Five years ago President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Kazakhstan, launching the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, a wildly ambitious set of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects stretching through the steppes of central Asia to the Baltic Sea. Hundreds of billions of dollars later, this project more than any other has come to define China’s radical ambitions to upend a world order long dominated by Americans and Europeans.
In 2015, Peter Frankopan, a dashing Oxford academic, wrote The Silk Roads, a weighty and widely acclaimed history of the ancient trading routes that once linked China to the world. It became a bestseller, partly because Frankopan, unusually for an academic, knows how to tell a yarn. But it can’t have hurt that there were so many modern echoes in his bold historical retelling, in which Herat, Kashgar and Samarkand were cradles of civilisation on a par with Byzantium or Rome.
This contemporary itch seems to have sat with Frankopan, prompting him to write The New Silk Roads, a slimmer ‘sibling’ volume detailing the flow of goods and ideas that are now sweeping once again from east to west, many of them along the same routes traversed in antiquity by Marco Polo. ‘The world’s past has been shaped by what happens along the silk roads,’ he writes. ‘So too will its future.’
Much of this is indeed about China, given that these new silk roads are typically planned by Chinese technocrats, funded by Chinese banks and built by Chinese workers. This, in turn, gives Frankopan’s new volume its narrative brio, as he zips back and forth across the Eurasian landmass, from new Chinese rail projects in Laos to oil pipelines in Iran.
But this is a story about a more complex world too. The old powers of the West are in decline, accelerated by the missteps of Donald Trump, of whom Frankopan is no admirer.