Seminar report

Date – 8 September 2011

Venue – The London School of Economics

Topic – TheSilk Road/Spice Route: legacy, relevance and opportunities

Chairs – Dr Ruth Kattumuri (Asian Research Centre, LSE); Ashis Ray (Times ofIndia)


John Keay, journalist, author and historian

Professor James Millward –GeorgetownUniversity

Dolkun Isa – World Uyghur Congress

Professor Anatol Lieven – King’s College,London

Althar Hussain –AsiaResearch Centre, LSE

Alison Moloney – British Council

After a brief welcome by Dr Ruth Kattumuri, the first session of the seminar opened with historians John Keay and Professor James Millward offering a history of the oldSilk Road, its significance as a means of exchanging both goods and ideas, and its historical effects. It was pointed out that the route was also known as theSpice Roadbecause of the history of Indian/Kashmir trade northwards into both Xinjiang and through Central Asia intoRussia. Mr Keay made reference to the Silk Road’s tolerance to various religions, suggesting that its main legacy could be ‘global awareness and commonality’, while Professor James Millward raised the question of China’s interest in the political/status aspects of the Silk Road and considered its contemporary resonances, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s policy speech in Chennai, in which she called on India to create a ‘new Silk Road’, thus encouraging trade and easing of border crossings.

Session two was chaired by the Times of India’s Ashis Ray, who introduced the current scenario surrounding the Silk Road region, including Sino-Pak discussions on opening up trade potential between the two countries and the need for co-operation betweenPakistan,ChinaandIndia.

Professor Anatol Lieven then took the floor to discuss the role ofAfghanistanin the region, Indo-Pak relations, and ask the key question of whether some form of geo-political reconciliation could be achievable betweenIndiaandPakistan, without which, he warned, trade will not be possible. He called attention toChina’s strategic rather than economic interest in theKarakoram Highwayand its fears for the security of its sea routes, and voiced doubts about the extent ofChina’s economic and political commitment toPakistan. He pointed out thatIndia’s stragetic position gave it an ability to disruptChina’s Indian Ocean routes and said thatChina, therefore, had a greater incentive to be friendly withIndiarather thanPakistan. He also considered the chances of India and Pakistan reaching a limited agreement regarding infrastructure projects in Afghanistan that would benefit both sides, since neither was likely to get exactly what they wanted, and reflected on what interest China could have in promoting an Indo-Pak detente.

One audience member voiced concerns about Professor Lieven’s ‘pessimism’ regarding Indo-Pak relations, raising the matter of the Indus Water Treaty and the idea of opening up the LOC for trade purposes. But Professor Lieven stressed that conditions would have to be conducive on both sides if parliamentary agreements were to be made on various issues, most notably Kashmir – no easy task, given the history of the region and the fact that Pakistan’s decision-making rests in the hands of the army, which is, ironically, both an obstacle to peace between Pakistan and India, and the only institution that can bring it about.

A comment from Professor Lieven regardingPakistan’s draconian anti-blasphemy laws prompted Pakistan High Commission representative, Political Councillor Khaled Majid, to accuse the seminar of descending into ‘Pakistan-bashing’, to which Chairman Ashis Ray offered Mr Majid the chance to present his own views. Mr Majid simply stated that trade betweenIndiaandPakistanwas desirable but suggested a return to the main topic in hand rather than bringing in other subjects.

Dolkun Isa of the World Uyghur Congress spoke of the Silk Road’s international and historical significance, and East Turkestan’s key position on the ancientSilk Road, as well as its role as a place of economic and cultural exchange between East and West. He referred toChina’s invasion ofEast Turkestanin 1876, after which the area was renamed Xinjiang (now called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). The Uyghur people are, he said, at the heart of east/west culture, and their blend of influences includes Chinese, European, North African, Russian and Indian. Sunni Muslims, they have close cultural and linguistic ties to other ethnic groups in Central Asia, and have twice been successful in setting up an independent Eastern Turkestan Republic.

Yet although Eastern Turkestan is called an ‘autonomous region’, no right to self-rule has been granted to the Uyghurs and their basic freedoms and rights continue to be violated by the Chinese authorities, who label them variously as ‘capitalists’, ‘illegal religious activists’ and ‘terrorists’, cracking down on peaceful demonstrations, eliminating the Uyghur language from all levels of education, destroying important Uyghur cultural sites such as Kashgar, one of the most important cities of the Silk Road, and preventing those under 18 from attending mosque. Forced labour is also imposed, means of communication are blocked and Uyghur people ‘disappear’ or are executed. Despite strong condemnation by the European Parliament and the UN against the executions of Uyghurs and Tibetans, the Chinese authorities continue in their violent oppression. Nearly 40 Uyghurs have been killed during recent protest gatherings.

Even for those who manage to escape, the problems persist, said Mr Isa, as Uyghur refugees are forcibly repatriated from neighbouring countries such asKazakhstan,Kyrgyzstan,Pakistan,Cambodia,MalaysiaandMyanmar– in many cases, to suffer execution.

Mr Isa pointed toChina’s territorial expansion, saying that its rising economic power has allowed it to claim more lands from neighbouring countries, includingKazakhstan,KyrgyzstanandTajikistan. He condemnedChina’s use of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to curb peaceful political activism among Uyghurs in Central Asia; referred to the Sino-India border dispute regarding Aksai Chin, and denouncedChina’s interference in the Kashmir dispute betweenIndiaandPakistan, which placed greater strain on that relationship. He also spoke out againstPakistan’s close co-operation withChinaagainst the Indian military.

Next to speak was Professor Attar Hussain from the Asia Research Centre, who located the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan in the wider context of the old Silk Road, asking whether the route’s revival could bring back its former significance and focusing on China’s desire for westward expansion. He stated that the water resources of the region were more significant strategically. He agreed that trade was a vital issue and drew comparisons between the China/Taiwan and Indo-Pak relationships, showing how China and Taiwan had forged close economic ties despite a fraught political situation – ties made difficult for India and Pakistan to forge due to the Kashmir question. More flexibility is needed on the Pakistani side, suggested Professor Hussain, though the internal situation in the country would make this problematic. He said that thePakistanmilitary believed they held a very powerful geopolitical card and they blackmail western powers to support them againstIndia. He stated that the real power inPakistanrested only with the military and he he expressed ‘realistic optimism’ that a limited agreement between the two countries might be possible, as war would be too harmful for both. He also voiced some cynicism regardingChina’s will to invest in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

Tom Deegan from The Democracy Forum read extracts from author Louisa Greve’s paper, the subject of which was ‘The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Other Multilateral Frameworks: Implications for Political Economy on the Modern Silk Road’. The paper focused onChina’s campaign to develop a modernSilk Roadin order to establish energy security. It also dealt with human rights abuses against the Uyghur people through the medium of the SCO. She asserted that the SCO was an instrument ofChinain gaining a hegemony over smaller Central Asian states.

The seminar’s third session explored cultural relations between theUKand the Silk Road region, including projects by theBritishMuseumand the British Council aimed at developing global relations.

A roundtable discussion included comments and questions on: modern-day perceptions of the oldSilk Road: (1) its connotations of cultural pluralism and constructive cooperation between nations. (2) the feasibility of its revival and potential benefits to people of the regions (3) the need forChinato rethink its colonialist approach that neglects the preservation of its minority groups. (4) the possibility of developing links on both sides of the LOC. (5) a suggestion thatIndiaandPakistanshelve the Kashmir issue and work to develop the economies of both countries by expanding the Silk Road throughUzbhekistan,Tajikistanetc intoRussia.

Dr Ruth Kattumuri rounded off the day’s events by saying that the seminar, which had an audience of about 40 people, had generated lively debate and new ideas. She expressed her hopes that the gathering of academics and lay people could meet again in the future to continue expanding these ideas. Some audience members seconded her hopes and suggested another seminar onAfghanistanbefore the NATO withdrawal.