Friday, April 3, 2020

The three great Asian roads

In an age of realigning powers and the prædominance of the Belt and Road project in the œconomic and gæopolitical life of Asia, the old præmodern axes of cultural transmission and ferment are becoming ever more relevant and necessary to consider. One of these is a thalassocratic axis dependent on sea-power, and the other two are tellurocratic axes dependent on land-power. By way of introduction, then, this first blog post for Silk and Chai will discuss in the broad strokes these three historical roads.


First, let’s start with the old thalassocratic road, which is sometimes called the Maritime Route or the Indian Ocean trade network. This is the road occupied by Fuzhou, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Yangon, Chittagong, Mumbai, Dubai, Aden and even Zanzibar. For a significant part of world history, this maritime trade network was the main axis of the world system and the main locus of mercantile activity, which was in turn dominated by Indian, Iranian and Austronesian concerns.

Although leading families of the overseas Chinese diaspora were key players, and indeed became the local mercantile élites in the ports associated with it, the Chinese government’s interest in this thalassocratic trade network during the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods was largely peripheral, and concerned with extracting tribute from the peoples to its south. The Qing dynasty in fact relegated the southern trade network to a secondary status of importance. It remained so until the reconsiderations of the Qing-era New Text Confucian scholar Wei Yuan, who took pains to convince the Qing leadership that European encroachments and fortifications along this sea route constituted a security threat to the Empire. Wei would turn out to be quite correct on this point.

Indeed, the rise of the capitalist powers in the West can be directly traced to its predations on the Maritime Route, as the Portuguese and later the Dutch and the British would begin plundering the West African coast for slaves, and move onto the East African coast to begin leveraging naval power against these trans-Indian trade networks in cash crops (the ‘spice trade’) and precious stones. The ease with which they did so points to certain contradictions internal to the Maritime Route which may be worth some future consideration.

Also, it is necessary to take account of the strategic interests of Western powers in the old Maritime Route when discussing the recent political developments in Hong Kong – which may really be considered an extension of the old Portuguese, Dutch and Anglo-American ‘fortified ports’ strategy which caused the Opium Wars and the cession of Hong Kong to Britain in the first place – as well as the rise of takfiri-Salafist Islâmism in Malaysia and Indonesia, the attempts to isolate Burma and Cambodia from the world stage, the rise (and collaboration with the West) of Hindutva in India, terrorism in Sri Lanka, and the continuing brutal Saudi-American strangulation of dirt-poor but strategically-crucial Yemen.


The northernmost tellurocratic axis of cultural and œconomic transmission, the Siberian Tract, at its height stretched from Moscow in the West to Beijing in the East, going through Murom, Omsk, Tomsk and Irkutsk. It incorporated the trade networks controlled by the Volga Bulghars, the Mongol Empire, the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. Called ‘the Tea Road’ by Martha Avery, the Siberian Tract began and was strengthened by the rise of Petrine Moscow on one side, and the Qing Dynasty on the other. These two powers were land-based rivals and enemies for much of their historical existence.

However, the sheer volume of the tea trade along this road, accounting at its peak in the mid-1800s for nearly two-thirds of China’s tea exports, shows that there were peaceful and mutually-enriching endeavours to be seen along this Tract as well. Also, the witness of Confucian statesmen like Wei Yuan on the Chinese side, and of Russian Orthodox monastics like Hyacinth Bichurin and Peter Kamensky on the Russian side, show that the cultural exchanges between the two great powers were not always hostile.

The Russians maintained mostly-friendly connexions with the Tatar-Turkic, Finnic-Ugric, Iranian, Yeniseian, Mongolic and Tungusic peoples who inhabited that road: Hyacinth Bichurin was ethnically Chuvash; Peter Kamensky was versant in the Tatar and Mari languages. Thus they were able to gain a far truer, more balanced and more realistic understanding of Chinese material life and values, than the distorted images brought back by Jesuit missionaries on the thalassocratic road. To Russia, Qing China – and the later Republic and People’s Republic – were realist powers to be treated as such. To the West, China was either the object of rationalist envy or of Orientalist-imperialist superiority.

The Tea Road currently deserves the attention of world-systems analysts, because it remains the primary axis along which Chinese-Russian gæopolitical coöperation will continue – though the primary goods being traded will not be tea, but instead (at least in the current-day short run) a very different brew of natural gas and rare-earth elements. It is quite true that Washington’s hostility to both Beijing and Moscow has brought the two powers closer together – but there are both historical and œconomic positive precedents for coöperation that cannot be lightly ignored.


The Gate of Saint Thomas, or the main route of the Silk Road (and what most people imagine when they encounter the term), is the middle tellurocratic route linking Damascus to Luoyang. Running through Ctesiphon, Qûmis, Merv, Samarqand, Qeshger, Dunhuang and Xi’an, this route was historically important both for material reasons and for religious ones. It linked China to the Arab world through Mongolic and eastern Turkic khanates and the Empire of Persia. Like the Maritime Route, this trade route has been important since antiquity, and several of the post-classical and mediæval Chinese empires – like the Han and the Tang Dynasties – lavished great attention on it. A good deal of œconomic thought in the post-classical period attempted to take into consideration the value of the trade with ‘barbarian’ states to the west.

Historically, the close and friendly relationships between China and the Arab world were based on mutual security and trade interests against the threats of banditry and extractive powers along the route, going back to the Rebellion of An Shi. This is also the route along which the disciples of Saint Thomas – to wit, the Iranian and Syriac Christians of the Church of the East – reached China and established a presence in the same period. This presence was not to last, but it did produce some heroic figures in Chinese history and popular culture such as the patriotic Christian general of the Tang Dynasty, Guo Ziyi. The Gate of Saint Thomas was important for spreading both ideas and material culture from the Near East further east, and also for creating healthy engagements with Far Eastern culture in the Mediterranean.

In modern times, many of the gæopolitical conflicts that are currently plaguing the Middle East and Central Asia can be traced to the attempts of China to rebuild this trade network and infrastructure in the Belt and Road Project, and the attempts of the old imperialist powers to stop them from doing so. Any discussion of the (supposed) mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang must be seen in this light. The Uighurs are too good a political tool for the West to waste, on either side of the Silk Road. Takfiri-Salafi forces from Xinjiang play an integral part in the predations of al-Qa‘idah on the Syrian countryside. The continued efforts to keep Turkey in NATO must also be seen as a part of this strategy of disruption on the part of the capitalist-imperialist bloc.


This blog, Silk and Chai, therefore, is dedicated to left-Eurasianist and world-systems œconomic and gæopolitical analyses of these three roads. As the name is deliberately meant to suggest, a particular focus will be the two northern overland routes, though the southern maritime route will also receive due consideration. Silk and Chai stands in solidarity with the ‘long game’ struggles of Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Palestine and other Non-Aligned powers to realign the world system. This blog is naturally critical of both neoliberal and neonationalist politics within the OECD bloc – though the older strain of political realism is welcomed and encouraged. This blog is also critical of social-liberal and anarchist attempts to downplay structural issues and elevate bourgeois individualist, gender-expressionist and identity-political concerns in their place. Cultural and historical analyses are also expected to show up here. So please, dear guest, pull up a rug, have a seat at the dastarhan and pour yourself a cup!

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