Peter Frankopan said China with its Belt and Road Initiative — one of the government’s key strategies discussed at the two sessions — is revitalizing what could be a major new axis for world trade.
The director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University and author of the best-selling The Silk Roads, believes it could provide the global economy with a new much needed growth engine.
“The reason why there is so much excitement about these routes is because they have existed before. You only have to look back in history to see how all these connections and pathways were made,” he said.
“If they have existed before it can work again. It will lead to a greater level of ease of distributing goods and services along the routes which will make the whole process cheaper and quicker.”
The Belt and Road Initiative consists of The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road.
More than 30 countries along the routes have signed cooperative agreements with China. Last year Chinese companies invested $14.5 billion in markets along them.
Zong Qinghou, deputy to the National People’s Congress and chairman and general manager of Hangzhou Wahaha Group, China’s largest soft drinks maker, said the new routes provided opportunities not just for Chinese companies but to local businesses too.
“The Belt and Road countries are full of business opportunities and development potential. Investment in the countries and regions is not only able to help the development of local economies, but also promote the transformation of domestic industry,” he said.
Frankopan, whose book topped The Sunday Times bestseller list and was translated into Chinese in October 2016, says it is not just China but other countries which see the opportunities provided by these routes.
“Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the Central Asian republics have all started to think about their economic futures in terms of these connections. You get leaders in the Saudi Arabian press talking about the new silk roads and how Saudi Arabia fits into this,” he said.
The academic says China’s reaching out through the initiative comes at a time when the United States is talking the language of isolationism and protectionism.
“What everyone is waiting to see is whether the rhetoric and language of American isolationism becomes a fact,” he said.
“If these signals are right and America is pulling back, then China’s fostering of new links, particularly with countries with which it borders on the West, gains greater significance.”
Frankopan, 45, became interested in the East at the exclusive British public school Eton, where he won a scholarship, largely due to an inspirational teacher.
“I had a fantastic Russian teacher who used to say the best way to learn a language was to sing its peasant songs. He was sent by the school to Baghdad and when he came back he said he would teach us Arabic if we wanted to learn,” he recalled.
He went on to study history at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he received a prize for the highest first of his year.
He then did both a master’s and doctorate in Byzantine history before embarking on an academic career, which he has mostly spent at Oxford, apart from brief spells at Harvard and Princeton.
Despite being British, he also happens to be a Croatian prince, also having the title Count Doimi de Lupis.
“In a bygone age that might have meant something,” he said. “I am from a very old family that traces itself back to the Dalmatian coast 700 or 800 years. Nowadays it closes as many doors as it opens.”
The historian, however, has come to greater prominence as a result of the huge success of his book, which is also evidence of the interest in the new relevance of these ancient trade routes.
Frankopan insisted the new connectivity is not just about building new roads and infrastructure.
“We think above all about roads, trains, ports and airport hubs but it is now also about digital connectivity and internet access,” he said.
“Fundamentally, it is also about rule of law. In the book I quote a Chinese text from the 7th century which is about Syria and the protections people had under the law. Today this is still vital as far as how your rights are protected as either an importer or exporter.”
The author said it will take many years to assess the success of China’s new initiative.
“This transformation of its backyard cannot really happen over four or five years. This is something that is being done for the long term and I think that is also China’s own investment horizon and political agenda. It is much more likely to be successful with a longer time scale.”
He insisted that key to its success is fostering these relationships with the countries on the new routes.
“These types of relationships take an enormously long time to build up. It is about learning how to get on with people, working out what they are like and building strong diplomatic ties.”
Frankopan, who addressed Britain’s All Party Parliamentary China Group at Westminster earlier this month, said there is a growing awareness in Europe about how important these routes can be.
“I think the question in the UK, in particular, is how do we play a part in this. I think it means spending more time in these regions, sending senior figures and to constantly talk to those in Beijing about initiatives like the AIIB (Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank) and how we can play a more active role.”