless of which country you live in, governments feel acutely this sense of somebody having made a severe mistake when a terrorist attack succeeds on one’s homeland. And even with pervasive surveillance, even with whatever security measures you put in place, you can’t stop every attack from happening. So it serves such a government’s interest to respond quite heavy-handedly, to demonstrate that you take this threat seriously. So no one ever can predict precisely what ripple-effect consequences might follow.
I do find it especially striking right now, regarding this case of the Uyghurs, that not a single substantive critical comment has emerged from the Muslim world (other than some vocal protests from Turkey). Many of these countries have in fact been very careful to keep quiet, partly because they themselves have developed security states not so dissimilar to China’s — and of course, given the financial and political stakes, many states simply consider it within their own self-interest to stay out of these discussions. Or you’ll have Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, say: “I’d rather raise that topic behind closed doors, and see what kind of conversation we can have.” And frankly, many Central Asian states seem anxious about former ISIS fighters returning home right now — and not without reason, given patterns of radicalization across the region.
But China definitely has initiated a much wider sort of shutdown, based on these and related anxieties. Xi often talks about shifting currents, and ominous waves, and needing to get back to harbor, and how it’s time to be brave. As far as I can tell, the leadership in Beijing assesses our present moment as a period of significant and unpredictable change — potentially bringing turbulence and unexpected consequences, and therefore justifying zero tolerance and the use of a heavy hand by state authorities.
Of course this comes at a time when we in the US and the UK and Europe face our own related anxieties about cultural identity, about enhanced globalization, and movements of people, and rising income disparities, and so on. We face significant domestic debate, especially in the US and UK right now, about what we really want. We see a United States and a United Kingdom which, given their “united” branding, surprise much of the world with their polarized political divisions — with either half of the population considering the other half complete idiots. So we clearly face our own crossroads.
At the same moment, in other parts of the world, countries are developing long-term views, objectives, and strategies. The BRI is just one of those, with parallels in India, Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, the UAE (you name it). Each of these states has developed its own long-term agenda, which of course still might get rewritten, amended, or dropped overnight — or which might go wrong. But all of these countries have developed or are developing a clear sense of direction. And while we’ve discussed China’s Belt and Road Initiative so far, we also could discuss their quite detailed plan to attain moderate prosperity by 2021, and to become more wealthy and even democratized by 2035, and by 2049 (the 100th birthday of the People’s Republic of China) to reach a state of nirvana. Still in the States and in Europe, we basically can’t push beyond the question of what to do next. The UK illustrates this perfectly: who knows what even next week brings?
Yes of course one could say so much more about a self-destructive UK and a self-serving US today presenting themselves as erratic, unreliable, willfully unilateral, only cynically and / or capriciously appealing to a rules-based international order (that they themselves established). But here, for one specific angle, could you speak to how a culture of isolationist, protectionist politics and policy vacuums in both countries at present (and, as you say, in an increasingly populist Europe) only further strengthens Silk Road economic, infrastructural, cultural, and political ties — fostering a critical mass further marginalizing us? Or if we want to address an even more specific case, could we consider how Donald Trump’s ego-driven assault on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran has served to catalyze an already vibrant Iranian start-up culture, to restore the credibility of hardliners characterizing the US as an untrustworthy adversary, to complicate further the political calculus for our ostensible allies India and Turkey, and to strengthen our most conspicuous rivals China and Russia?
First, for the sake of argumentative balance, I probably should add that, for all of Donald Trump’s confused complaints and actions regarding the trade deficit, we can fairly say that some more level economic playing field does need to be established with a country like China — which supports its state-owned enterprises in buying up corporations and assets all over the world, but which refuses to give Western businesses any equivalent access to Chinese markets. Similarly, Western nations do need to raise concerns about intellectual-property protection. And it seems only fair to say that no recent administration has handled these concerns all that successfully. But the broader problem here comes from Trump’s poisonous rhetoric in general, and how aggressive behavior towards China distorts everything, from the media narrative to policy decisions.
At the same time, both for countries like China and like Iran, we need always to keep monitoring whether or not sanctions actually achieve our intended goals of increased liberalization and democratization. When you shut down the oxygen supply in certain sectors of a society, you might force new realignments. Imposing sanctions often strengthens a society’s hardliners, while putting its liberals under pressure. Mike Pompeo can offer his reasoning and say: “Look, if medical and food supplies get caught up in these sanctions, that’s too bad. The Iranians have to work out whether they want their people to get healthy or not.” And this sentiment actually might not depart much from Madeleine Albright’s approach (from the other end of the political spectrum) during the 1990s, when sanctions on Iraq excluded food and medicine in theory but not in practice. And in both cases, much of the world might sense a hypocrisy as the US turns a blind eye to others (like the Saudis) building up their own military capacities and imposing illiberal rule on their people.
Any number of US decisions on tolerating, negotiating with, antagonizing, or attacking Muammar Gaddafi or Assad or Kim Jong-un might come with an airtight rationale. But to the outside world, it still looks like successive American administrations, regardless of their political persuasion, have hidden behind the rhetoric of international order (basically while acting in whatever way suits their self-interest). Within this context, it’s actually quite hard to argue with the idea you’ll hear articulated in many African and Asian societies that the very Western powers who set up these rules don’t really play by them — so why should anybody else?
Today you see new power structures taking shape, starting with the alignment of and close cooperation between China and Russia. These two countries support each other at a UN Security Council level, yet still face any number of uncomfortable issues in their relationship, which they try to manage as privately as possible. But you also see new alignments between Turkey and the Central Asian states. You see a new alignment between India and Iran — though complicated by JCPOA fallout.
You also see of course any number of quite volatile, febrile flashpoints: with the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia for example, the rivalry between India and Pakistan (always tricky, but going through a hyper-intense phase earlier this year), and then India’s refusal to send a delegation to Beijing to take part in BRI discussions, and now with India in the process of reshaping its own defensive response. Still I do not think that Donald Trump and Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo will get very far by simply pointing to the limits in the Chinese and Russian and Iranian models. We in the West need to help developing countries figure out the best and most sustainable and most cost-effective ways to provide their people with stable energy supplies. We need to offer fresh ideas on how to improve standards of living. We need to offer our own expertise, which sometimes remains much more valuable than money.
You also have mentioned our strained postcolonial relations with various parts of the world. And at first I’d wondered, while reading your book, how this whole focus on Central Asia and on China actually might obscure global demographic shifts — with, say, the most substantial population and economic growth projected to take place in Africa across the 21st-century’s second half. But again, your book ultimately makes the persuasive case that no other world power has done nearly so much to establish its contemporary presence on the African continent as China. Could you sketch what you see as the most pressing domestic and diplomatic questions (from the perspective of the Chinese, of individual African nations, and potentially of more unified African regional or continental blocs) emerging as our present moment’s most central country, and our near future’s most pivotal region, continue to work out their relationship going forward?
My book notes much recent Western attention placed on China’s presence in Africa. And for whatever reason, China seems perfectly happy with us sensing more Chinese engagement in Africa than facts on the ground often confirm. We also tend to assume that China only has come to Africa to plunder its natural resources. Yet the second-largest African recipient of Chinese funding, Ethiopia, has an incredible cultural history and so on, but lacks crucial resources like cobalt and uranium and diamonds and oil and gas. So again, we need a more nuanced perspective.
General Stephen Townsend, the head of the US military mission in Africa, explained in his confirmation hearing that China plays an important role right now in giving political as well as economic support to certain African states. I consider that exactly right. And here part of our own challenge, as you say, comes from our colonial histories. China remains baggage-free in that respect. Russia also plays an important role in certain countries, particularly Libya. Russia has very strong ties with Egypt, and a military base in the Central African Republic — serving as a sort of listening post for surrounding countries, including Mali and Niger. Russia has played quite an important role in East Africa and the Horn. And my book describes almost every single state with regional, international, or global pretensions building military facilities in Djibouti right now.
Again, as you noted, Africa has much regional complexity, with each state at a different vector of social and economic development, with each state pointing in a slightly different political direction. We’ve quite recently seen a long-term leader resign in Algeria, and another fall in Sudan. But the African continent, more broadly, remains infrastructure poor. It never yet has seen significant enough or successful enough investment into roads, railways, power plants, desalination, and so on. And the better that this infrastructure becomes, the better for African people — particularly with so many populations due to rise dramatically in the next 30 or 40 years. So a facilities upgrade is in everybody’s interest. Yet, again for complex reasons, we in the West seem quite reluctant to put our money where our mouth is — with development aid and investment from the US low, and falling. In this current global political climate, the idea of helping others and investing in the developing world does not win votes. Even in China there are discussions about why money is going to those outside the country. So it is not a straightforward question anywhere.
And as I said at our conversation’s start, my historical research prioritizes exchange, which certainly includes exchanges via communications networks, with digital communications of course playing in increasingly important part. We see that Huawei has grown dominant in Africa quite fast, in terms of its 5G telecommunications coverage. So here again, at least in principle, establishing better and stronger connections certainly does intensify cultural exchange. And yes, intensified exchange might look good to the exchequer in terms of trade and tax and so on, but it also can produce its own problems as it brings people closer together. Even just the physical mobility enhanced by infrastructure investment can have both benign and more destabilizing effects. So we will have to see how it goes — recognizing that the Belt and Road has actually now been written into the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution, but also that this initiative will keep evolving over time.
Still in terms of growth, you’ve mentioned your primary interest in cities, but we haven’t said much about individual cities. And amid a more general New Silk Roads buoyancy, your book consistently acknowledges potential snags in further development, particularly in terms of challenges posed by escalating climate change and by rapid urbanization (themselves of course entwined). Could you offer a couple local cases of how you see such challenges likely playing out?
Well I have to assume that even the LA Review of Books’ wonderfully informed readers might not know that the world’s most expensive city at present is Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Buying a Snickers bar might cost you somewhere north of $50, because of currency controls and an economy that has gone somewhat haywire. Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, but has a leadership structure that remains a law unto itself in terms of making decisions, and spending revenues. And right now, one of our biggest 21st-century challenges, alongside climate change, comes from rapid urbanization in places like India and Pakistan, but also right across Asia. You find megacities (with populations of more than five million) all across the globe, but you find a majority of them concentrated in Asia. You also find individual cities such as Chongqing, which, depending where you draw its border, already has 20 or 25 or 30 million plus.
So how to supply these enormous cities’ populations with enough food? You no longer can produce it all in a city’s hinterland. And how much new and ongoing infrastructure-building will you need to allow residents to get to and from work every day without wasting hours in the car? How will you consistently provide enough energy while keeping both pollution and carbon emissions manageable (because all those air-conditioning units or those heaters in winter create their own problems)? And how can you maintain water access for all, and minimize regional and even international struggles over water rights — with places like Bangalore and Cape Town (and Phoenix in the US) already having more or less exhausted the water table beneath these cities?
We might assume that science can solve all such problems. And scientific development, from basic medicine through digital communication technologies, certainly has provided our best ways to beat back against biological and environmental limitations. We also do see, in a place like Phoenix, a lot of very interesting high-tech innovations for developing sustainable electricity and water supplies, and sustainable urban infrastructure — in locations where human beings weren’t naturally designed to live in such large numbers. But how do you beat Mother Nature?
As global temperatures continue to rise, and water becomes more of an issue, and food supplies get put under further pressure, clearly our big cities will feel these strains first. And some cities in our past certainly have died. When a local population exhausts its ecosystem, this produces fairly recognizable outcomes, ranging from food shortages and famine to large-scale population dispersal — and, in some cases, civic collapse, anarchy. Taking urban development as a whole, I consider this prospect for localized collapses more a question of when than of if throughout human history. Places like Panjikent in Central Asia have collapsed under the weight of their own exhausted capacities and facilities. Cities like Ctesiphon in present-day Iraq have risen, then eventually fallen. Climate of course will play a significant role in shaping all of that for a long time to come.
More optimistically, perhaps, we human beings do respond quite well to things like massive tax incentives. Societies have developed successful ways to encourage individuals to get married or to settle in particular locations. Using related incentives to encourage people to move before meltdown happens looks (at least in theory) potentially effective. Still, in practice, humans like to move to and stay in places where their friends and families live. The idea of upping sticks and moving hundreds of miles typically happens under duress. So here again the megacity will both reflect and produce some of the 21st-century’s biggest challenges and questions.
Finally then, in terms of future-oriented questions, your book makes clear how Central Asia’s accelerating development already poses new financial pressures and resource scarcities on everyday life in the West. What most positive-sum case can you make, specifically to domestic constituencies in Europe and the US, for Asia’s resurgence (recently occurring, you say, not in direct competition with, so much as performing auxiliary functions for, our own economic system) today bringing new opportunities for all of us?
Well, cooperation and exchange take two to tango. It’s hard to force societies to work together, so the question is figuring out if, how, when, and where mutual interests can coincide.
But as far as the story right now goes, it’s hard to be looking anywhere other than Asia. That starts with demographics and resources, extends through basic questions (or, I should say, facts) about geography, and then progresses from tensions and animosities to collaborations and investments. And of course there are dangers of sounding glib when talking about broader connections being made across Central Asia and across plenty of other regions of the continent — not least since these pronouncements can overlook internal differences of opinion, identity, culture, and so on.
Yet I am acutely aware that this broader narrative is itself important and quite powerful — again especially in comparison to our polarized discourse, and lack of balance in media reporting, and focus on the chaotic. In good times, we can feel the upside in our willingness and ability to disagree. But right now, that seems much more part of a serious competitive disadvantage. So, not surprisingly, at present we do see this rise of authoritarianism, this shutting down of press freedoms, this persecution of minorities becoming part of the DNA in other regions of the world — places that show little inclination to borrow our models. That does worry me. But then again, few historians are born optimists…