Romancing the Silk Roads

As someone fascinated by the Central Asian countries, I was delighted when the All Party Parliamentary Group for China (APPCG) organised a talk this week by Peter Frankopan, author of “The Silk Roads – A New History of the World”.

“The Silk Roads are rising again”, said Richard Graham MP, Chair of APPCG at the end of a fulsome introduction of the Oxford University historian.  Yet, there are not many other Parliamentarians, let alone the British public, who are in tune with the zeitgeist.

Frankopan was keen to put into historical context the dramatic changes that we are witnessing today with a shift in the world order. The declining influence of western colonial powers,  the UK’s vote for BREXIT and the election of Trump, were contrasted against a China growing in confidence and pursuing the “One Belt One Road” initiative, the lynchpin for Xi JinPing’s foreign and economic policies.  

But the revival by China of the old Silk Roads should come as no great surprise.  China once played a dominant role in world trade and Admiral Cheng He’s fleets had ruled the seas. The impetus for China’s expansion via the economic belt across Central Asia has much to do with her need to secure energy and mineral resources to sustain her growing population and programme of urbanisation.  There were also concerns regarding security issues especially as affecting her borders and semi-autonomous regions.

In his book, Frankopan traced and analysed how religion, trade, and even disease had been transmitted along the Silk Roads over the centuries.  It was not only his privilege but his responsibility as a historian to chart these events, not to predict the future, but to assist in our understanding of the rise and fall of empires, and to be prepared for any eventuality.

History relating to the Silk Roads has not generally been taught in our schools nor have the languages outside of the main European languages.  Nevertheless Frankopan believed that UK would be well placed to play the role of narrator and interpreter of the changing world.  In understanding the causes and stress points that the world system is now undergoing (whether terrorism in Europe or displacement of populations from climate change or war), we would be better equipped to find viable solutions.  The Department for International Development, he said, also has an important role to play.

Various governments of countries along the Silk Roads have invited him to speak, and Frankopan had recently returned from trips to Kazakhstan and Pakistan.   It was about time that his work becomes more widely publicised and known, not just by Parliamentarians, but anyone who is a China watcher or interested in international affairs.

* Merlene Emerson is an Executive member of LibDems Overseas and Co-founder of Chinese Liberal Democrats.

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  • jerry beere 3rd Mar '17 - 8:59am

    I agree. But if we truly want to understand what’s going on we should also look at the destruction and marginalisation that the Silk Road may have caused. We can celebrate and promote interconnectedness all we want…and we should. But if we are blind to adverse local consequences then we end up with Farrage, Bannon and Le Pen,et al.

  • The Iron Silk Road, the Trans-Asian Railway, with a standard gauge link from Dostyk (on the Chinese border) to Gorgan in Iran; has yet to be been built.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Mar '17 - 11:05am

    Does the book say anything about democracy in China and her neighbours or are we just meant to sit by and “narrate” and “interpret” whilst China becomes the new authoritarian world leader?

  • It’s an interesting change of perspective which makes a change from the mainstream narrative of Western Empires rising to dominance out of an uncivilised world. I actually went to a talk by Paddy Ashdown last week where he said that due to the rise of China, we should expect a change in the narrative and associated values. I think he means that if China places more emphasis on trade and less on human rights, their perspective is/will be the dominant one. But not the only one …

  • Nom de Plume 3rd Mar '17 - 7:28pm

    One of the better written articles. We will see if Brexit Britain will be truly global or truly parochial. Reject Europe but embrace the world. Rings hollow.

    I also doubt if there are many people in the UK with the language skills or the cultural understanding to play the role suggested.

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