Shakhboz Juraev's Blog

What the Silk Road history teaches about the modern Red Sea crisis

February 20, 2024

The Silk Road played a crucial role in international trade for about 1800 years by the time maritime trade turned out to possess more advantages than land-based means of trade in terms of speed, cost, and security. Transportation of goods on camels could not compete with the ships in seas until the XVI century when Portugal, Dutch, and English ships appeared on the coast of China and India. This is one of the reasons why the ancient Silk Road, the historical artery of economic relations among states, had lost its importance and declined gradually.



However, the relative advantage of the ships over camels in the XVI century was not the only decisive factor of the transformation in global trade. It was the matter of security along with the unstable and more complicated conditions on the Silk Road that contributed to the decline of Asian-centered trade.

From the point of geopolitical theory, it is natural that a superpower struggles to protect its key trade roads to support its economic stability. In retrospect, since the beginning of the Silk Road trade, the central parts of the road were controlled by a military powerful actor in international relations. It was the Roman and Sassanid Empires that supervised the stable trade from ancient China and India to Europe, and Africa until the VII century.

Between the VII and XI centuries, Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties took the role of supporting security in the trade roads until Seljuk Turks established a state stretching from modern territories of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to the east of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the meantime, the economies of Asia were flourishing and the continent was clustered with superpowers of their eras. These states services for the secure transit of goods from the east to the west. For example, during the Seljuk Empire, the caravan groups carrying rich commercial goods were accompanied by a military force led by the caravan leader. Sometimes such forces were composed of one or two hundred armed men and merchants used to pay the caravan leader a certain amount of caravan fee. Furthermore, the system of caravanserais maintained services for merchants along the Silk Road from China and India to the Mediterranean Sea.

Only a brief period of disruption occurred along the trade roads when Mongol troops began their invasion of the Asian continent. Although this conquest interrupted the Silk Road, it ended with the assimilation of Mongol uluses (the lands taken by Genghis Khan’s sons) into local nations. As a result, the Pax Mongolica world from the Yuan dynasty in China through the Chagatai dynasty in Central Asia to Ilkhanate in Iran grew to be the supporter of Asian trade.

These imperial regimes over the central parts of the Silk Road were prototypes of the modern European Union model that maintained free trade and exchange of goods. A European merchant could travel from Anadolu to Xonbaliq (Beijing) without restrictions in the XIV century. The free and secure trade along the Silk Road continued until the death of Amir Timur in 1405.

The absence of a single rule over the central parts of trade routes made merchandising complicated and unsafe in inner Asia. In the late XV century, the quality of the Road deteriorated due to the “civil war” in the post-Timur space of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Azerbaijan. Furthermore, every state in the territory implemented its own economic rules and paid tribute to trade differently. Consequently, Asian free trade was bordered for the first time in a long time and by the modern era.

The second choke in the Silk Road rose when the Shia Safavids came to power in Persia from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. The Sunni-Shia rivalry in the XVI century undermined the stable trade connections of the Asian states. With Muhammad Shaybani’s defeat in the Merv battle in 1510 to Ismail Safavi, Central Asia mostly remained separated from the economic and scientific exchange with its Middle Eastern and Ottoman counterparts. Consequently, the Western Silk Road was divided into three parts: Sunni Ottoman West, Shia Safavid Center, and Sunni Shaybanid East.

Although the hostile relations among the sides did not completely suppress trade, there was no longer a single customary, security and caravanserai system in space after the crisis of the Timurid state. Since then, he was Nadir Afsharid who was able to unite most of the Silk Road for a short period in the 1700s. Nevertheless, Portuguese, Dutch, and English sailors had already discovered how to travel the Indian Subcontinent, the economic center of that period.

The tectonic shift of the main trade relations from land to sea routes subtly took place due to self-destructive rivalries in Central and Western Asia. The succession conflicts among Timurids that lasted until the complete defeat of Zahiriddin Babur in 1512 followed by Sunni-Shia rivalry. Moreover, Western-originated nationalism was rooted in the Silk Road countries in the late XIX and early XX centuries. These three factors that are the absence of a single dominant state, Sunni-Shia conflicts, and Western-imported nationalism destroyed the trade on the Silk Road along the prospects of economic development.

The pre-Timurid Silk Road began to be replicated along the sea routes under British rule in the XVIII century. By the time when the American era came, the merchants lived in Pax Britannica world and sailed unchallenged in the seas and oceans. The British military controlled “critical points” (the Malacca Strait, Suez Canal, Cape Town, Gibraltar) and provided security for trade. Pax American trade almost similar to its British ancestor took the role of supervisor of the “critical points” of the sea routes and continues to the current period. However, the American system means an indirect control of these critical points rather than the direct colonial rule of the British Empire.

This sea-based Anglo-Saxon trade endures its convenience and security. The system survived during the Cold War and the pro-Soviet Egyptian government did not cut global trade through the Suez channel. First of all, it depends on the fact that the Egyptian government benefits from canal transit for its budget. Secondly, the Soviet Union, an ally of Egypt during the Cold War, was less interested in “trade wars” rather than “arms race.”

However, the events in the last two decades demonstrated that the chokes of the sea routes are not safer than those of the Silk Road. Most of the critical points – if not all – can be found in or around the turmoil of international relations.

The activities of the Houthis in Bab el-Mandab are considered one of the representing examples. As Shaybanid-Safavid tensions in the XVI century, the military crisis in Yemen grew out of Sunni-Shia rivalry. Any retaliation whether the US and Britain army directly are involved or not destabilizes the Southern Red Sea. The current situation, for instance, made several shipping firms reroute to circumvent Africa for the safety of transportation.

In a broader sense, most of the critical points of the sea routes can be considered risk zones that may “tear the chokes” of contemporary trade relations. Possible escalation of a conflict over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea near the Malacca Strait or a crisis in Gibraltar due to Morocco-Spain tensions puts the sea traffic under uncertainty.

In addition, the advance in technologies and techniques enables the actors to interfere in the maritime spaces more actively than it was before. It increases the potential influence from on-land positions to the waters of trade. In consequence, current sea nations may find their economic ties cut as Asian flourishing states experienced with the deterioration of the Silk Road connections.

In conclusion, the history of the Silk Road is a lesson and the Houthis’ activities in the Red Sea are a signal for the contemporary economic relations based on the sea routes. Therefore, it is significant to remember the history of the crisis of trade along the Red Road to understand what consequences it may bring. Furthermore, one should not forget that the other critical points of the sea routes such as Gibraltar and Malacca strait are close to potential conflicts. These instabilities in case they become regular may undermine the trade relations of nations firstly and deteriorate overall economic conditions secondly.


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