Last week as fears of a protracted trade war spooked global markets, one afternoon I sat down for lunch with the famed Oxford professor of world history Peter Frankopan. Over the course of an hour, Frankopan shared his views on globalisation, geo-politics and Asia.
His two best-selling books, The Silk Roads and The New Silk Roads, are considered some of the best contemporary treatises on the future of global political and economic history. Frankopan also advises governments, heads of states, and international organisations on dealing with the global political economy in turmoil.
We begin by talking about India.
“Do you know that Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan) is closer to Delhi than Mumbai?” Frankopan asks me. I did not. Turns out, as the crow flies, Delhi to Dushanbe is 1,337 kilometres whereas Delhi to Mumbai is just above 1,422 kilometres.
But, for all the proximity, Delhi spends way too little time thinking about its central Asian neighbours, says the historian. In popular Indian imagination, says Frankopan, there is little thought spent on the mineral- and gas-rich states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. However these states are crucial to sustain India’s future energy needs, considering the south Asian country is one of the largest primary energy consumers in the world.
Lately, there have been signs that the Indian government is waking up to the opportunity. In January 2019, the first India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in Samarkand which promised deeper connections in everything from education, to private sector entrepreneurship, and pharmaceuticals. “We (India and Central Asia) are geographically close and, in terms of air connectivity, only about three hours away,” noted a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs on the event. Given its geo-strategic needs, India has also set up its first overseas military base in Farkhor, a town about 130 kilometres southeast of Dushanbe, and conducted joint military exercises with Kyrgyzstan.
Doing business with new areas of the world, with people “who do not look or sound like you”, is a fundamental pillar of liberalism, says Frankopan. At a time when the crisis of liberalism is bemoaned every day, the Worcester College historian says, “if one were to learn from history, liberalism is better sought among the merchants in the bazaars rather than in hagiographies of rulers and courts.”
To trade, he says, is to learn to get along with people one might not always like.
This is perhaps why he remains an optimist about India’s response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He doesn’t believe that India necessarily should have to participate in the BRI. “But it does have to show what its own vision is, what its own alternative is...a nation that is becoming wealthier would not like its neighbours to be very poor and unstable. That just raises the threat of instability and violence in the entire region,” he says
He suggests India’s own version of BRI could be in the form of investments in the International North-South Transport Corridor, a 7,200 kilometre network of road, rail and shipping lines to move goods across Europe, Central Asia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan, Iran and India, or investing in infrastructure in Myanmar, or in the Chabahar port in Iran.
“Whether India likes it or not, China is investing into the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), but what does India want to do rather than just criticise? What is its vision?” asks Frankopan.
“But why should Indian taxpayers pay for roads in other countries? That’s a valid question and needs to be answered. It is the sort of question that is being asked in every country as the narrative becomes ‘leave everyone else to their devices and let’s make America great first’ and so on.”
He adds that such a response does not adequately take into account the complexities of the deeply interconnected world where pretty much every place is within 18 hours of travel time, where leaders and nations can often be waylaid by issues that originate in an entirely different part of the world.
This is why Frankopan believes India’s plans of investment and the BRI can work side-by-side. He suggests India could take inputs from Japan “which has a lot of experience in investing in infrastructure projects in difficult places”. The collaboration can be seen as a part of economic rejuvenation that would help the whole world.
According to the Asian Development Bank, Asia as a whole requires an investment of around $1.5 trillion a year in the next decade, which, according to Frankopan, provides space for other operators besides China.
India, he says, “does not need to sign up to China’s vision to be able to participate in the broader concept of a richer Asia and richer neighbours”.
Speaking of Asia, Frankopan also highlights the dichotomy between wealth creation and wealth distribution. While great wealth is being created in Asia, how it is shared remains a question. Meanwhile, some of the fastest-growing cities in the continent are also riddled with issues like pollution and water shortage. He cites Bengaluru as an example, India’s startup capital, which has almost run out of water.
“There is a point when cities also die. They are untested on how they would deal with great climate change or resources running out,” he says.
Turmoil in India, from slowing growth to communal violence, worries the scholar, and the fact that “strongman leaders seem attractive to people in many parts of the world”. I tell him that all the turmoil in India was like the Samudra Manthan, the great churning of the ocean where poison comes out before the nectar. “This is such a Mediterranean way of looking at the world, isn’t it? This is not how the West would think,” he says.
It is in this easy accommodation of different viewpoints which is fundamental to Frankopan’s worldview – he is not a fan of the ‘clash of civilisations’ viewpoint and believes that leaders of countries have a responsibility in toning down such talk, especially when a new wave of globalisation is bringing new impetus to nationalism around the world.
The historian worries, though, that “it is not coincidental that a Far Right and a Far Left are simultaneously rising and the middle ground is disappearing” but his faith in global cooperation and a more efficient use of the markets is intact. The biggest problems of the world—from terrorism to climate change—cannot be solved by individual countries but through cooperation, he says.
There is some magic left in globalisation of trade and commerce. “If you told me when I was a child that the world’s greatest toy shop Hamleys would be sold from its Chinese owner to an Indian owner (Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group), it would be inconceivable,” exclaims Frankopan.
“History has a funny knack of delivering hope.”
For all the fragility in the world, it is the sort of economic miracle anecdote that keeps Peter Frankopan hopeful.