The New Silk Road - The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The New Silk Road

In many ways, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have represented something of a disaster for the United States and Europe as they have played out their doomed struggle to retain their position in the vital territories that link east with west. What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history - about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region. In the minds of policy planners, politicians, diplomats and generals, the problems of Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq seemed distinct, separate and only loosely linked to each other.

And yet taking a step back provides valuable perspective as well as remarkable insight, enabling us to see a broad region that is in turmoil. In Turkey, a battle is raging for the soul of the country, with internet providers and social media being shut down on a whim by a government divided about where the future lies. The dilemma is replicated in Ukraine, where different national visions have torn the country apart. Syria too is going through a traumatic experience of profound change, as forces of conservatism and liberalism battle each other at huge cost. The Caucasus has been through a period of transition too, with multiple issues of identity and nationalism bubbling up, most notably in Chechnya and Georgia. Then of course, there is the region further east, where the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 was the prelude to a long period of political instability, and Xinjiang in western China where the Uighur population have become increasingly unsettled and hostile, with terrorist attacks now such a threat that the authorities have decreed that growing a long beard is a mark of suspicious intentions, and have begun a formal programme, known as Project Beauty, to prevent women from wearing the veil.

There is more going on, then, than the clumsy interventions of the west in Iraq and Afghanistan and the use of pressure in Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere. From east to west, the Silk Roads are rising up once more. It is easy to feel confused and disturbed by dislocation and violence in the Islamic world, by religious fundamentalism, by clashes between Russia and its neighbours or by China’s struggle with extremism in its western provinces. What we are witnessing, however, are the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re-emerging. We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting - back to where it lay for millennia.

There are obvious reasons why this is happening. Most important, of course, are the natural resources of this region. Monopolising the resources of Persia, Mesopotamia and the Gulf was a priority during the First World War, and efforts to secure the greatest prize in history have dominated the attitudes of the western world to this region ever since. If anything, there is now even more to play for than there was when the scale of Knox D’Arcy’s finds first became apparent: the combined proved crude reserves under the Caspian Sea alone are nearly twice those of the entire United States.1 From Kurdistan, where newly discovered oil reservoirs such as the Taq Taq field, whose production has risen from 2,000 to 250,000 barrels per day since 2007 - worth hundreds of millions of dollars per month - to the huge Karachaganak reserve on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia which contains an estimated 42 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as liquefied gas and crude oil, the countries of this region are groaning under its natural resources.

Then there is the Donbas basin that straddles Ukraine’s eastern frontier with Russia, which has long been famed for coal deposits estimated to have extractable reserves of around 10 billion tons. This too is an area of rising significance because of further mineral wealth. Recent geology-based assessments by the US Geological Service have suggested the presence of 1.4 billion barrels of oil and 2.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as considerable estimated volumes of natural gas liquids.2 Alongside this sit the natural gas supplies of Turkmenistan. With no less than 700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas estimated to be below the ground, the country controls the fourth largest supplies in the world. And then there are the mines of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that form part of the Tian Shan belt, second only to the Witwatersrand basin in South Africa for the size of its gold deposits. Or there are beryllium, dysprosium and other ‘rare earths’ found in Kazakhstan that are vital for the manufacture of mobile phones, laptops and rechargeable batteries, as well as the uranium and plutonium that are essential for nuclear energy - and nuclear warheads.

Even the earth itself is rich and valuable. Once, it was the horses of Central Asia that were a highly prized commodity, coveted in the imperial court in China and in the markets of Delhi, as famous to the chroniclers of Kiev as those of Constantinople and Beijing. Today, large parts of the grazing land of the steppes have been transformed to become the astonishingly productive grainfields of southern Russia and Ukraine: indeed, so fertile and sought after is the trademark chernozem (literally ‘dark earth’) that one NGO has found that close to a billion dollars’ worth of this soil is dug up and sold annually in Ukraine alone.3

The impact of instability, unrest or war in this region is not just felt in the price of oil at petrol pumps across the world; it affects the price of the technology we use and even that of the bread we eat. In the summer of 2010, for example, weather conditions produced a poor harvest in Russia, with yields well below domestic demand. As soon as the likely deficit became clear, an immediate ban was placed on the international export of cereals, effective with ten days’ warning. The impact on global cereal prices was instant: they rose 15 per cent in just two days.4 Turmoil in Ukraine at the start of 2014 had a similar impact, forcing the price of wheat sharply upwards because of fears about its effect on agricultural production in the world’s third largest wheat exporter.

The cultivation of other crops in this part of the world follows similar principles. Once, Central Asia was famous for Babur’s orange trees and, later, for the tulips that were so highly prized in capital cities across western Europe in the seventeenth century that canal houses in Amsterdam were exchanged for single bulbs. Today it is the poppy that is fought over: its cultivation, above all in Afghanistan, underpins worldwide consumption patterns for heroin, and determines its price - and of course impacts the costs that result from treatment for drug addiction and rehabilitation care as well as the price for trying to police organised crime.5

This is a part of the world that may seem strange and unfamiliar to the west, and even alien to the point of bizarre. In Turkmenistan, a giant golden statue of the President that revolves to face the direction of the sun was erected in 1998, while four years later the months were renamed, with April (previously ‘Aprel’) changed to ‘Gurbansoltan’ after the then leader’s late mother. Or there is neighbouring Kazakhstan, where the President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was re-elected in 2011 after winning an impressive 96 per cent of the vote, and leaked diplomatic cables reveal that pop stars like Elton John and Nelly Furtado have performed private concerts for the President’s family after receiving offers that were too good to refuse.6 In Tajikistan, after briefly holding the record for the world’s tallest flagpole, attention has now turned to building Central Asia’s largest theatre, to sit alongside the region’s largest library, biggest museum and most voluminous tea house.7

Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan, over on the western side of the Caspian Sea, President Aliyev - whose family was compared by US diplomats to ‘the Corleones of Godfather fame’ - had to make do with an only marginally less convincing 86 per cent of the vote in recent elections. Here, we learn that the ruler’s son reportedly owns a portfolio of villas and apartments in Dubai worth a cool $45 million - or 10,000 years of the average Azeri income; not bad for an eleven-year-old.8 Or there is Iran to the south, where one recent President is on record denying the Holocaust and accusing ‘western powers and despots’ of developing the HIV virus ‘so that they could sell their drugs and medical equipment to the poor countries’.9

It is a region characterised in western minds as backward, despotic and violent. For too long, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2011, the centre of Asia has been ‘torn apart by conflict and division’, a place where trade and co-operation have been stifled by ‘bureaucratic barriers and other impediments to the flow of goods and people’; the only way to a ‘better future for the people who live there’, she concluded, was to try to create lasting stability and security. Only then will it be possible ‘to attract more private investment’ that, in her view at least, is essential for social and economic development.10


For all their apparent ‘otherness’, however, these lands have always been of pivotal importance in global history in one way or another, linking east and west, serving as a melting-pot where ideas, customs and languages have jostled with each other from antiquity to today. And today the Silk Roads are rising again - unobserved and overlooked by many. Economists have 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. Instead they have focused on groups of countries with no historical connections but superficially similar measurable data, like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), often now voguishly replaced by MIST countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey).11 In fact, it is the true Mediterranean - the ‘centre of the world’ - to which we should be looking. This is no Wild East, no New World waiting to be discovered - but a region and a series of connections re-emerging in front of our eyes.

Cities are booming, with new airports, tourism resorts, luxury hotels and landmark buildings springing up in countries that find themselves with enormous sums at their disposal to indulge their fantasies. Ashgabat in Turkmenistan has had a new presidential palace and indoor winter sports arena built at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, while conservative estimates suggest that the Avaza tourist region on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea has already had more than $2 billion lavished on it. The modern terminal at Heydar Aliyev international airport in Baku, with its giant wooden cocoons and concave glass walls, leaves travellers arriving in oil-soaked Azerbaijan with little doubt about the country’s ambition and wealth, as does the Crystal Hall, a concert venue constructed to host the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012. As Baku has boomed, so have the choices available to the international traveller, who for overnight stays in Azerbaijan’s capital is now able to choose between the Hilton, Kempinski, Radisson, Ramada, Sheraton and Hyatt Regency, as well as a new crop of boutique hotels. And this is just the start: in 2011 alone, the number of hotel rooms in the city doubled, with the expectation that the figure will have doubled again over the following four years.12 Or there is Erbil, unknown to many outside the oil industry, but the main city in Iraqi Kurdistan. There, the rates at the new Erbil Rotana hotel are higher than in most of the capitals of Europe and many major cities in the US: basic rooms start at $290 per night - which includes breakfast and use of the spa (but not wi-fi).13

Major new urban centres have been founded, even including a new capital city - Astana in Kazakhstan, which has risen from the dust in less than twenty years. It is now home to a spectacular Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, designed by Norman Foster, as well as Bayterek, a 330-foot-tall tower in the shape of a tree in which nestles a golden egg, where visitors are encouraged to place their hand in an imprint formed by the President of Kazakhstan and make a wish. To the untrained eye, this looks like a new frontier-land, a place whose billionaires appear from nowhere to buy the finest works of art in the auction houses of London, New York and Paris, and are happy to acquire the best real estate on the globe at prices that are scarcely believable to long-term residents: in the London property market the average spend of buyers from the former Soviet republics is nearly three times higher than that of buyers from the US or China, and four times higher than that of local purchasers.14 One after another, exclusive private homes and landmark buildings in Manhattan, Mayfair, Knightsbridge and the South of France are bought by Uzbek copper magnates, by tycoons who have made their fortunes in the potash business in the Urals or by oil moguls from Kazakhstan who pay top dollar - and usually in cash. Some lavish their fortunes on world-famous footballers, such as Samuel Eto’o, bought by an oligarch from the Caspian Sea to play for Anzhi Makhachkala, a club based in Dagestan - and who was at one point the highest-paid footballer in the world; others spare no expense in building their country’s profile, with Baku’s hosting of the women’s Under-17 football World Cup marked by Jennifer Lopez’s performance at the opening ceremony - a sharp difference from the ten-minute grand opening for the event two years earlier when it was held in Trinidad and Tobago, when a small dance troupe was watched by a few hundred spectators.15

New connections are springing up across the spine of Asia, linking this key region to the north, south, east and west, and taking many different routes, shapes and forms - just as they have done for millennia. These have been supplemented by new kinds of arteries, such as the Northern Distribution Network, a series of transit corridors for the delivery of ‘non-lethal goods’ to US and coalition forces in Afghanistan through Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - with several making use of infrastructure set up by the USSR in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation.16

Then, of course, there are the oil and gas pipelines that bring energy to consumers willing and able to pay for them in Europe, India, China and beyond. Pipelines criss-cross the region in every direction, linking to the port of Ceyhan in south-eastern Turkey or sprawling across Central Asia to fulfil the need for fossil fuels in China as the economy grows. New markets too are being opened up and tied together, prompting close co-operation between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, whose interests align closely when it comes to accessing more plentiful and cheaper energy via a new pipeline that will have a capacity of 950 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year. The route - following the highway from the gasfields of Turkmenistan towards Herat to Kandahar, and then on to Quetta and Multan - would have been as familiar to Sogdian traders active 2,000 years ago as to seventeenth-century horse dealers, as recognisable to British railway planners and strategists in the Victorian era as to poets travelling to work at the medieval Ghaznavid court.

Existing and proposed pipelines connect Europe to the oil and gas reserves in the centre of the world as well - raising the political, economic and strategic importance not only of the exporter states but also of those whose territories the pipelines cross: as Russia has already shown, energy supplies can be used as a weapon, whether through price hikes or simply by turning off supplies to Ukraine. With many countries in Europe heavily dependent on Russian gas, and many more on companies where the Kremlin-backed Gazprom holds a strategic or even a controlling stake, the use of energy, resources and pipelines as economic, diplomatic and political weapons is likely to be an issue in the twenty-first century. It is perhaps an ominous sign that President Putin’s PhD dissertation was concerned with strategic planning and the uses of Russian mineral resources - even though some have cast doubt on the originality of the thesis, and even on the veracity of the award of a doctorate.17

To the east, these pipelines are bringing the lifeblood of tomorrow as China buys forward gas supplies on a thirty-year contract, worth $400 billion over its lifetime. This giant sum, partly to be paid in advance, gives Beijing the energy security it craves, while more than justifying the estimated $22 billion cost of a new pipeline, and providing Moscow freedom and additional confidence in how it deals with its neighbours and its rivals. It is no surprise then that China was the only member of the UN Security Council not to rebuke Russia for its actions during the Ukraine crisis of 2014; the cold reality of mutually beneficial trade is far more compelling than the political brinkmanship of the west.

Transport links as well as pipelines have expanded dramatically in the last three decades. Major investment in transcontinental railway lines has already opened up freight routes along the 7,000-mile Yuxinou International Railway that runs from China to a major distribution centre near Duisburg in Germany - visited by President Xi Jinping in person in 2014. Trains half a mile long have started carrying millions of laptops, shoes, clothes and other non-perishable items in one direction and electronics, car parts and medical equipment in the other on a journey that takes sixteen days - considerably faster than the sea route from China’s Pacific ports.

With $43 billion of investment in improving rail links already announced, some predict that the number of containers being transported by train each year will rise from 7,500 in 2012 to 7.5 million by 2020.18 This is just the beginning; railway lines are being planned that will pass through Iran, Turkey, the Balkans and Siberia to Moscow, Berlin and Paris, and new routes will link Beijing with Pakistan, Kazakhstan with India. There is even talk of a tunnel 200 miles long being built under the Bering strait that will allow trains to pass from China through Alaska and Canada and into the continental United States.19

The Chinese government is building networks carefully and deliberately to connect to minerals, energy sources and access to cities, harbours and oceans. Barely a month goes by without the announcement of funding on a massive scale to either upgrade or build from scratch infrastructure that will enable volumes and velocities of exchange to rise sharply. It does so in partnership with countries whose status is raised from ‘iron friends’ to relationships than can survive in ‘all-weather’ conditions.20

These changes have already led to the re-emergence of China’s western provinces. With labour cheaper deep in the interior than on the coast, many businesses have start to relocate to cities close to the Dzungarian gate - the ancient entry point in the country’s west through which modern trains now pass. Hewlett Packard has moved production from Shanghai to Chongqing in the south-west, where it now produces 20 million laptops and 15 million printers per year, shipping millions of units by train to markets in the west. Others, like the Ford Motor Company, have followed suit. Or there is Foxconn, a leading IT manufacturer and key Apple supplier that has built up its presence in Chengdu at the expense of its former facilities in Shenzhen.21

Other transport networks have also burst into life. Five flights a day take businessmen and tourists from China to Almaty in Kazakhstan; Baku in Azerbaijan sends thirty-five plane loads a week to and from Istanbul, and many more to cities across Russia. Arrival and departure schedules for airports such as Ashgabat, Teheran, Astana and Tashkent show a vast and growing transport mesh between the cities of this region - while also showing how light the contact is with Europe, from where inbound flights are a rarity, especially compared with flights to the Gulf, India and China.

New intellectual centres of excellence are also emerging in a region that at one time produced the world’s most outstanding scholars. Campuses have been springing up across the Persian Gulf that have been endowed by local rulers and magnates and administered by Yale, Columbia and others; and there are the Confucius Institutes, non-profit cultural centres promoting Chinese language and culture, that have been established in every one of the countries between China and the Mediterranean to display the generosity and goodwill of Beijing.

New centres for the arts are likewise being built, from the extraordinary National Museum of Qatar to the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, to the Baku Museum of Modern Art - or imposing new buildings like the National Library in Tashkent or the Sameba Cathedral in Tblisi, paid for by the Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili who bought Picasso’s Dora Maar for $95 million at auction in 2006. This is a region being revived and restored to former glory.

Western fashion houses like Prada, Burberry and Louis Vuitton are building huge new stores and seeing spectacular sales figures across the Persian Gulf, Russia, China and the Far East (so that, with delicious irony, fine fabrics and silks are being sold back to the place where silk and fine fabrics originated).22 Clothing has always been a marker of social differentiation, from Xiongnu chieftains 2,000 years ago to the men and women of the Renaissance five centuries ago. Today’s ravenous appetites for the most exclusive brands have a rich historical pedigree - and are an obvious indicator of the emerging new elites in countries whose wealth and importance are rising.

For those with more exotic and malign tastes, there is the encrypted website where weapons, drugs and more can be traded anonymously - and whose name was chosen deliberately to evoke the communication networks and trade emporia of the past: the Silk Road. While law-enforcement agencies engage in constant games of cat and mouse with those developing new technologies and for control of the future, the battle for the past is also becoming an increasingly important part of the new era that we are heading into.

It is not just that history will be re-examined and re-evaluated for its own sake - although this will happen too as the new universities and campuses blossom and grow. But the past is very much a live subject across the Silk Roads. The battle for the soul of Islam, between rival sects, rival leaders and rival doctrines, is as intense as in the first century that followed the death of the Prophet Muimageammad, with much depending on interpretations of the past; the relationships between Russia and its neighbours on the one hand, and with the western world on the other, likewise have proved volatile and intense. Old rivalries and enmities can be stirred up - or soothed - with carefully chosen examples from history where scores were settled, or were set to one side. Establishing how useful and important old connections were in the past can be very helpful for the future - one reason why China is investing so heavily in bonding itself to the Silk Roads that lie to the west, precisely by asserting a common heritage of commercial and intellectual exchange.

Indeed, China has been at the forefront of the telecoms revolution across the region, pushing the construction of fixed-line cables, together with data transmitters that allow some of the fastest download speeds in the world. Much of this has been built by Huawei and ZTE, companies with close links to the People’s Liberation Army of China, with soft loans provided by the China Development Bank or in the form of inter-governmental aid, enabling the construction of state-of-the-art facilities in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - countries where China is keen on building long-term futures because of the regional stability and above all the mineral wealth. Concern about these telecoms companies was enough to prompt US congressional hearings which concluded that Huawei and ZTE ‘cannot be trusted’ on the basis that they are too close to Chinese ‘state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States’ - paradoxical given the subsequent revelation that the National Security Agency set up a clandestine programme named Operation Shotgiant to infiltrate and hack Huawei’s servers.23

The west’s growing preoccupation with China is not surprising, for a new Chinese network is in the process of being built that extends across the globe. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, it was possible to sail from Southampton, London or Liverpool to the other side of the world without leaving British territory, putting in at Gibraltar and then Malta before Port Said; from there to Aden, Bombay and Colombo, pausing in the Malay peninsula and finally reaching Hong Kong. Today, it is the Chinese who can do something similar. Chinese investment in the Caribbean rose more than four-fold between 2004 and 2009, while across the Pacific region roads, sports stadia and gleaming government buildings are being constructed with the help of aid, soft loans or direct investment from China. Africa too has seen a heavy intensification of activity as China builds a series of footholds to help it get ahead in the range of Great Games that are under way - part of the competition for energy, mineral resources, food supplies and political influence at a time when environmental change is likely to have a significant impact on each.

The age of the west is at a crossroads, if not at an end. In the opening statement of a review prepared by the US Department of Defense in 2012, President Obama’s first sentence spells out the long-term perception of the future in no uncertain terms: ‘Our Nation is at a moment of transition.’ The world is transforming before our eyes, the President continued, something that ‘demands our leadership [so that] the United States of America will remain the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known’.24 In practice, as the review makes clear, this means nothing less than the complete reorientation of the United States. ‘We will of necessity’, it explained, ‘rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region.’ Despite budget cuts of $500 billion to defence spending already planned over the next decade and with further reductions likely, President Obama took pains to stress that these ‘will not come at the expense of this critical [Asia-Pacific] region’.25 If one may brutally paraphrase the report, for a hundred years the US has directed much of its attention to its special relationships with countries in western Europe; it is now time to look elsewhere.

The same conclusion has been reached separately by the Ministry of Defence in London, whose own recent report likewise accepted that the world is going through a period of turbulence and transformation. The period up to 2040 ‘will be a time of transition’, noted the authors of the study, with the understatement so characteristic of the British civil service. Among the challenges to be faced in the coming decades, it declared, are ‘the reality of a changing climate, rapid population growth, resource scarcity, resurgence in ideology, and shifts in power from West to East’.26

As the heart of the world takes shape, institutions and organisations that formalise relations across this pivotal region are also coming into being. Originally set up to facilitate political, economic and military collaboration between Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China, the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation (SCO) is becoming increasingly influential and gradually turning into a viable alternative to the European Union. Although some decry the association as ‘a vehicle for human rights violations’, highlighting the failure of member states to respect the UN convention on torture and their flagrant lack of protection for minorities, others see it as the future, with countries like Belarus and Sri Lanka granted formal permission to attend meetings as observers.27 That is not enough for Turkey, which has clamoured to join as a full member - and to reorient away from Europe. The country would turn its back on its protracted and frustrating application to join the European Union, the Turkish Prime Minister announced in a television interview in 2013, and look to the east; the SCO, he stated, is ‘better and more powerful and we have values in common’.28

These comments should perhaps not be taken entirely at face value, for the countries and peoples in this part of the world have long been used to playing two sides against each other and juggling competing interests to their own benefit. Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that, as thoughts turn to the emerging new world order, the same conclusions are being drawn in Washington, Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere. It is time, the US Secretary of State said in 2011, to ‘set our sights on a new Silk Road’ that will help the region as a whole to flourish.29

It is a theme taken up by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. For more than 2,000 years, he announced in Astana during a major tour of the centre of Asia in the autumn of 2013, the peoples who live in the region that connects east and west have been able to coexist, co-operate and flourish despite ‘differences in race, belief and cultural background’. It is a ‘foreign policy priority’, he went on, ‘for China to develop friendly co-operative relations with the Central Asian countries’. The time has come, he went on, to make economic ties closer, improve communication, encourage trade and enhance monetary circulation. The time has come, he said, for a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ to be built - in other words, a New Silk Road.30

The world is changing around us. As we move into an era where the political, military and economic dominance of the west is coming under pressure, the sense of uncertainty is unsettling. While we ponder where the next threat might come from, how best to deal with religious extremism or how to negotiate with states who seem willing to disregard international law, networks and connections are quietly being knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather, they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.