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.
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). 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. 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 United States: basic rooms start at $290 per night—which includes breakfast and use of the spa (but not wi-fi).
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 United States or China, and four times higher than that of local purchasers. 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 Under17 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.
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 U.S. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 started 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.
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). 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 Muḥammad, 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 intergovernmental 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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S. 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.” 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.” If one may brutally paraphrase the report, for a hundred years the U.S. has directed much of its attention to its special relationships with countries in western Europe; it is now time to look elsewhere.
From THE SILK ROADS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2016 by Peter Frankopan.