Importance of the Silk Roads

Developing Just Leadership

Brecht Jonkers

Ramadan 19, 1442 2021-05-01

News & Analysis

by Brecht Jonkers (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 3, Ramadan, 1442)

Foreign ministers of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China met in Tehran on March 27 to sign the historic Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries. The agreement foresees massive economic cooperation as well as a strategic partnership in military and security affairs.

The immense importance of the Partnership agreement was not lost on the Western mainstream media, as the deal would frustrate US plans to destabilise Iran through economic sanctions. While not all details of the agreement have been worked out, what is clear is that it is supposed to run for at least 25 years, and is scheduled to inject up to $400 billion worth of investments into Iran’s petrochemical and energy industry.

Aside from direct economic benefits, the Partnership document includes collaboration in the political, cultural, judiciary and defence domains. News outlets from the Global South, such as Pakistan’s Dispatch News Desk used the terms “a new regional order” in appreciation of the importance of the event.

Addressing Western outcry about Iran “selling out to China”, a typical case of projection of their own past and present deeds, Iran’s ambassador to China Mohammad Keshavarzzadeh reiterated the bilateral and balanced nature of the agreement. Considering that in the time of British domination, Iran only received 16% of its own oil profits generated through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Western criticism of Chinese oil imports is cynical, to say the least.

Relations between Iran and China, and indeed between China and much of the Islamic world in general, have been very friendly for a long time prior to this event. Reuters reported that the People’s Republic imported 27 million barrels of Iranian oil in March of 2021 alone, a considerable circumvention of US attempts to cripple Iran’s petrochemical industry. In addition, the Iranian automobile industry has made inroads into the international market.

But there are wider implications at play. As Amin Saikal, adjunct professor of Social Sciences at the Centre for Muslim States of the University of Western Australia was quoted as saying by Press TV:

“Deeper and wider cooperation between China and Iran, especially when considered in the context of their close ties with Russia and the trio’s adversarial relations with the US, carries a strong potential for changing the regional strategic landscape.”

For indeed, the importance of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership goes far beyond bolstering of Iran in the face of sanctions, or even beyond an increased role for China on the geopolitical stage. The issue is part of a wider development that has been brewing since at least the turn of the century, and has been making policymakers in the imperial core (North America and Western Europe) increasingly anxious: the rise of Eurasia.


In order to understand the growing importance of the concept of Eurasia in world politics, we need to first dig into its history. There was a time when a term like Eurasia, or the related ideology of Eurasianism, invoked mostly images of Russian irredentist nationalism. Centered around figures like Aleksandr Dugin, the Eurasian movement grew steadily during the tumultuous years of 1990s Russia with the idea that it is culturally more Asian than European, and should focus its attention on developing closer ties with Asian states as a result. This idea was based on older schools of thought that in particular had been expressed by Soviet historian and ethnologist Lev Gumilyov, who was a strong proponent of Pan-Asiatic cooperation against what he described as the destructive forces of the West.

The ideology of Eurasianism has garnered significant following in Russia, particularly since the start of Vladimir Putin’s first presidency in 1999. Subsequently, it has caused consternation and concern in Western Europe and the United States.

Ukrainian academic, and noted supporter of European liberalism, Anton Shekhovtsov, went as far as to call Eurasianism “a form of a fascist ideology centred on the idea of revolutionising the Russian society and building a totalitarian, Russia-dominated Eurasian Empire that would challenge and eventually defeat its eternal adversary represented by the United States and its Atlanticist allies, thus bringing about a new ‘golden age’ of global political and cultural illiberalism.”

If this description sounds a lot like a propagandist rallying cry, this is probably because it was meant for that exact cause. The Eurasian project has been subject to campaigns of both antagonism and ridicule for decades, with comparisons to fascism never far away.

Gradually, however, the idea of Eurasian cooperation has come out of the sphere of ideas and has become a material reality, be it caused by a series of strategic partnerships rather than a unilateral Russian rise to power. The followers of Gumilyov and Dugin had always been vocal about their belief in a natural shared interest between the Slavic, Turkic, Iranian, Chinese and Arab peoples. However, the practical application of this idea was based not just on notions of culture and nation, but on an ancient and very tangible concept: the Silk Roads.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in 2013 the need for a “Silk Road Economic Belt”, he did this based not just on a dream of increased independence from Western hegemony, but also on centuries of history connecting Anatolia and the eastern Mediterranean with China and India through a vast network of land and sea routes. For a long time since the development of civilisations in Asia, Europe and Africa, the land connections crossing through Central Asia played a pivotal role in international geopolitics. Influencing commerce but also politics, social morals, religious values and military technology, the Silk Roads were the lifeline of both European and Asian societies.

Some of the largest ethnic migrations and resettlements took place primarily around this area, for example the expansion of the Huns, the Seljuq Turks and the Mongols. Spread of Christianity to the East, of Buddhism to China and of Islam to the entirety of what is often known as the Middle East, followed these ancient trade routes.

In the international bestseller, The Silk Roads, Oxford University historian Peter Frankopan emphasises just how crucial this Eurasian connection has been to world history. Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary called out the inherent bias and underrating attitude that goes with the term “Middle East”, instead coining the term “the Middle World” to pay proper respect to the vast importance of the region between the Indus and Istanbul. An importance that is all too often lacking in the westernised understanding of history.

When talking about “the Middle Ages”, itself a eurocentric term to indicate a sort of dark age in between two periods of Western empire building, the first thing that comes to mind is often armoured knights and castles. In other words, a European scene par excellence. When teaching about the Renaissance, another West-centered term, the subjects are often Italian art and the travels of Columbus. This despite the fact that an estimated 20% of the world’s population at the time in fact lived in the Muslim-ruled Mughal Empire alone, with the main European power Spain following in the distance with around 5% even when including the colonies. The only country rising above Mughal India in terms of population at the time was China.[1]

In the words of University of Chicago historian Marshall Hodgson: “In the sixteenth century of our era, a visitor from Mars might well have supposed that the human world was on the verge of becoming Muslim.”[2]

These Muslim realms uniting much of the world were, for the most part, straddling along the ancient connection between East and West. Even in the 17th century, when colonisation of the Americas was in full swing and billions worth of gold and silver was being transported to the European heartland, the focal point of the world’s economy was still Asia. The link between the Ottoman Empire through Central Asia and the central hub of Safavid Iran, to Mughal India, Ming-dynasty China and the spice ports of Southeast Asia was a major route of international commerce and geopolitics.

It was only with the meteoric rise in power of several European empires in the 19th century that the West came to take center stage. Bolstered by vast wealth stolen from the American continents, and kickstarted by an early lead in the Industrial Revolution, Britain rose in prominence, followed by France, Germany and eventually the United States of America alongside a set of smaller European imperialist powers.

The power projection of Europe was not limited to financial and territorial domination alone, which is not to say they didn’t make headway in this field. The British Empire succeeded in becoming the largest one in human history and robbed India alone of around $45 trillion worth of wealth. However, a similarly lasting influence of the past 200 years of Western dominance is to be found in the domain of the mind.

The idea of Atlanticist supremacy and of an ever-present European-American connection is still very much alive in the minds of countless people, both in the West and in the Global South. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction alike, be it books, movies or even standardised history courses, continuously cement the idea that Europe and later North America are the crux of human civilisation. The idea of Western supremacy, so aptly named by Iranian social scientist Sayyid Jalal Al-e-Ahmad as “occidentosis” or “Westoxification”, remains deeply rooted across both the imperial core and the Global South to this day, presenting an ever-present obstruction for further liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world.

However, for all its efforts to the contrary, the West has not been able to entirely stem the tide of regained sovereignty, independence, moral revival and alternative political ideals. With countries such as China, Iran and Russia at the helm, a project has been gradually set up across the width of Asia with the goal of pulling countries out of the quagmire of neoliberal stagnation that has seemed so triumphant since the 1990s.


[1] MADDISON, A., The World Economy Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective Volume 2, 2007, 238.

[2] HODGSON, M., Rethinking World History, Cambridge, 1993, 97.

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