“From East to West, the Silk Roads are rising up once more”. Peter Frankopan makes several interesting observations in his book – “The Silk Roads, A New History of the World.” According to him, we are now seeing the signs of the world’s center of gravity shifting – back to where it lay for millennia.
There is little doubt that new connections are springing up across the spine of Asia with new arteries, transport links and energy corridors. Frankopan even calls today’s upheaval and violence as “birthing pangs of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re-emerging”.
For the uninitiated, the Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes. For centuries these roads were central to cultural interaction through Asia, connecting the East and West. It began as an overland route from China to the West but as nautical prowess increased, it extended to land and sea.
While one is entitled to call Frankopan’s theory simplistic, he deals with the merits of his argument throughout his book. In doing so, he lays down the landscape of a resource-rich stretch of land that is gaining traction. The author claims that these lands have always been of pivotal importance in global history.
According to Frankopan, we see globalization as a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.
It raises two important questions in my mind: Has globalization outlived its utility? And more importantly, is the re-emerging Silk Road a new form of globalization and why is it so central to today’s geopolitics?
Frankopan maintains that the region in question has enormous untapped potential and is about to break the shackles. “Economists are yet to turn their attention to the riches that lie in or under the soil, beneath the waters or buried in the mountains of the belts linking the Black Sea, Asia Minor and the Levant with the Himalayas”, he writes in the book.
The Silk Road appears to be a benevolent movement that is willing to mutually benefit from cross-border partnerships. It is neither a marauding ruler of the past who would raze cities on his way to conquering kingdoms nor a convoluted form of globalization that rids the world of its unique cultural identitiesEhtesham Shahid
Views are bound to differ on what the ambitious project has achieved and how many of them are yet to come to fruition. However, one has to agree that the true Mediterranean – the center of the world – is witnessing the re-emergence of a series of connections.
Interestingly, the sequence of events suggests that history is repeating itself, albeit in a reverse manner. If China is investing heavily in bonding itself to the Silk Roads that lies to the West, now we are witnessing the reverse of “Rome’s eyes opening to the world”.
At that moment in history, the East was the antithesis of everything that martial Rome stood for, while today Asia looks up to the West for its institutions, innovations and scientific advancements.
Either way, the Silk Road appears to be slowly turning into a juggernaut that can hardly be interrupted. We can imagine one Silk Road being superseded by another and the momentum that has been built is likely to carry forward.
Like all geostrategic shifts, this also comes with diverse “national interests” that cannot be overlooked. China may be marketing the Silk Road with the stated objective of boosting trade, finding markets for its products and services abroad and securing energy supplies but this cannot be detached from its “hegemonic” ambitions.
Yet, so far, the Silk Road appears to be a benevolent movement that is willing to mutually benefit from cross-border partnerships. It is neither a marauding ruler of the past who would raze cities on his way to conquering kingdoms nor a convoluted form of globalization that rids the world of its unique cultural identities.
If it manages to redefine globalization, the Silk Road will indeed succeed at shifting the global balance of power.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.