The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World

Image of The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World
Release Date: 
March 25, 2019
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The New Silk Roads updates in a concise and reader-friendly manner the author’s previous, much longer but well-received The Silk Roads: A New World History (2015). But the intellectual and historical origins of each book go back much further in space and time.

The author’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East (2012) demonstrated Frankopan’s ability to think big as he studies and analyzes the ties that united and divided the many cultures and nations that lined the ancient and recent versions of the East-West corridor known as the “silk road.” A professor of history at Oxford University, Frankopan cites a huge range of recent documents and writings in a wide selection of languages to marshal his analysis of recent and prospective actions along what China has called its “One Belt, One Road” policy.

China, the author writes, has not just one silk road strategy, but many, and all lead to and from Beijing. China’s interests and investments dot the traditional silk road, from Xian and Kyrgyzstan to Turkey. But they also reach into Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

They follow land routes, like ancient camels, but also water routes, constructing bases from Sri Lanka and Pakistan to Djibouti (which nearly abuts an existing U.S. military base). Brashly, Chinese builders dredge sand to erect bases on rocky outcroppings in the South China Sea, defying a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Frankopan details each of these actions, noting their scale and costs as well as their resemblance to policies earlier pursued by Great Britain and other imperial powers.

Not only does Frankopan use a wide and rich amalgam of sources, but he lays out what might be seen as both  the positive and negative facets of Chinese policy. Yes, the South China Sea, East China Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean may be vital to China’s imports of  oil and other goods. But China’s claim on all the South China waters within a “nine-dash” perimeter robs other littoral nations of their sovereign rights and menaces international transit rights. American  and other navies challenge China’s claims, but—as Frankopan details –Beijing has already constructed the beginnings of a naval, air, and missile force able to threaten U.S. vessels and planes.

In short, Frankopan is able to describe, explain, and—to some degree—forecast future Chinese behavior and suggest what could be appropriate responses by Washington and its partners. Based at Oxford, Frankopan is also mindful of Western weaknesses typified by what he calls the “Brexit circus,” turmoil in the EU, and contradictory impulses of the Trump era.

Although much of the book provides grist for the thesis that rising power China and present hegemon United States are destined to fight, Frankopan does not mention or cite Destined for War? (2017) where Graham Allison warns of an imminent “Thucydides Trap.” Like many historians, Frankopan seems indifferent to theory and social science method.

Frankopan boldly asserts that the decisions that matter in today’s world are not being made in the West but in Beijing and Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh, in Deli and Islamabad, Kabul and Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, in Ankara, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Indeed, Frankopan reports that Nike designers, claiming to be inspired by the “legendary Silk Road,” have created a new [Bryant] KOBE X Silk shoe. Similarly, Hermès has invented a peppery Poivre Samarcande eau de toilette, promoted as an homage to the ancient spice caravans.

Frankopan says that optimism about Asia arises from its resources—some 65 to 70% of proven oil and gas reserves, half of global wheat production, nearly 85% of global rice production; some three-fourths of silicon and rare earths, plus a lion’s share of opium poppy production. 

But while Frankopan avidly gathers insights from scientific and anthropological journals, he ignores the possibility that water shortages, smog, and other environmental challenges may derail or even reverse material progress in the East. Nor does he address the spiritual vacuums left by the withering of religion or the PTSD syndromes where wars have raged for decades. Essar Oil and Exxon appear in the index but not “environment” or “ecology.”

The book’s index is parsimonious to a fault. For example, it does not mention the Permanent Court of Arbitration or the Nine-Dash line. The endnotes are extremely rich and varied, as they employ Chinese, Farsi, and Cyrillic fonts, as well as direct references to German, French, Turkish, Turkmen, and Kazakh sources. Often, however, the notes are too sketchy to help a reader readily to retrace the author’s footsteps.