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China and Iran have featured heavily in the news in recent years. China is both a military and an economic superpower with 20% of the world's population; Iran is suspected of developing nuclear weapons and arming terrorists, and sits on the world's second-largest oil and gas reserves. They are also surprisingly close geographically: Iran is only 700 miles across Afghanistan from China's extreme western border. A 25-year, $100 billion deal to supply China with oil and gas and the large number of Chinese companies operating in Iran shows that the two are moving increasingly close in both political and economic terms. But what does this mean for the rest of the world, and especially for 'the West?' Edward Burman examines how the strikingly similar histories of these two ancient civilisations can inform what the likely consequences for the world of an alliance between them might be.
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China and Iran
Parallel History, Future Threat?
By Edward Burman
The History PressCopyright © 2009 Edward Burman,
All rights reserved.
Iran to 'East Turkestan'
The geographical range of this book extends from the modern nation known as Iran to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. It comprises the huge, sometimes ambiguous and often misunderstood area between Europe and Asia, between West and East, which has fallen foul of modern definitions. Indeed, its cities and provinces often slip into history briefly before disappearing again, as George Curzon noted in 1889 when he wrote of the beautiful Silk Road oasis of Merv (once in Persia, and now in Turkmenistan) that it was 'difficult to realise that a place which less than a decade ago was pronounced to be the key of the Indian Empire is now an inferior wayside station on a Russian line of rail.' For our purposes, it is a single area whose coherence may have an impact on the future of world power – as it has often had in the past. We will follow the wisdom of Herodotus, who over two thousand years ago questioned the need to assign the three different names Asia, Europe and Libya (i.e. Africa) to 'a tract which is in reality one', which according to the Greek historian had no obvious boundaries. Instead of such simplicity we are saddled with expressions like Far East, Middle East, Central Asia and Inner Asia which sometimes obfuscate rather than clarify. Then there are even more confusing coinages such as Transcaspia, and evocative names like Oxiana and Greater Khorassan. So let us begin with some definitions.
Near East, Middle East and Far East
These geographical expressions are often used in everyday conversation and in the media in different ways. The 'Far East' is perhaps the easiest to define: in the language of the British Empire, it was used to mean all countries east of India. Today, India and its neighbours such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar are sometimes added to the core countries of China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia, together with island nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines. More usually, it is used to refer to the countries comprising South Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia.
The 'Middle East' is a much more difficult and abused concept. Nowadays we tend to think of it in media terms of a central conflict core of Israel and the Palestinian Territories surrounded by Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon which are often embroiled in the conflict. Since the expression 'Middle East' used in this way also refers more loosely to Arab and Islamic nations, it is often extended in one direction to the Gulf and occasionally in the other as far as Morocco – which is actually situated to the west of most European countries (Arthur Koestler noted many years ago that Marrakesh was where 'the Arabian Nights survive at 8 degrees longitude west of Greenwich'). In the first sense, it is the area of reference of an influential book like Edward Said's Orientalism, which is rooted in memories of Arab-Israeli conflicts and the Lebanese Civil War and rarely gets further east than the literary Persia of the fourteenth-century poet Hafez (which is in any case viewed through the prism of Goethe). This area, together with Turkey and the Balkans, used more accurately to be called the 'Near East', a usage which will free up part of the Middle East and make the central argument of this book more comprehensible.
For the purposes of our argument we will use the term the Near East to mean a Christian/Judaic/Islamic area comprising Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. The Middle East will be used – unusually but consistently – to refer to a Muslim bloc comprising Iran, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, and the '-istans': Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. One of the most striking facts for a visitor to Oman is the proximity to and affinity with Pakistan, and even Karachi, in the east, is only a ninety minute flight from Muscat. As if to prove the point, in September 2008, the Pakistan Cricket Board signed a three-year deal to play its home internationals in neighbouring Dubai. The Far East will be used to define the largely Buddhist area comprising Japan and South Korea, the countries of Indo-China, especially Vietnam, and China itself (see Map 1).
At the heart of this huge tripartite region sits what the Persians named Turkestan, the 'land of the Turks'. This is usually defined as extending from the Caspian Sea in the west to the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin in China, and from the Aral-Irtysh watershed in the north to the borders of Iran and Afghanistan in the south. It therefore comprises much of what has been defined above as the Middle East, to which we will add Iran and the Gulf States. Historically, Turkestan has fallen within the bounds of both the Persian Empire and the Chinese Empire: the entire territory was held by the Achaemenians around 500 BC, then by the Seleucids from 323 to 60 BC; around 200 BC it was divided into Parthia in the west and Bactria in the east. Then, during the Han dynasty, much of Turkestan fell under the sway of China, facilitating the passage of Buddhism from India through eastern Turkestan into China; with the fall of the Han, in AD 220, control swung back to Persia under the Sassanids (AD 226–651). Although with the spread of Islam much of the area came under Arab and later Turkish control, with an interregum of 'Chinese' control under the Mongols, the culture of the entire area remained predominantly Persian until the last century. Persian was one of the three official languages of the Mongol court in Peking, and many inhabitants of the Soviet Islamic Republics continued to speak it between themselves. More recently, most of the area fell within the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union.
Conventionally, it has been divided into Western Turkestan (also known as Russian Turkestan, comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; collectively 4 million square kilometres) and East Turkestan (or Chinese Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang; 1.6 million square kilometres, see Map 2). Most of the countries in Western Turkestan thus defined are predominantly Muslim, with between seventy-five and ninety per cent of the population belonging to that faith, with the exception of Kazakhstan which has an almost equal balance of Muslims and Russian Orthodox at forty-seven and forty-four per cent respectively. Uzbekistan is perhaps the most potentially explosive, as we shall see, with eighty-eight per cent of the largest population of these countries – nearly 28 million in 2008 – being Sunni Muslims, and with the greatest penetration of Islamic fundamentalism. It is also the world's eighth biggest exporter of natural gas, and in order to avoid control of its exports by Russia's Gazprom has recently looked to another SCO partner, China, as a major market. In July 2008 construction work began on a gas pipeline which could be used to export as much as half of Uzbekistan's production to China.
The inhabitants of modern Turkey originated in this region, migrating westwards sometime before the tenth century ad, and the linguistic and cultural ties remain strong. It is a vast and wild land which has generated military giants such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and mythical figures like Prester John, cities of the imagination such as Xanadu, and quasi-mythical places like Samarkand and Bokhara; its size and impenetrability allowed legends recounted by medieval authors like Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville to flourish, not to mention characters such as the more recent Borat. Kazakhstan alone is fifteen times the size of the United Kingdom, but with a quarter of its population;both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are roughly twice the size of the UK, with only Tajikistan being substantially smaller. Much of the landscape in all these countries consists of desert and mountains.
East Turkestan, or Xinjiang as the Chinese named it in the nineteenth century, is a land in the same mould. The sinologist Owen Lattimore, who knew it in the first half of the twentieth century as well as anyone then living, described it as a region with 'more different kinds of frontier than could be found in any area of equal size anywhere else in the world', by which he meant linguistic, cultural, religious and economic (pastoral, nomadic and industrial) as well as political frontiers. A more recent scholar notes that Xinjiang has been part of Tibetan, Arab, Turkic, Mongol, Russian and Chinese empires, and that its study requires readings of texts in 'Tokharian, Türk, Soghdian, Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchu, classical Chinese, Chagatai and Persian' as well as secondary works in Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Turkish and the major European languages. In short, it is a palimpsest of cultures and frontiers, and a daunting topic for scholarly research which needs to use manuscript materials and other primary sources, or even early printed books.
In its later history, with the expansion of the Russian Empire to the north and west, the Qing Empire to the east, the British Empire in Persia, and in India to the south and south-east, Turkestan became the bone of contention of what is known as the 'Great Game' for the control of Eurasia. One rather forgotten tool to understand the importance of this palimpsest is Halford John Mackinder's theory of the Eurasian 'Heartland' and its pivotal role in geopolitical power. His theories – especially the notion that whoever controls Eurasia, or the 'world island' as Mackinder calls the area stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze rivers, controls the world – influenced Hitler, which rendered them deeply unfashionable in the post-war world. But Mackinder's work contains much of interest.
The underlying theory evolved from an article entitled 'The geographical pivot of history', published in The Geographical Journal in 1904, to its extended book-length form in Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction. This was first published in 1919, and again in 1942 as the original geopolitical circumstances were repeated in another world war. After a review of the history of sea power, Mackinder explains his concept of the joint-continent of Europe, Asia and Africa as a single 'World Island', a definition which was only possible with the modern discovery of the North Pole and the consequent knowledge that the sea continued around the north of this land mass. Indeed, in his view there was 'one ocean covering nine- twelfths of the globe' and 'one continent – the World Island – covering two-twelfths of the globe'. Hence its immense importance and centrality. Bearing in mind his observation that this world-island is 'possessed potentially of the advantages both of insularity and of incomparably great resources', and the obvious fact that the greater part of the world's population may be found there, we can see how at its heart it may consist of an area whose main axis in terms of resources is based on China and Iran – or what Mackinder refers to as the 'Iranian Upland' of Persia, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan linking eastwards to the uplands of Tibet and Xinjiang. North of these uplands runs a broad belt of steppe and forest, probably the original home of the horse and the twin-humped camel, an area which was notoriously united under the empire of great horsemen like the Mongols. Together they form a heartland which offers no access to the sea, and which has been dominated briefly and in various epochs by the Persian, Mongol and Russian empires, and to a lesser extent at its eastern end by China, and at its western end by the Macedonian, Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and in its southern part by the British Empire. Not by chance, this area also comprehends the spheres of influence of the world's four great religions.
Mackinder believed that problems of distance and maintaining long supply lines lay behind past failures to dominate this immense region for long periods (an idea which is confirmed in Arrian's narrative of Alexander the Great's eastern campaign), and that the new railway network he envisaged would obviate these historical difficulties. This was not in fact an entirely original notion, since Russia had built the Trans-Caspian Railway in the 1880s and 1890s for strategic purposes – it was, as Curzon tells us in his contemporary account of that railway, with fascinating historical photographs, primarily a military railway built under the command of a general and intended to overcome the 'scarcity and loss of transport animals' on earlier military campaigns. Nowadays, the Registan Express (named for the square at the centre of Samarkand) links Samarkand and Tashkent in four hours.
But Mackinder went further to argue that a new, rising national power would be able to utilise the new connectivity provided by a more elaborate network to control the 'Heartland' – and by extension the 'World Island' and thus the whole world. Such a theory was, of course, attractive to the Nazis. Indeed the main focus of the book- length version was on the western end of the Heartland, and historical arguments on the specific circumstances of the First World War. Yet the 'pivot area' of his maps is clearly identifiable with the land mass which stretches from western Iran, from the line of the Zagros Mountains, to the eastern coast of China, excluding the areas south of the Himalayan range and also Indo-China.
More recently, it is interesting to see how the Gwadar Development Authority in southwest Pakistan, a port, as we shall see below, being developed together with the Chinese, presents its strategic position as a replica of the Mackinder pivot maps of a century earlier (see www.gda.gov.pk/pages/asiaregion.html). In one obvious way, it is a self-defeating map, which actually puts Iran's competing port Bandar Abbas at the centre of the entire scheme, as well as adding Turkey's European extension to link China to the West. It is, if anything, a vision of Iran's future rather than that of Pakistan, and emphasises that country's role as it sets up a strong visual triangle between China, Iran and Kazakhstan. It is also noteworthy how the axis of the entire Pakistan transport network, of both highways and railways, follows a predominantly north-east - south-west line which leads directly from China to the Persian Gulf and Iran.
We should not therefore be surprised to see that in 1950 a specialist on Turkestan in its broadest sense like Lattimore could give the title Pivot of Asia to a book on Xinjiang, and open the first chapter by asserting that 'A new center of gravity is forming in the world.' Moreover, the Anglo-American coup d'état against Mossadegh three years later, which placed the Shah of Iran back on his throne after a brief exile in Rome, may also be read in the context of Mackinder's thesis, as can the more recent American wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, air power, especially that of long-range bombers, presents an alternative to the railways, which have not yet 'covered' Eurasia to the extent that Mackinder might have wished: USAF sorties into Afghanistan from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and into Iraq from Turkey, accord perfectly with his vision. For Turkestan is once again pregnant with military menace. Just as America sought permission for an air-base in Bishkek in 2001, so China conducted military exercises with Kyrgyzstan in 2002 and 2003, and Russia is engaged in providing military training and equipment for the member countries of CSTO (the Collective Security Treaty Organization), namely Kyrgyzstan together with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Mackinder's ideas also play an indirect role in a more recent and much discussed work, The Clash of Civilizations by the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (who does not however mention the earlier book). In the manner of his predecessor, Huntington first aired his thesis in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993, republished in a short book together with the comments of seven critics of the original article (1996), and then developed it into book length with the same title (again in 1996). In particular, Mackinder's ideas resurface in Huntington's notion of an Islamic-Confucian alliance against the West. Much derided both in China and in the United States and Europe on publication, in a reduced form some of the elements of Huntington's thesis are relevant here – especially because many Chinese nationalists were happy to accept his conclusions and thus implicitly accept the notion of an anti-Western alliance with Islam.
In the book-length version of his argument, Huntington identified five major contemporary civilisations: Sinic (modified from Confucian in the original article), Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox and Western, with two further possibilities of Latin American and African civilisations. He defines the area of Sinic civilisation as mainland China plus the countries which have an influential population of overseas Chinese (such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore), together with Taiwan and non-Chinese counties which share Confucian culture like the Koreas and Vietnam. But it could also be said to include the political and economic weight of an overseas Chinese diaspora numbering around 50 million which nowadays ranges from 30,000 entrepreneurs and construction workers in Zambia to 45,000 scientists and technicians working in American universities. Taken together, these countries and diffuse groups constitute what he terms a 'civilization-based world order', which in fact, although Huntington does not argue this far, is comparable to the notion of an 'Anglo-Saxon' world order in the nineteenth century – whose members retain strong local values and loyalties to a 'Motherland' wherever they happen to be in the world. For these reasons, the new and developing power is a 'civilisation-based' power, as opposed to a power based on a core state.
Excerpted from China and Iran by Edward Burman. Copyright © 2009 Edward Burman,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I: The Seeds of Resentment,
Chapter 1: Iran to 'East Turkestan',
Chapter 2: Parallel Modern History,
Chapter 3: Routes to Modernisation,
Chapter 4: History in Popular Art,
Part II: The Convergence of the Twain,
Chapter 5: Parallel Needs,
Chapter 6: Mutual Interest in the Twenty-first Century,
Chapter 7: Future Threat,
Part III: Scenarios 2030-2050,
Chapter 8: Drivers of Future Alliances,
Chapter 9: Scenarios,