The tapestry of ancient Silk RoutesThe ancient maritime and overland Silk Routes have been revived. Its modern incarnation, driven by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (B&R), stands on the verge of connecting the Eurasian landmass, East Africa and Western Europe into a single trading matrix.
Many Asian communities were defined by the ancient Silk routes. The Knanayas of the Malabar Coast, for example, were notable players in the western segment of the Maritime Silk Route. The symbol of the community remains a ship which, as folklore goes, had once flown the “Flag of David” – illustrating the rich tapestry of panoramic Silk routes.
Both the ancient overland and maritime Silk routes involved a Babel of tongues, a variety of creeds and ethnicities, and a cornucopia of goods. It stabilized Asia in a way conquests could not.
Until the European arrival in Asia, conflicts from India to China were largely internal affairs, unlike the West where the commonalities of creed, a common Caucasian ancestry and a common language of diplomacy (Latin; later French) did not prevent continental-scale slaughters that peaked with each phase of enlightenment, industrialization and colonization.
Such a contrast offers an important lesson: The Silk route trades bridged distances; smoothed differences; and brought mutual prosperity through an organic “prosper-thy-neighbor” process. For the millennia, this trading ethos left identities and societies intact, obviating invasions or the imposition of external laws.
The language of wider communications was determined in situ. Money talked sans a “reserve currency”; trust was paramount; and the merchandise exchanged hands. Religious wars were either rare or localized.
Destructive western trade paradigm
The Silk route modus vivendi remains the antithesis of colonial-era depredations that were repackaged as the White Man’s Burden. One of the first burdens relieved upon the “discovery of Asia” in 1498 (Vasco da Gama; Calicut) was the immolation of Malabar’s ancient Christian and Jewish communities at well-lit stakes, paralleling actions better known as the Catholic or Spanish Inquisition.
This presaged the general pattern of European trade, where concepts, ideologies and laws formalized institutionalized looting into “trade.” Lex Britannica best epitomized this rapacity.
Accordingly, Asia’s self-image began to wilt. The splendor of the Golden Chersonese – the fabled Malayan peninsula – was reduced to the sooty grind of indentured labor. Chinese coolies were shanghaied to extract tin from dull Malayan cassiterites while tens of thousands of Tamils died from clearing Malaria-infested forests for a colonial transplantation called rubber.
Natives no longer had a voice in how they produced goods and at what price.
The recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement follows the same meme. The “partnership” was forged without input or scrutiny from citizens of the 12 signatory nations.
Even US Congress members were denied a copy of draft proposals to evaluate the benefits or otherwise to their constituencies. Despite the signing of the agreement, trade unions, policy-makers, economists and housewives on either side of the Pacific Ocean are still wondering how the TPP will impact them.
Can one call this trade pact – which relentlessly excluded key stakeholder inputs – a “partnership”? Its shape and structures were framed in classic colonial fashion – without native consent.
A public relations blitz soon followed its signing, with headlines proclaiming how it “could forever change global growth” or become the “new gold standard of global trade”.
This was eerily reminiscent of a similar media cannonade during the US presidential elections seven years ago; one that promised “hope and change,” but which instead wrought systemic global regression, despite the highbrow teleprompter-defined rhetoric.
Silk Route alternative
Unlike the still conceptual TPP, Beijing has begun building tangible infrastructures along the Silk Routes of yore, with each spur creating new economic opportunities. A new airport will facilitate trade, tourism and regional connectivity. And more jobs.
While the TPP employs a Western “concepts-first approach”; China lays the physical groundwork for brisk trade. The laws, customs and languages of natives are rarely affected. They either participate in a project or profit from goods transiting through their sovereign territories.
That is precisely what frustrates the West. This commonsense approach works, since Beijing has no desire to own or mould the soul of its trading partners; it just seeks prosperity via infrastructure-boosted markets. There will be no sanctions threatened against a Uganda or Kyrgyzstan on account of cultural differences over gay marriage.
Past allegations against China’s prison labor are now eclipsed by wanton US profiteering from its multi-billion dollar prison-industrial complex.
Secrecy shrouds the whimsical preconditions of the West’s free-trade model. The B&R model, au contraire, thrives on burgeoning networks of highways, ports, warehouses, power plants, hotels and fiber-optic connectivity; bringing first-class facilities across oceanic ports and remote continental outposts.
While the West depicts the B&R initiative as a neo-colonial stratagem, one only has to reprise Silk Route history for a reality check. The ancient maritime silk route was pivotal to the rise of the Malay Peninsula’s most celebrated kingdom – the Malacca Sultanate. It was a place forged by transoceanic trade, particularly from India and China.
“Chindia” was a Malaccan reality centuries before the term was coined. Indian, Chinese, Arabic and Persian customs, cuisine and words were organically adapted until a unique culture emerged from obscurity. It was here, in an indispensable node of the Maritime Silk Route, that modern Malaysia witnessed it first nascent sprouts.
It was here that the peninsula’s most celebrated literary classic, the Hikayat Hang Tuah, was inspired. Naturally, this period is fondly referred to as the Glorious Age of Malacca (Zaman Kegemilangan Melaka).
The glory ended when Portuguese cannons appeared off the coast of Malacca in 1509.Two years later, Malacca fell and there were new rules to live by with new terms of trade, all benefiting the conquerors. The locals, once producers of goods and services, now became workers in a larger imperial scheme.
The TPP, whatever its pretensions, echoes a similar pattern. Now is the time for Asia to jump on the Silk route caravans and vessels—a time-tested path to prosperity that preserves cultural and national sovereignty.
Mathew Maavak is a doctoral researcher in Security Foresight at University Teknologi Malaysia