Interview: Peter Frankopan and Return of the Silk Roads

In 2015, Peter Frankopan published a book called The Silk Roads. The book formed a sweeping history of the world that refocued the spotlight of its subject on the East, unlike most accounts, which predominantly deal with the expansive trade-route’s impact on Western civilisation. His new book suggests that the concept of Silk Roads are returning in a new form and reclaiming their position at the worlds, economic and political crossroads. He very kindly agreed to talk to us about his work and The New Silk Roads.

Luke: How do you define the new Silk Roads? 


Peter: I think the safest and best answer is to not try too hard to do so. The Silk Roads of the past – as well as the present – were an abstract idea. There were no ‘roads’ or physical connections that linked specific places that were ‘along the Silk Roads’. Rather, the term was coined to explain the connections between Han dynasty China and imperial Rome two thousand years ago. Broadly speaking, they can best be understood as the ways in which each, any and every region between the Pacific coast of Asia on the one hand, and Europe, North Africa and the Middle East on the other were linked together.
In the way that China understands the new Silk Roads, this can be widened even further to include Africa, Latin America and even the Arctic. Labels are helpful in lots of ways; but they can also be cumbersome and problematic. When I write about the new Silk Roads, I mean to write about new connections, new types of goods and ideas being moved and a series of new worlds that are taking shape.

Luke: Throughout the book, you show that a lot of the economic and infrastructural developments which characterise the return of the Silk Road are projects developed in Beijing and backed by Chinese cash, so is the development of the new Silk Road is really a side effect of the return of China as a global super power? 

Peter: That is part of the story, certainly. But there is a lot more at stake too. The changes in India both internally and in its international relations have been dramatic in recent decades. We can see new cities being born, like Dubai in the Gulf or Astana in Kazakhstan, which have literally risen from the sand and the dust in the last thirty years. Other parts of Asia are buzzing too, like South Korea, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. And then we cannot forget the main problems in the world today too: North Korea; Iran; Iraq; Syria; Myanmar. And the rivalries between many states too. The great opportunities of the 21st century lie in the east; but so do the great challenges.

Luke: I was surprised to find that in your book you characterise some of the investments by the Chinese and others in projects like the “One Belt, One Road” are often as symbolic rather than economically viable. What is the motivation for these developments if not for pure economic gain? 

Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan

Peter: It is no coincidence that we use the term ‘building bridges’ to talk about how we improve relationships. Construction and infrastructure projects do not always need to be driven and motivated by the bottom line. Clearly reckless ventures that are expensive and bring little benefit are problematic; but finding ways to cement ties, to spur exchange and to invest for the long term can and do have other motivations.

Luke: Your book outlines the many ways China has taken the lead along the Silk Road, in the south China Sea and even as far afield as Africa and Latin America. It has been reported that this week Juan Guaidó is reaching out for Chinese help in the Venezuelan crisis. However, how much of the freedom that China has found for itself to operate is a result of space left open by a uniquely dysfunctional American government?

Peter: Guaidó has urged China to support him; but so too has Maduro. This says a lot about the shifting geopolitics of today. It would have been inconceivable for Venezuela to turn to China for help thirty years ago – or at least to expect anything more than symbolic support. Now China is much more important globally. 

I think the issue about the US is two-fold. First, the withdrawal from specific arenas either militarily or politically as part of a wider recoil; that has certainly made life easier for China and for others. That is largely the fault of the Trump administration – although it should also be noted that there are perfectly reasonable and logical reasons to undertake a major shift in US foreign policy (even if the way it is being done is clumsy). 

But secondly, China is also able to rise because of a much more fundamental credibility gap that the US has around the world – which has been exacerbated by Trump but has much deeper and longer routes which concerns the demand for an alternative vision to that offered by the US since the end of the Cold War. Interventions in other countries has had dismal results, while the methods used in attempting to boost the spread of democracy around the world have often not only been questionable but counter-productive. China is offering a stark alternative at a time when many are open to new suggestions.

Luke: A lot of your book focuses on this new economic connectivity. However, you also point to some of the fault lines that still cut the region up. Some of them are obvious like India-Pakistan and Iran-Saudi Arabia, but some are less visible such as the military tension between India and China or newly forming like the possible rift between China and the Muslim world over oppression of the Uyghur minority. Which fault lines are in your view most dangerous and could any of these possible trouble spots derail the development of the new Silk Road? 

Peter: Take your pick. There are no end of possible flashpoints: The South China Sea; the Doklam plateau; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Turkey and Syria, and the future of the Kurds; persecution of minorities in just about every country. It is a long list and many tests lie ahead. A lot rests on political leaders making the right calls, and also realizing when they have made the wrong ones. If any or all of these trouble spots ignite, they will not just have regional significance; their consequences will be global.


Luke: I’m curious how you think culture plays into this new picture. In your last book The Silk Roads, you highlighted how art, religion and literature also moved along the Silk Road. At the moment in terms of soft power, the United States still leads the way. However, I think that is changing. You can see it in, for example, the way that Turkish soaps play across the Middle East and that Hollywood now thinks very seriously about the Chinese market when producing its blockbusters. What other cultural changes are you seeing along with closer economic integration? 

Peter: This starts with education. The better we understand each other, the more likely we are to respect each other. Ignorance and fear go hand in hand with each other and with the desire to persecute each other. So I see the spread of new ideas, new languages, new cuisines, new fashions as inherently good – ideally coupled alongside educational reform where we also learn about each others’ history. 

But step into a classroom or lecture hall in a school or university in the UK or US, and you’d be very, very lucky to hear the words ‘Byzantium’, ‘Ottoman’, ‘Khmer’, ‘Chola’ or ‘Tang’ being used. In the West, we are shutting down our capacity to understand the world by turning in on ourselves; and perhaps that is why there are so many loud voices insisting on restricting diversity, insisting on conformity and of course wanting to stop co-operation and go it alone. That impulse seems very strong in the west right now; and of course can in some ways fits into the failure of the education system to prepare for the world of today and tomorrow.

Luke: How do you think that climate change fits into the emergence of the new Silk Roads? 

Peter: It will and already has a huge effect. Most of the world’s megacities (population of 10m+) are located in Asia. This means that they have huge vulnerability to food and water issues and in many cases, exposure too to specific climate events like storms and flooding. Large populations become super-fragile quickly and can break down much faster than smaller communities. So it is a real concern.

Luke: This is going to sound a bit hysterical, but a lot of the countries that are developing and connecting do not democratic governments or have strong authoritarian streaks. This is happening at the same time as the rise of authoritarian governments and neo-fascist parties in Europe and with the American system on the verge of its own legitimacy crisis. Are we entering a period of global democratic backsliding?

Peter: I think these are two different phenomena, although clearly they are linked. There is no question that democracy is in retreat. Indeed, in 2016, before Trump was elected, the influential Democracy Index classed the US as no longer being a ‘full’ but a ‘flawed’ democracy. This is partly the result of declining social mobility, uneven income distribution and relocation of jobs, especially from the lower-middle classes.

Authoritarianism is on the move too but is dependent on other factors – namely being able to increase economic welfare and distribute the rewards evenly. Some states are clearly much better at doing this than others; and there are prices to pay too: like human rights; like a free press; like obvious freedoms; like open societies. But from the outside, some at least conclude that these are worth it – if the alternative is what happened in Libya or Syria, or for that matter closer to home where the UK has become a deeply divided nation.

Luke: I’d like to ask how China fits into the picture of democratic backsliding. In your book, you point out that China is a geopolitical alternative to the U.S. I can see a situation where regimes that don't want to adopt more democratic systems turn to China as a source of economic development. They could seek trade and legitimacy that is not tied to promises of liberalising reforms that the E.U or the U.S might require. Does that seem plausible to you?

Peter: Economists and political scientists often assume that increasing the numbers, boosting GDP and rising wealth spurs a demand for democracy. That link seems dubious to me in many cases. It is true that the EU, for example, tags in human rights clauses in its trade deals. Whether we do that in the UK after Brexit remains to be seen – many politicians I have spoken to insist that the UK should not and will not do so. So in a word: Yes. I can see obvious reasons why investments and from China which involve fewer questions being asked and fewer commitments being insisted on would seem preferable to many developing countries. Maybe Britain turning its back on the EU and becoming more like China in its investment practices strikes some as progressive.

Luke: It is clear that the changes that are happening along the Silk Road are very important. However, I feel that in Europe and in the States the public is very under-informed abut it. How can we change that? What can people reading this interview do to become better informed? 

Peter: Read, read and read. In this digital age, access to information is faster and cheaper than at any time in human history. There is plenty of material out there, I promise!

Luke: Can you recommend any papers/ journals?

Peter:As far as journals etc go, I try to read a selection of press from all the countries I work on every day – almost all are online, so this is pretty easy. They range from Ekathimerini of Greece to the Astana Times to China Daily. There are some terrific journals that I read too: my favourite is the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, which comes out four times a year. It’s a joy from cover to cover.

Luke: What are some books you would recommend for people who want to understand the region and its trends better?

Peter: A lot depends on what you’re looking for. You could try Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road, which is a classic. I also recommend The Future is Asian by Parag Khanna and Belt and Roads by Bruno Macaes’ are great reads, as is George Magnus’ Red Flags and Grave New World by Stephen King is also terrific.