New Silk Road and the Asian Century: India, China and the Empire
29 Sep 2020 – For the much of human history on planet earth – till the 18th century – India and China were the two largest economies in the world and periodically interchanged the top position amongst themselves.
This was mainly possible because of the ‘blessing from the heights’: first, the Tibetan Plateau – the largest water tank in the world from which 10 major Asian river systems originate; secondly, the Himalayas – from which the Ganges and the Yamuna emerge; and thirdly, the annual rainfall that feeds the two river systems (Himalayan and Peninsular) and nourishes the fertile lowlands, which enable agriculture, and produces enough food to sustain an ever growing population.
Many don’t know – or remember – that the Great Indian Monsoon is also brought about by the Tibetan Plateau.
Every summer, the ‘Roof of the World’ – located within 7 Asian nations – creates a heated low pressure above its stark and wondrous landscape. This belt of low pressure draws in moisture from the oceans and initiates the monsoon: the critical lifeblood of the Indian sub-continent.
When the natural geographical factors combined with the river-system-like Old Silk Road – starting from Xian under the Han dynasty around 130 BCE – with larger key channels fed by smaller intricate tributaries, Asia emerged into the world more prominently, and began to thrive.
The terms ‘Silk Road’ or ‘Silk Route’ were coined much later in 1877 by German traveler, geographer, scientist and historian Fredinand von Richthofen; but the road was always related to silk. The ancient Greek word for China is ‘Serica’ – derived from the Chinese word for silk, si – which literally means ‘the land from where silk comes from’. Byzantine Emperor Justinian (in the 6th century) sent Christian monks as spies to China to steal silkworm eggs. He started silk production in the Mediterranean with the stolen eggs, but still couldn’t compete with the greater quality of the Chinese silk.
But let us also recall that 300 years before the origin of the Old Silk Road, there was the Royal Road – an ancient highway connecting Susa (in modern Iran) to Sardis (near the Mediterranean Sea in modern Turkey) – that was established by Persian King Darius I during the Achaemenid Empire. This road was further linked – through other smaller routes – to connect Mesopotamia with the Indian subcontinent and North Africa via Egypt.
Alexander of Macedonia travelled East through this Royal Road of the Persians, whose parts later got incorporated within the Old Silk Road.
During these long centuries of Asian dominance – till the early nineteenth century – the ancient civilizations of India and China – with a combined share of the world GDP that exceeded over 50% – peacefully coexisted.
They mutually benefitted from the Old Silk Road that enabled the seamless flow of agricultural produce, manufactured goods, livestock, ideas, art, inventions, language, science, religion and culture; and this played a pivotal role in the seeding and growth of human civilization in our world.
From Chinese paper to gunpowder; from Indian Panchatantra to the all-powerful numerical number 0 (whose story I have also told in my debut novel) travelled through the Old Silk Road, that linked Europe with Asia, and integrated the ‘supercontinent of Eurasia’; and even influenced the Horn of Africa.
For over two thousand years of Asian history – since the origin of this legendary road – the rulers of India and China never sent any testosterone-fueled soldiers into each other’ territories; they only sent merchants, traders, travelers, emissaries, scholars, students, mystics and philosophers.
The disintegration of the Old Silk Road – that began in the middle of the 15th century and ended in the early 18th century – happened due to various factors: fragmentation of the largest empire in world history – the Mongol Empire – that broke up the unity of the road, boycott of trade from China by the Ottoman Empire that finally ended the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and consequentially, spurred the need to develop maritime routes because Europe still wanted Asian products, devastation caused by the Bubonic Plague that disrupted the local dynamics of key locations, rapid rise of regional states which were economically disunited and ultimately, the collapse of the Safavid Empire in West Asia.
This era of the Old Silk Road’s gradual disuse and decline also coincided with the rise of the imperialistic Europeans on ships that began to dominate the ocean, colonize the Global South and build empires, on a trail of blood.
In this ‘Age of Discovery’ (an Eurocentric term) when European ships travelled around the world from early 15th century to the early 17th century, Western Imperialism, or the Empire – buoyed by the European Renaissance and then later, by the European Enlightenment – began its era, that kept on developing over the subsequent centuries.
Portuguese emerged first, followed by the Spanish; both established global empires. During the late 16th and the 17th centuries, the English, the French and the Dutch entered the fray in ‘empire making’ while they competed fiercely with each other. In the 19th century, when the pace of colonization increased, the Belgians, the Italians and the Germans also entered the field and scrambled for Africa.
But before the commencement of the ‘Age of Discovery’, the birth of ‘white supremacist and racist ideologies’ and the historical era of the sea-faring ‘Empire from the West’, the Chinese during the Ming dynasty – under Yongle emperor Zhu Di – had sent out expeditionary naval voyages to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, West Asia and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. This enormous fleet of ships with four decks – almost twice as long as any European ships of that era – was commanded by the legendary Zheng He: a towering eunuch born in a Mongol Hui Muslim family who went on to become a mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral.
Zheng He arrived with his massive naval power in Calicut’s historic harbor in 1405; nearly a century before the arrival of Vasco Da Gama in Goa in 1498.
The Chinese possessed superior ships, disciplined manpower and advanced technology; but they didn’t think of colonization, domination of the maritime routes and the control of the strategic nodes, in the manner that the Europeans did. The Ming naval expeditions were focused upon diplomacy, show of strength and commerce based upon equitable exchange, rather than on Western-style ‘empire building mission’ via construction of forts, military conquests, religious conversions, horrific massacres and total plunder.
Yongle emperor Zhu Di – who had initiated the naval expeditions – died in 1424. Less than a decade later, Zheng He died in the sea, north of Java, while returning from his seventh, and final, expedition. The inward-looking successors of the Ming dynasty abruptly ended the seafaring voyages and retreated back into their Confucian-Buddhist-Taoist civilization. This made it easier for the Europeans – on much smaller ships – to sail into the oceans of Asia and control her waves; her trade; and subsequently, her destiny.
The fate of the Old Silk Road also sank. From the 16th century onwards, since the development of the maritime network from Europe to Asia, the fast-flowing ships made more sense than the slow-moving land caravans. The disuse of the functioning parts of the Old Silk Road accelerated, while the Empire – riding upon the waves of the oceans – finally arrived upon the shores of Asia.
In 1608, the British and the East India Company (founded in 1600) landed at the port of Surat under the leadership of merchant and diplomat Thomas Roe. The Company established their first two factories in 1611 (at Masulipatam on Andhra Coast) and in 1612 (at Surat), and began to gradually gain their foothold in India.
The first attempt by the British East India Company to colonize India via direct military conquest was made during 1686-1690: when the first Anglo-Mughal war – also known as Child’s war – took place.
Emperor Aurangzeb – of the Mughal dynasty of Mongol descent that was simultaneously Central Asian, Islamic and Indian – ordered the confiscation of all properties and possessions of the Company and inflicted a humiliating defeat to the British. The envoys of the Company had to prostrate before him, render an apology, accept a fine and beg for forgiveness. The grave mistake – that Aurangzeb made by trusting the promise of the Company to mend their ways, instead of uprooting them totally from India when he had the golden chance – would eventually cost India terribly: and that’s a massive understatement.
Nearly seven decades later, the Battle of Plassey (1757) was won – via a deceitful coup – by the Company forces led by the infamous predator Robert Clive; and this inaugurated the British rule in the sub-continent, that lasted for nearly 200 years.
India fell to colonization by the Empire in the middle of the 18th century, and China in the middle of the 19th. And the era of Asia was over.
The Current 21st Century Era
Let’s fast forward to year 2020 and see what has happened to the Empire and Asia.
The baton of the Empire – that was first held by the Portuguese in the 15th century with the capture of Ceuta in 1415 – has now passed over to the United States of America: an imperial settler colony that was established through a dark history of genocide and slavery.
President Jimmy Carter – the US President who finished his term without war, military attack or occupation – pointed out in 2019 that the United States has been at peace for only 16 of its 242 years as a nation and described the US as ‘the most warlike nation in the history of the world.’
Post World War II, the US-centralized Empire grew out of the old British Empire, but in the recent decades – especially after the assassination of US President John F Kennedy – the Anglo-American power has mutated – at a much faster pace – towards Anglo-Zionist power.
Nobel Laureate of Literature Bob Dylan released a new single in March 2020 on the JFK assassination titled ‘Murder Most Foul’.
The song contains these lyrics: ‘They killed him once and they killed him twice / Killed him like a human sacrifice / The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son, The age of the Antichrist has just only begun”.
Nowadays, Tel Aviv is as important as Washington DC along with the banking and financial headquarters (The Wall Street, The Federal Reserve, The Bank of International Settlements at Basel and the City of London) which collectively is the current Empire.
In the meantime, Asia – where 3 out of every 5 people on the planet live and dream – has wrested herself out of the direct control of the old Empire (mainly the British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese).
Currently, Asia has 48 UN-affiliated nations with a dazzling variety of complex governance systems: monarchies with market or mixed economy (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Brunei), constitutional monarchies with multi-party democratic elections and market or mixed economy (Thailand, Japan), constitutional monarchies with single party socialist rule with market or mixed economy (Cambodia), theocratic republics or states with multi-party parliamentary or presidential elections and market or mixed economy (Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan), single party socialist republics with market or mixed economies (China, Vietnam, Laos), constitutional republics or federations with multi-party parliamentary or presidential democracies with market or mixed economy (India, Russia, Indonesia) and an old-school Communist regime with total state control like North Korea.
More significantly, the forces of history and time have turned towards the East; and the chatter around the neologism ‘Asian Century’ is only growing exponentially all across the world.
India and China held over 50% share of the world GDP for nearly two millennia, but were reduced to an abysmal share of under-10% in the 1940s after the devastatingly-extractive colonial exploitation by the Empire.
India in light blue and China in deep blue from 1 AD to 2000; and the sharp collapse of their Global GDP share after colonization by the Empire.
Source: ZeroHedge and Maddison Database, Deutsche Bank
India and China have now recovered their combined share to about 28% on the much realistic Purchasing Power Parity or PPP terms.
However, China is doing much better than India by already carving out 20% of the world GDP; and developing since the 1980s – by eradicating poverty, creating world-class infrastructure and improving the lives of its citizens – at a pace that is unprecedented in human history.
Within this re-ascension of Asia, quite incredibly, the Old Silk Road has also returned, in a new much improved avatar.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, and planned to be completed by 2049 – will seek to recreate a New Silk Road (both through land and water) that would re-integrate Eurasia, and extend to the Horn of Africa, just like the old times of our collective world history.
New Silk Road is the key link to the new Asian Century, as the Old Silk Road was the key link to the old Asian Era.
In the year 2030, six out of the top 10 largest economies (in PPP terms) are projected to be Asian, if one includes Turkey.
China has already overtaken USA in 2013 as the world’s largest economy on PPP terms; it is slated to eclipse the USA in the nominal terms, between 2025 and 2030.
21 of the world’s 30 largest cities are already in Asia, along with 50% of the world’s middle class.
Without any formalized ‘Asian Union’, intra-Asia or intra-regional trade between the Asian countries has already touched 60% of the overall trade: a number that is equivalent to the European Union.
In 2019, Financial Times published a much referred article – ‘The Asian Century is set to begin’ – by placing 2020 as the starting point of the New Asian Era when, after 200 years, Asian economies will be larger than the rest of the world combined, for the first time since the early 19th century.
The Empire and Asia
Invisible patterns of time and history keep influencing visible occurrences; they throw up prominent players and critical developments which tend to serve as agents of those evolving patterns.
We need to grasp those invisible patterns by interpreting the visible signs, random omens and the spectrum of events to understand where we are headed.
The crux of the matter is that the process for the Asian Century – where Asia will regain her historical position that she rightfully deserves – has already begun. The world is transiting to a new balance of power. And this will also mark the decline – and potentially, the end – of the 600 year old sea-faring Empire from the West.
This becomes clear when one analyses current affairs while looking back in history to understand the eras and the significant key developments associated with them. And to analyze the present one always needs to know the past; because it enables one to see from a bird’s eye perspective that seeks to rise above the din of the present times – centered on the US-China and India-China narratives – and suddenly grasp a new binary: Empire and Asia.
Peace is more beneficial for the people while wars are more beneficial for the ruling elites. But in this present period of transition and turmoil, peace and stability between the Asian nations will also favor the cause of the Asian Century, while wars, antagonisms, demagogueries, economic disintegrations, cultural disconnections and trade blockages will favor the Empire.
What is most apparent to anyone who follows geopolitics from all possible perspectives is that the winner between any Sino-Indo wars will be the USA; and the loser will be Asia.
But the morbid circumstances of our world are so insane, that even within the devastating times of the controversial pandemic, dystopian lockdowns and unprecedented socio-economic collapse, war drums have started to be sounded; and the protagonists are India, China and the Empire.
The recent border conflict between India and China is also related to a part of the New Silk Road that China seeks to protect at all costs: a vital route from Tibet to Xinjiang that passes through the Chinese controlled Aksai Chin: a region that the Indian Home Minister Amit Shah – on 6 Aug 2019 in the Indian parliament – theatrically promised to recover ‘even by giving up my life’, after the abrogation of Article 370 and the division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two separate union territories.
India under the right wing Modi regime, with its consistent propensity to take ‘bold’ decisions with catastrophic consequences, and its submissive leaning towards the axis of the Empire – that has a well expressed policy to contain China, implode BRI and thereby, crash the Asian Century – might go along mindlessly with the Trump-Pompeo scheme of things, going by India’s recent acceleration of the Sinophobic posturing towards China.
India has absurdly joined the Empire initiated The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad – a strategic grouping with three other countries (US, Japan and Australia) with whom we don’t share any border – that aims to contain and put pressure on China with whom we share a border that is 4056 km long!
What is better: to seek a détente for the sake of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with one’s neighbor and a sister civilization of Asia, or to function as a subservient tool of the Empire of Chaos and play war-war games with China?
India – perhaps fearing unilateral US sanctions and bullying by the Trump administration – is also imploding her own mini Silk Road to connect South Asia to Central Asia via the Iranian port Chabahar and a proposed 628-km rail line to Zahedan, near the Afghan border.
India continues her strange witless refusal to be part of the era-shifting New Silk Road (BRI) that has garnered approval and engagement from over 138 countries and 30 international organizations; while historically, India had only gained and benefitted from the Old Silk Road.
It’s even stranger that one needs to actually say this: under any circumstances, India shouldn’t allow herself to be held hostage by the Empire, fall into its old ‘divide and rule’ entrapment, and its hysterical strategy to demonize the New Silk Road (BRI) as ‘Chinese expansionism’ and ‘Chinese debt trap’ when the Empire has over 1000 military bases all over the globe and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been indebting poor nations with conditional borrowings – which favor the Empire’s interests – for decades.
India – especially her chattering class – shouldn’t become the clueless victim of the western corporate MSM propaganda machine that is fed continuously by western intelligence assets and public relations firms (as exposed once again recently by leaked documents which revealed massive Syria propaganda operation waged by Western government contractors and media, as reported by thegrayzone.com and other independent sites).
India has to be smart enough to understand that the Empire has unleashed a hostile hybrid war – from trade to information – against the sovereign Eurasian challengers, Russia and China, who are threatening its unilateral hegemony – the ‘rules based order’, rigged to benefit the Empire – that is no longer acceptable to much of the world.
Chinese President Xi Jinping in his recent 2020 address to the United Nations asserted that no country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself.
“Even less”, he emphasized, “should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world.”
The battle lines have been clearly drawn. Everything major that is happening right now, and will happen in the coming years, will be intrinsically linked to the geopolitical, technological, military, economic, information and cultural tussle between the Empire and the sovereign challengers from Asia who are driving the Eurasian integration project and the Asian Century.
The Empire pushed Cold War 2.0 with rabid Russophobia and Sinophobia, might soon turn to Asiaphobia, as Asia continues to grow, strengthen and rise.
In this climate, India must develop her own sovereign worldview and autonomous plan of action, instead of seeing and acting through the eyes and mind of the Empire.
It will be unreasonable, counter-productive and harmful for India to follow the outdated ‘Washington Consensus’, especially in regard to economy and foreign policy, which require an urgent course-correction.
The amnesic and myopic ruling elites of India should recall the colonial history of two centuries of servitude when 45 trillion dollars – a conservative estimate by economist Utsa Patnaik in a book published by Columbia University Press – was extracted out of the Indian subcontinent, and shipped away to Britain.
India also have forgotten and cannot see anymore, that only rebels and challengers can have true equal alliances, while Empires can only have colonies and vassals.
In the 21st century, the values of the young are already shifting. Hero is no longer the one who wins the wars, but the one who prevents them.
Nations have to go beyond mere self-centered ‘national interests’ and have to act in accordance to shared ‘global responsibilities’ which forbid creating chaos, oppression and destruction in any part of the world for the sake of humanity on a pale blue dot.
Pacifism is the need of the hour, when the world is already tormented by the status quo and the threat of unelected corporate tyranny that is out to enslave and control the world via the Neoliberal World Order (NWO) and the Davos-gang-initiated The Great Reset within the new paradigm of Foucauldian bio-politics, SARS-Cov-2 virus, social distancing, digital life-style, ‘war on invisible enemy’, technocratic police state, social media censorship, invasive surveillance, vaccines, transhumanism and more.
In this climate of shock, uncertainty, trauma, confusion and heightened divisions, it will be wiser for India to genuinely talk, fairly negotiate and peacefully settle issues with China for her own long-term interests while focusing upon how to pull herself out from the current socio-economic abyss that has been created by hate, cruelty, deception and polarization spurred by the Hindutva ideology, toxic neoliberal policies imported from the Empire, subversion of the democratic institutions, disastrous cashless experiment of demonetisation, over-excessive digital technocracy, immiseration of the unorganized sector, poorly conceived Covid-19 response and the draconian ‘lives and livelihood’ killing lockdowns.
Under such adverse circumstances, India certainly doesn’t need fake-nationalism driven war-mongering, unnecessary pressurization of her military services in high-altitude deserts to protect ill-defined frontiers and funneling of tax-payers’ money to overseas military-industrial-surveillance complex.
She needs to reverse the moral, intellectual and financial bankruptcy that she is facing, and improve the lives of its citizens, by whole-heartedly investing in the creation of human capital, jobs, infrastructure, healthcare and education.
Wisdom, non-violence and foresight used to be the preferred characteristics of the Indian civilization, which the current Modi regime no longer values.
India has to regain her civilisational ethos and her anti-colonial spirit. She must align herself for the cause of the rising Asian Century; rather than be used, manipulated and arrested by the declining Empire.
The New Silk Road is the key link to the new Asian Century, as the Old Silk Road was the key link to the old Asian Era. India must join the BRI on a mutually-beneficial terms, rather than to oppose or to implode it, at the behest of the Empire, whose elites are still obsessed with the Halford Mackinder’s ‘heartland theory’ and want to prevent the rise of any competing power in the Eurasian heartland, where currently the new Asian Century is taking shape, along with the momentous Russia-China strategic alliance, much to chagrin of the Empire.
But the people of the world should welcome the inevitable arrival of the new Asian Century, than to be afraid of it.
Asian Century doesn’t mean China style-single-party-socialist rule all over Asia; every nation should choose and struggle for the kind of government and the freedoms that the people want, without any outside interference.
Nor does Asian Century means that Asia will start to colonize and plunder other non-Asian nations, and start teaching them Mandarin, Russian and a variety of Indian languages.
Asian Century primarily means that from an uni-polar hegemonic world order dominated by the Empire, a multi-polar world order – more diverse and representative – will emerge; and Asia will regain her lost economic, cultural, technological and political prominence, that will naturally bring about a new balance to the world, democratize the key international institutions, create an optional global financial system, apply people-centric socio-economic solutions rather than the inequality-enhancing pro-one-per-cent policies, promote ideological narratives of peace, humanism, cooperation, justice and equality, and finally witness the end of the 600 year old ‘racism and supremacism’ driven imperialism, based upon military force, covert operations, organized propaganda and exploitative economics, that will – once and for all – liberate and uplift the entire Global South.
This is a great dream to dream about, and to work towards actualizing it, not only for the sake of Asia, but for the sake of the world.
Devdan Chaudhuri is the author of the novel ‘Anatomy of Poet’. He is also a poet whose works have featured in ‘Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians’ published by the Sahitya Akademi; a short story writer; an essayist on politics and culture and one of the contributing editors of The Punch Magazine. He lives in Kolkata.
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