Following in the footsteps of a successful first book(s), authors are often tempted to quickly publish a new (typically much shorter) book, either to now finally talk about ideas that found no place in the original, or to just harvest their new found popularity. And so, we had Yuval Noah Hariri’s 21st Lessons for 21st Century after his brilliant Sapiens and Homo Deus. It is often a difficult act to follow, particularly if the author does not have anything new to say. Peter Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads is a book in the same tradition of follow-on books. Thankfully, he has plenty to say and he says it well.
His The Silk Roads(2015) was one of my favourites amongst books I read last year. It is a fascinating combination of erudition and entertainment. Its basic premise of moving the historical centre of gravity away from the royal capitals of Europe and on to the dust-swept plains of Central Asia is not a new idea in itself, but has rarely found such brilliant expression.
The New Silk Roads(2018) explores the geopolitics of the last 3 years since the publication of the original book and proclaims that all roads now lead to Beijing. Herein lies the challenge for the author. In his original book, Frankopan paints on a canvas spanning centuries and even millenia; this allows for profound trends to be observed and for idiosyncratic behaviour of individuals or even generations to be discounted. Through this, he establishes that it is the ancient Silk Roads through Central Asia that have shaped the history of humanity and that the age of European imperialism was merely a flash in the pan. The new book has just 3 years of observation to make a point. This is always a big challenge for any writer of contemporary history and Frankopan does as good a job as any. In doing so though, the book cannot entirely escape the recency effect of what has dominated the headlines in recent times; and so Trump and his antics find fair amount of space in a short book. So does Brexit and populism in the West. Will these events just be footnotes across history or something more profound so as to deserve so much attention? Only time can tell and so this new book should be read much more like a contemporary commentary than a history.
What about his main premise that all roads lead to Beijing – primarily through One Belt, One Road initiative? That China already dominates world politics and trade and will keep increasing its influence through its economic, political and military policies is not new news; this book though puts it in stark relief. The sheer scale of China’s ambition – particularly along the ancient Silk Roads, but also further afield is breathtaking, all the more so in the context of the rest of the world’s incompetent and impotent response. Read in conjunction with the original book, one is left convinced about the inevitability of China’s dominance over World politics over decades, even centuries to come.
The book talks about the One Belt, One Road Initiative in detail. It weaves in its ambition, its ambivalence in terms of scope & definition and its practical impact on the ground from Asia to Africa. It talks about huge multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects that are changing the demographics and economics of dozens of countries along the ancient silk roads as well as Africa. At the same time it questions, whether these projects are viable and if these countries will ever be able to free themselves from the clutches of unsustainable Chinese debt.
I am stuck in particular by the sense of preordained destiny with which China is proceeding with this initiative across every spectrum of its foreign, economic, demographic and political policies. It is equally stark that there is nothing immediately obvious that will stop this juggernaut: the US is stuck with its isolationist president and the West is in grip of internal squabbling. Russia seems to have allied itself with China though it remains deeply suspicious of China’s long term ambitions. US and more generally Western alliance with India has been portrayed as a strategic counterbalance, but even the author does not seem to be very convinced about its effectiveness given India’s own strategic priorities as well as vulnerabilities.
Frankopan does not offer any easy answers but does a brilliant job of convincing the reader that there are no easy answers to be had and that there is a need for either a policy response to China’s rise or at least an acknowledgement and therefore a strategic realignment of global geopolitics. He also convinces the reader that while this may seem like the stuff of murky foreign policy corridors, the way this international powerplay will resolve itself – will have an impact on how each one of us will live and work.
Highly recommended – though probably more impactful after reading the original first.