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.