_ Banyan. London, 19 July 2018. Published for debate.
The emerging order is one that Marco Polo would recognise
OH, EAST is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Perhaps that was true when an Iron Curtain ran down the middle of Europe, and Mao Zedong’s China had turned disastrously inward. But now? This week leaders of the European Union and China met at a summit in Beijing to praise “EU-China connectivity”. It is more than an empty phrase, even if European leaders, distracted by political and migrant crises at home, are less clear-sighted about its implications than are their Chinese counterparts. China has hugely ambitious plans to connect the commercial worlds of Europe and East Asia via infrastructure links that will knit the vast—and till now seemingly inchoate—land mass of Eurasia together. But Chinese efforts are only the most notable of many modernising impulses that are beginning to mesh Eurasia into something resembling a whole.
In a stack of recent books and papers, a growing number of strategists argue that the emergence of a cohering Eurasia is the key feature of a new world order that is taking shape. In truth, Eurasia never went away. Nor are musings on its significance especially new. Over a century ago Halford Mackinder, a founding father of geopolitics, placed Eurasia at the centre of world affairs. In his so-called “heartland theory”, he reasoned that whoever controlled the geographic core of Eurasia could rule the world.
The most original case for Eurasia having new meaning is made by Robert Kaplan in his new book, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World”. Mr Kaplan, an American journalist and strategist, has a long fascination with how geography shapes destiny. He argues that Eurasia’s new connectivity in roads, railways, gas pipelines and fibre-optic cables means that the old regional categorisations of, say, Central, East and South Asia have ever less meaning as geopolitical concepts. The primacy of nation-states in those regions is also fading. Rather, the interplay of globalisation, technology and geography is leading “the Eurasian supercontinent to become…one fluid and comprehensible unit. Eurasia simply has meaning in the way that it didn’t used to.”
So far, so relatively uncontentious. But Mr Kaplan draws a couple of striking conclusions. First, he argues that, in a land mass historically dominated by China, Russia, Persia (modern-day Iran) and Turkey, a half-hidden tradition of empire is striking back. Nowhere is that more evident than with China and its Belt and Road Initiative, which uses infrastructure as a tool for regional influence. But other historical empires are attempting to make themselves felt too—think of Russia with its Eurasian Economic Union. These new empires don’t call themselves such. But they might act with an imperial mindset.
It is a world that Marco Polo, who travelled from Europe to Mongol-ruled China in the 13th century, would recognise—as Mr Kaplan’s title implies. China’s grand strategy today acknowledges that trade is a better weapon than the sword—just like the Pax Mongolica that then held sway across multicultural Eurasia.
Now, as then, risks live side by side with the potential for wealth creation. Connectivity, Mr Kaplan says, “has wrought a more claustrophobic and ferociously contested world.” The communications revolution denies empires an unambiguous upper hand. At one level, it allows sovereignties to multiply, as city-states thrive—think of Singapore or Dubai, like Bukhara in Marco Polo’s day. And identities hew not only to empire, but to locality, religion and clan. There is a dark side to this. Islamist mayhem in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the hounding of Rohingyas in Myanmar, attest to it. When globalisation weakens religion and culture, these get reinvented “in more severe, monochromatic and ideological form”—not so much the clash of civilisations as the clash of artificially reconstructed ones.
Eurasia, Mr Kaplan argues, will prove a curious mix of connectivity and anarchy. The Chinese and Russian empires are themselves vulnerable to groups empowered by communications. Crises in the capital could lead to “ungovernability in the far-flung provinces.” Meanwhile, China’s belt-and-road strategy could cause trouble at home. It is intended to make what Mr Kaplan calls “an end run” around China’s restive western province of Xinjiang. There, modernity has forced the Muslim Uighurs into economic competition with incoming Han Chinese in ways that threaten the survival of the Uighurs’ identity. It has led to Uighur radicalisation. The Chinese response to it has been to run Xinjiang as a police state of utmost brutality. It is hard to square that with the open ideals of China’s plans for intercontinental links.
A new medievalism?
Such ideals may be tested elsewhere, too. China’s $46bn investment in roads, railways and a port to connect its heartlands to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan could generate enough local growth to calm the long-running insurgencies along Pakistan’s frontiers. Done wrong, it could pour fuel on Pakistani fires, leaving Chinese plans in ruins.
Mr Kaplan’s book depicts a new medievalism—a world in which empires, not nation-states hold, sway, and where local identities and grievances breed instability and unrest. But it is possible to base judgment of Eurasia’s future too closely on the crescent of war, strife and police-state thuggery that runs from the Middle East through to western China. And, as Parag Khanna of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore points out, the leaders of Eurasia’s three most populous democracies, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, are “doers” out to reverse, however imperfectly, decades of stagnation and corruption.
Even in Eurasian countries that are undemocratic, a desire for economic growth acts as a moderating force in their relations with one another. Their pursuit of regional trade pacts points to their priorities. Geopolitical faultlines persist, such as between the two most populous countries, India and China, and intra-Eurasian war remains a risk. But it is not the super-region’s destiny.