The Call of the East

A dramatic shift of the world’s center is in the making, says world renowned historian Peter Frankopan. Humanity has never experienced anything like it since Columbus. The author of the bestseller "The New Silk Roads" reviews the year 2019 - from a Far Eastern perspective.

While the West is obsessed with Trump, Brexit and the Yellow Vest movement, British historian Peter Frankopan is pointing to the East with an urgent warning: "We are living at a transformation that is epochal in its scale and character.” In his new sequel  to the runaway bestseller, “The Silk Roads,” Frankopan charts a dramatic shift of the world’s center of economic and political gravity away from the Old Word towards the Rising Sun.

Frankopan’s passion for the East and his skill in vividly rendering its mysterious terrain has catapulted the Oxford professor to international acclaim. But the well heeled academic is no stranger to fortune. The son of a Croatian nobleman, Frankopan is a triple barreled Eton College, Cambridge and Oxford graduate. Together with his wife, Jessica Sainsbury of the eponymous Sainsbury supermarket empire, the 48-year-old owns luxury hotels in London, Amsterdam and Paris. In a recent profile this spring, the Financial Times approvingly crooned, “In a Victorian novel, his character might turn out to be too perfect to be true.”

I reach Frankopan, via phone, at his home in Oxford to review Asia’s tumultuous past year and to capture a glimpse of the new “Asian century” Frankopan says is upon us.



Professor Frankopan, you compare the current transformation of the world to what happened in the decades that followed the crossing of the waterways by Columbus and Vasco da Gama, over 500 years ago. What makes you think so?

It is a shift we trace back thirty years to the fall of the Berlin Wall which marked the collapse of the Soviet Union and led to one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history. Twenty to 25 families or oligarchs emerged at the top of Russian society and ended up controlling stakes in almost the entire industrial capacity and resources of Russia, itself. It led to the creation of independent states — like Kazakhstan Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan — which have enormous reserves. Turkmenistan, alone, has the third, or possibly the fourth, largest gas reserves in the world. It led to liberalization of the Chinese economy to the point that, now, by most estimates, China adds one new billionaire, per week.

There is not only a new elite, there is a whole new Chinese middle class emerging.

China, according to World Bank, has lifted 800 million people out of poverty in the last thirty years. That scale of change — 800 million people — is something which is absolutely astonishing. Now, we can argue exactly what the poverty line means. In fact, the Chinese state has a higher level of what it considers a poverty line than the World Bank does. Today, there are significantly fewer people below that line than there are on the parallel line in the United States. That shift of the last three decades is of fundamental global significance because of the numbers involved.

For centuries, there was a saying that “all roads lead to Rome.” You say that, today, “all roads lead to Beijing.” It looks like China is not only the new epicentre, but also the biggest profiteer of this “epochal transformation.”

The last three decades have seen some of the fastest periods of economic growth in history. That's something greatly to the benefit of the Swiss economy. It's been to the benefit of the European and the United States economies. It has not been at our expense. It's been a period of great acceleration in exchange. But a lot of those rewards have flowed into places like Singapore, places like Malaysia, places like India. It's not just all about China.

The United States is obviously trying to work at how to best understand, respond, and shape a world that it feels more comfortable with. In that sense, we, in Europe — even what we've combined together within the European Union or the EU area, plus states like Switzerland and Norway and so on — we're going to have to be very creative how we innovate and how we respond to these kinds of changes.

In April, the Chinese government organized the second forum of the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing. Forty heads of state attended. Over 150 countries were involved. What is China’s agenda behind this modern “Silk Road” project? Do they want to feed their 1.4 billion citizens? Or, do they pursuit an agenda of global dominance, as critics say?

I think there are four elements. One is China has a long term view of what it thinks it needs in the future to be able to keep growing. One of those things is clearly energy, but also food, and water, and so on. There is a strategic plan that clearly and quite closely links the Belt and Road. That's to do with making sure that China has the raw material that it thinks it needs for the future. Number two is to do with the security architecture of China's neighbours. China has sixteen neighbours. That is quite a lot.

And it is not on good terms with all of them.

It has complicated public relationships with quite a few of those, and some of the Belt and Road is about either providing a capacity to be able to engage better with its neighbours who it sees as problematic, or to anticipate where security issues might come from. China is paying a lot of attention to its local neighbourhood because it's perceived, rightly or wrongly, that there are challenges that lie ahead. That's the second element. The Belt and Road clearly does have a military insecurity part of it, as well.

Third is about China's domestic shift of its own economy. For example, in places like South Asia, only 6% of households have vacuum cleaners. Less than 10% have a refrigerator. As these countries become wealthier and more pop, these are all market places that, in principle, Chinese businesses have done quite well in by selling vacuum cleaners and refrigerators in China and in Europe. These are new markets that will have a potential appetite for goods that China's quite good at making. Helping these countries to develop, economically, has a long term vested interest for China for all sorts of different reasons.

The prime reason, it seems, is to strengthen its power position and leadership in the region and the world.

The fourth element behind the Belt and Road Initiative, and the most interesting, I think, is opportunism. One of the challenges in that world of change that Europe and the United States are facing is whether our engagement with other parts of the world should be primarily a commercial one. Or, should we engage with more leadership to explain why democracy is a good idea?

I think China is quite quick to learn to say there is another way of doing things that doesn't require leadership from the West which engages in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria, or Libya in a way that is counterproductive. China's trying to say that there is another model which is we won't interfere in internal affairs. We won't criticize. We won't ever look for regime change.

There's an opportunity for China, right now, as the West faces this existential crisis of wondering who we are and what's our purpose. This is where China could fit into some sort of leadership role. Of course, China is not the only country doing that. That's something that Russia tries to say. That's something that Iran tries to say. Arguably, that's even what ISIS is trying to say. "Here's our vision for the 21st century which is a world based on the Quranic tradition of 1,400 years ago." Lots of other people are trying to say, "Here's a different vision that is a specifically non-Western one." That is, I think, very interesting.

What you need when you do business, especially business on such a large scale, is stability and peace.

I don't think that's right. Peace and stability are not necessarily correlated with business. In fact, volatility may be the best opportunity to lose money, but it's also a very good opportunity to make money. In fact, states which are strong in banking, like Switzerland, have historically done extremely well when other states are fighting. If you can stay out of problems, disputes and warfare yourself, there all sorts of ways in which you can benefit. The great transfer of wealth and the great rise of the United States were triggered by the fact there was warfare in Europe and, in fact, in other parts of the world, too, in the First World War. So, it's not right that you need to have stability, peace, and prosperity to be able to make money to invest.

This autumn, Uzbekistan was shaken by a smash hit. Uzbek singer Lola Yuldosheva, dressed in a Western-style outfit, launched a protest song that has been hailed by many critics and fans as “revolutionary” for criticizing censorship in her country. Her protest highlights one of the challenges for the rising East. There are a lot of places along the new Silk Roads that are corrupt. There is a lot of social unrest. There is war in Syria, in Afghanistan. In Iran, thousands of people were arrested, recently, during the government crackdown of protests after gasoline prices were doubled. Are those tensions and wars not a tremendous threat to functioning trade routes?

It's entirely reasonable, and it's both a fair and good point to draw attention to, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. But of the proportions of population of Asia, that's not enormous. In fact, it's less than 10% that live in unstable states.

Second, although Iran is under a great deal of pressure from the United States and from Europe, this is of great benefit for some. The great winner of this has been China because it’s the only market in town for Iranian oil. So, they're getting much better prices and deals than they otherwise might have done. Likewise, Turkmenistan has the fourth largest gas reserves in the world. Their pipelines only flow toward China. Even though the logic is these countries are unstable and they're difficult, actually, those also offer some opportunities, depending on who's invested and who's in town.

As far as transport lines and their disruption goes, in our globalized world where more of our information travels by data than it does by plane, or by boat, or by train, the fact that train lines may be closed down, or so on, doesn't seem to me to be a particularly serious threat or challenge. The big sensitivity for China, of course, is about shipping lanes and the South China Sea, which perhaps, no coincidence, is why China has been fortifying and building islands in this region: to protect their shipping lanes.

Visiting a conference in Beijing, in November, Henry Kissinger said the U.S. and China were in the “foothills of a Cold War,” and he warned that a conflict could turn out worse than World War One, if left to run unconstrained.

That's right.

Do you see a winner in the current trade war? And who is the loser?

The loser is the consumer — all of us. As a result of this trade war, our goods have gone up in cost. In the US, there's a great deal of support for what Trump is doing. In fact, Trump isn't the first person. This is something that was pushed quite heavily by the Obama administration and, in fact, by Bush before him, too.

Can you understand why US President Donald Trump has been confronting China? He says they're stealing intellectual property.

Absolutely. We, in Europe, think that Trump is crazy because of the way he tweets. We therefore assume that everything he does must be erratic and unhinged. Actually, the idea that there need to be new provisions about protection of international property is perfectly logical and sensible. It doesn't seem to me to be at all problematic that the playing fields should be levelled so that Chinese companies can invest into our market and we have the same lines going back again. I don't think that's controversial. The challenge from the US is that it's not just about money. It's not just about business. It's not just about the economy. It's about geopolitics. It's about the military.

In March, the USS Zumwalt — which is the lead ship of the U.S. Navy's newest class of guided missile destroyers — departed San Diego for its first operation. It is a phenomenal battleship which is set to execute missions throughout the entire Pacific. Admiral Harry B. Harris said the USS Zumwalt would be Batman's choice of ship, if he had one. How likely do you see a military conflict between China and the US, especially in the South Pacific?

I would assume limited, and that's also the assessment of the Chinese army. Their most recent white paper recognizes the type of tension. But, realistically, the chance of some kind of military engagement is low because what's at stake is so enormous. I think that is a view also shared by the US military. But, like all armed forces, their job is not to be guessing whether things are going to stay happy and resolvable. It is to prepare for the fact that this might spill out into something more dramatic. It doesn't take much for things to go out of hand.

Why I said all roads lead to Beijing is that it really doesn't matter in that environment what anybody decides in Bern. It probably doesn't matter what anybody decides in Brussels, or in Madrid, or in London, either, because now this is something which is about how this stays in Asia — particularly India and China where there is a military rivalry. Also, particularly the South China Sea, particularly with the US Navy, but also with the challenge of Japan, particularly with stationing of US air defences in South Korea, which has been an issue in the last three or four months, too.

I have seen models being done in the US of what would happen if there would be a conventional war that did involve nuclear weapons between the US and China and the attempt to work out what kind of damage that would do to the relative economy. Those kind of reports show that people are thinking about this. President Trump's chief advisor and director of trade and manufacturing policy, Peter Navarro, published a book called, “Death by China.” And the one before was called, “The Coming China War.” That tells you what his general outlook of life must be. It's very important that people are making calm, cold decisions that don't have long term consequences, because war and volatility are very dangerous.

Because all roads lead to Beijing, as you say, we watch with a careful eye what is happening in this new gravitational point in world politics. This year, we witnessed violent clashes in Hong Kong leading to a tremendous victory of the Democrats, which was a huge slap in the face of China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Secret documents were published revealing brutal suppression of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. These worrisome developments raise the question: How stable is China, really? Isn’t it a Colossus on feet of clay?

It's tricky. The right question to ask is: Why is it that China feels that it's under so much pressure, that it has no other choice except to put one million, plus, Muslims in concentration camps in Xinjiang? Why is it that the Chinese leadership, for the last three or four years, has been talking almost exclusively about the need for discipline, for reform, for stability, and of threats? What is it that is making that pressure rise so much that it has made these decisions happen in the first place?

What is the answer?

One is supposed to be researching it rather than coming with a gut reaction. Clearly, one of the issues was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), who was killed in October by US Special Forces. The level of engagement of the ISIS brigade of talking about Xinjiang was obviously taken extremely seriously by the Chinese authorities, especially given several attacks in the region in the last decade. But this is a case of a huge hammer being used to smash a walnut.

That sentiment seems to be increased by protests in Hong Kong.

And, clearly, it's going to be heightened by the economic pressure being exerted from outside. So, I want us to try to understand these things, first, before one starts to talk about them. China's has been very resilient in these last thirty years. One of the challenges for most Western economists was the assumption that, as China became richer and its economy grew, the middle classes would demand a great say in the political process. That doesn't seem to be the case. There doesn't seem to be a great appetite or demand. There doesn't seem to be a pressure for the country to become a liberal democracy, as we all love. I think that is partly because the economy keeps growing, the regime is delivering gains and results.

What conclusions do you draw from the violent developments in Xinjiang and Hong Kong in terms of the stability of the Chinese state?

I think that the Xinjiang and Hong Kong are clear signs that not everything is well, alive, and happy and that there are significant challenges. Obviously, the technologies that are available for states to be able to control and keep people in place are totally different to how they've been in the past. That means that, potentially, the capacity of a state to stay secure is much, much higher.

I think we just have to be careful about making predictions about state survival, regime survival, and so on, as precarious because that's not how it looks on the ground, to me. One of the reasons for that is, amazingly, there are quite smart people engaged in trying to work out how to move things forward in these countries, not just in China.

Do you dare to predict the future of Hong Kong?

No, but I'm not enormously optimistic. I think a lot depends on what decisions will be made in Beijing. Whether the decision will be to just let this keep on going, potentially, for weeks and months, or whether things need to be brought to a conclusion. If it's the latter, then there are not many different permutations, and I think none of them are particularly good for anybody.

It is certainly noticeable that Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong,
has not been replaced. The fact that she's been left there tells a story about Beijing’s view on this situation. I think in large parts of China, few people have instinctive sympathy for Hong Kong generally. That's partly due to their education process and what people think they know about the rest of the world.

Let’s look at the other giant in the region: India. In October, India’s newly re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged in a diplomatic war of words with China over Kashmir. Where are the two giants at odds? And what is the common ground for a stable relationship?

The common ground is that it's in no one’s interest to force a war between the world's biggest population and the world's biggest democracy. There is a lot of saber rattling and drum beating of the machismo of war. Even though on a government level and a geopolitical level, there looks like there's tension, the Chinese presence in India over the last few years has been very, very substantial. I think that there's been a lot, behind the scenes, of trying to calm the tensions down between Jaishankar and Wang Yi, the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers.

A lot of attempts to try to talk together about China will be relaxed if India doesn't get involved in the “Belt and Road Initiative.” India has its own version of the Belt and Road in the north-south corridor with Iran and with its neighbours to the east. China says, "That's great. That'll stop them." I think there are all sorts of ways in which there can be some mutual progress, but it's an unresolved border issue which tends to be quite a beautiful thing in this domestic political environment for (nationalist) Modi to talk about. Where India is more complicated is about China's relationship with Pakistan. Certainly, that is a real strategic worry for India, in the longer term.

India has a very close relationship with Russia and Russia's military establishment. India has worked quite carefully with Iran, as well, partly because Pakistan has common interests with Iran. And India, of course, has its backyard in the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia, too. There are all sorts of different areas where China and India are clearly competitors. A lot of it is driven by personality, like all politics — by individual leaders and the way in which they cooperate and talk to each other.

In November, we heard about the tragedy of “Queen Hindh,” a large cargo ship that overturned in the Black Sea off the coast of Romania. It was loaded with 14,000 sheep bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They drowned being trapped in the ship. Critics see this dreadful accident as an example of unlimited transport madness. Do you think mankind is heading into the right future with the new Silk Roads? Should we consume more locally grown products?

That's what history has normally been about. We talk about locally sourced goods like it's the latest trend. But 100 years ago, if you were living in Bern, you weren't getting your meat from Brazil. You weren't having spices from a country on the other side of the world. You were eating what was being grown in the field nearby.

I think that reversion towards local — for pollution levels, and so on — is all entirely logical. But our profile in Europe is slightly different because we have the agriculture where we can feed ourselves, because of the climatic conditions. But feeding populations in the Gulf or in the arid Saharan on the equatorial belts, it's not very easy. It's great for us, rich people in nice countries, like Switzerland and UK, to think that we should be eating carrots that are grown next door and pay a bit more for pork or for beef that's grown in the field by the farmer, and get the name of the cow that we're eating. But other people don't necessarily have that luxury.

Where do you see the biggest problems in terms of food supplies?

One of the challenges in today's world is the rise of the megacity. Although there are big megacities like Mexico City, LA, São Paulo, and so on, the large heavy concentration of these megacities is in Asia. Places like Tokyo, of course. Manila with 25 million. Shanghai, Beijing — 25 million each. There are more than a hundred cities in China with a population of more than one million. Chongqing, alone, has a population in the outsides of the city area of around 25 to 30 million people. These people don't have a choice of growing the carrots at the local farmer belt. They're in the cities.

The next question is what does that mean about prices? You can afford to eat locally, if you're willing to pay a higher price. Normally, the market sets these things. The amounts of US beef in China went up by more than 10,000% in less than a decade. This summer, in August alone, the price of pork in China went up by 47% in less than thirty days.

World population is growing rapidly. Will it be possible to feed the increasing number of hungry mouths through modern science?

There are very productive parts of the world. We're very inventive. Our science and technology has been fantastic in keeping up with food technologies. I'm very optimistic about our ability to keep on feeding, but, clearly, there's the concentration of large urban populations where there is no agriculture or hinterland. Those are the places which will fail first and will put stress and strain on our economy. If they don't fail, then they presumably will put pressure on economies because they've become vibrant markets to start fighting, and that will drive prices.

You are constantly working on new projects. Before we let you go, can you please reveal what your next book is about?

In the next twelve months, I'm trying to write a book about how we use new science and new data to understand history better.

With graphics and maps and videos?

Also, with new technologies, like: how we can use fossilized pollen; how we can understand data from Antarctica about metal production; how we can use the spread of flora, and fauna, and genetics to have a better idea about things that our written sources and the archaeology either doesn't tell us about, or, sometimes, what it tells us about is wrong.

Can you do all that from your computer?

Mostly – though visiting other archives and talking to other scholars in different countries is very helpful. But yes, a lot of my thinking, research and writing happens with my laptop. But I'd like to be wearing a white coat in a laboratory with a microscope. That would make me feel like a proper scientist. (laughing)

Lesen Sie auch

Alter weiser Mann wehrt sich

Ständeratspräsident Hans Stöckli aus Biel ist seit vier Jahr...

Von Erik Ebneter
Jetzt anmelden & lesen


Die News des Tages aus anderer Sicht.

Montag bis Donnerstag
ab 16 Uhr 30

Ihr Light-Login-Zugang ist abgelaufen. Bitte machen Sie das Abonnement hier