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‘The Asian century’

April 4th, 2019

East has surpassed West, whether the West knows it or not, says Peter Frankopan

by Greg Klein

East has surpassed West, whether we know it or not, says Peter Frankopan

“Silk roads” can refer to the process of connecting people and cultures
through trade, according to Peter Frankopan’s recently published book.

 

Less than two years ago tensions along an especially sensitive border area sparked fighting between Chinese and Indian troops. Outside Asia, who knew? “As most of the world focused on the Twitter account of the US president and the circus surrounding Brexit, the threat of the two most populous countries on earth going to war was not just a possibility, it looked like becoming a fact,” writes Peter Frankopan. An uneasy truce eventually stalled hostilities but the West’s ignorance of the wider world remains. That’s both symptom and cause of the West’s decline, the author says.

The decisions being made in today’s world that really matter are not being made in Paris, London, Berlin or Rome—as they were a hundred years ago—but in Beijing and Moscow, in Tehran and Riyadh, in Delhi and Islamabad, in Kabul and in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, in Ankara, Damascus and Jerusalem. The world’s past has been shaped by what happens along the Silk Roads; so too will its future.—Peter Frankopan

Relatively few Westerners realize the extent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Actually a complex suite of alliances concerning resources, infrastructure, trade, security and even culture, the BRI forms just part of an Asian awakening that’s shifting the planet’s centre of importance while strengthening Eastern influence beyond Asia and Africa to make inroads into Europe, the Americas, the Arctic, cyberspace and outer space.

That’s the message of historian Frankopan’s latest book, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. While present and future aren’t normally the precinct of historians, it was historical perspective that brought Frankopan to the topic. In context, Western global supremacy has been a recent, short-lived development.

Since announcing the BRI in 2013, China has promised nearly $1 trillion, mostly in loans, for about 1,000 projects, Frankopan reports. That money could “multiply several times over, to create an interlinked world of train lines, highways, deep-water ports and airports that will enable trade links to grow ever stronger and faster.”

That would enhance China’s access to, and control over, resources ranging from oil and gas to mines and farmland; provide markets for Chinese exports including surplus steel, cement and metals, as well as manufactured goods; create projects for Chinese contractors; secure foreign ports and other strategic commercial and military locations; and build closer foreign alliances for geopolitical as well as economic benefits.

Backed by Chinese money and local sovereign debt, Chinese companies have pushed roads, railways, power plants, grids and pipelines through Africa and Asia at a much faster rate than ever seen through Western aid. Of course that can put the supposed beneficiaries at the mercy of their Chinese creditors.

East has surpassed West, whether we know it or not, says Peter Frankopan

In 2011, for example, China forgave neighbouring Tajikistan’s infrastructure-related debt in exchange for several hundred square kilometres of territory. A $7-billion rail line in Laos represents over 60% of the country’s GDP. A rail-building boom in Angola left citizens with a per capita debt to China of $754 out of a per capita income of $6,200. In 2017 a Chinese company got a 99-year lease in lieu of debt on the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, a strategic site for both commercial and military reasons. Other ports in Maldives, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Djibouti could face a similar fate.

Even so, something like 85% of BRI projects “have proceeded without difficulty,” Frankopan states. China conducts many of its most opportunistic acquisitions openly, like buying a controlling interest in Piraeus, the Athenian port since antiquity. Other seaport purchases have taken place in Spain, Italy and Belgium.

Strategic ports and an alliance with Pakistan help position China in the Indian Ocean, while China continues to expand its South China Sea presence by building artificial islands for military bases. This isn’t just “the crossroads of the global economy” but a ploy to extend military power thousands of miles farther, according to a U.S. Navy admiral. China’s ambitions continue in the disputed East China Sea, location of the 2010 Senkaku conflict, in which China’s rare earths tactics demonstrated yet another weapon in the country’s arsenal.

As an economic powerhouse as well as a “geopolitical alternative to the US,” China can profit from American sanctions on countries like Iran. Russia too challenges U.S. policies towards countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, while the latter shows its willingness to trade with Iran and buy arms from Moscow.

Military co-operation can create unlikely allies. Last summer, in Russian’s largest war games since 1981, Beijing contributed 30 fighter jets and helicopters along with more than 3,000 troops. Included in the exercises were simulated nuclear attacks.

While futurologists and networking pioneers often talk about how the exciting world of artificial intelligence, Big Earth Data and machine learning promise to change the way we live, work and think, few ever ask where the materials on which the digital new world [depends] come from—or what happens if supply either dries up or is used as a commercial or a political weapon by those who have a near-monopoly on global supply.—Peter Frankopan

Even India, America’s strongest Asian ally and the Asian country most wary of Chinese expansion, stands to undermine U.S. influence with proposed transportation connections and free trade with Iran and Afghanistan.

Yet obvious perils weaken any notion of a united Asia working harmoniously towards a common goal. Russian-Chinese military co-operation doesn’t preclude Moscow stationing its 29th Army 3rd Missile Brigade, with nuclear missile capabilities, near the Chinese border.

Time will tell whether other countries can overcome the Eurasian chaos that inspired this maxim of Canadian miners: “Never invest in a country with a name ending in ‘stan’.”

Then there’s extremist Islam. Uighurs from western China have fought in Syria for the Islamic State in numbers estimated “from several thousand to many times that number.” China risks wider Muslim anger by running a gulag archipelago for Muslims. The country’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region hosts “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

Oddly enough for someone who knocks Western insularity, Frankopan seems to share the current preoccupation with the U.S. president. Among Frankopan’s criticisms of the West is its supposed opposition to immigration, even though that’s a marginal position within liberal countries but official policy in most of the East.

Nor does Frankopan mention the weird ideological zealotry that threatens to destabilize if not destroy the West from within.

Still, history’s greatest value might be perspective on the present. This historian’s view of the present and future can help Westerners understand their not-so-esteemed status in the Asian century.