We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

Christy Clark: Just Another Fool ‘Who Tried to Hustle the East’?

Book chronicling the sad fates of those who sought riches in Asia offers LNG lessons.

By Crawford Kilian 30 Sep 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

image atom
‘The Silk Roads.’

A shift in perspective sometimes changes everything. This book does just that, and while it’s certainly a history of the world, it also has implications for British Columbia and the politics of selling liquefied natural gas to Asia.

Author Peter Frankopan’s perspective shift starts with a Chinese map of the world. China is, naturally, in the centre. Europe and Africa are off to the left, and the Americas cling to the right margin.

But Frankopan’s focus isn’t just on China, but on Central Asia, from western China to the Middle East. This vast region, he argues, has been a treasure house of cultures and resources for thousands of years. And for much of that time, other civilizations have dreamed of controlling that wealth.

That’s why Alexander, the young king of the barbarous Macedonians, headed east after conquering the Greek city-states: that was where the money was, not in backward western Europe. He imposed Greek culture on his new empire, but the east imposed its culture on Greece as well. Trade between east and west was already longstanding, but now it boomed.

By the time of the Caesars, Chinese silk was not only in high demand in Rome, but it was an international currency across Central Asia. Roman goods paid for silk, spices and other Asian merchandise. (Four Roman coins from around 400 AD were recently discovered in the ruins of an ancient Japanese castle.)

Europe’s Dark Ages, roughly from 500 to 900 AD, were a golden age in Asia, thanks to continuing trade. The nomadic peoples of the north made fortunes selling horses to Persia, India and China. Christianity was widespread and tolerated, and seemed poised to become the dominant religion across Asia until the unexpected rise of Islam.

Isolated, backward Europe

The new religion further isolated Europe, while Asian resources helped Islam become a focus of arts and scholarship. After taking Iberia — today’s Spain and Portugal — Islam turned back from conquering the rest of Europe.

The Frankish victory in the Battle of Tours over the forces of Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi supposedly saved Christian Europe; author Frankopan suggests the Muslims didn’t consider Europe worth conquering.

Cut off from lucrative trade with Asia, Europeans still pushed and probed. The Crusades were as much about improving trade access as about gaining control of the Holy Land. City-states like Venice and Genoa competed for footholds in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Marco Polo returned from China with tales of its vast wealth; Genoese traders returned from the Black Sea with bubonic plague, brought by caravans from Central Asia.

Spain and Portugal were maddeningly remote from the wealth of Asia and paid premium rates for what few goods trickled west. Portugal gambled on circling Africa to get access to the Indian Ocean. Spain bet on Columbus’s promise to reach China by sailing west.

Both bets paid off. The Portuguese violently took over the vast trade networks from East Africa to China. Spain plundered the Americas to pay for Asian goods. The Manila galleons crossed the Pacific from the Philippines to Mexico; their cargoes were carried overland to Veracruz and transshipped to Spain along with enough Mexican gold and silver to derange the European economy.

Muscling in on South Asia’s wealth

Elizabethan England, another fringe nation, preyed on the Spanish galleons like a wolf pack following a herd of caribou. But the pirates were picking up crumbs. More was gained after the East India Company muscled in on South Asia’s wealth.

The success of imperialism encouraged the imperialists to see themselves as morally better than the Asian peoples they’d robbed. The Asians became the “worthy Oriental gentlemen,” whose only function was to further enrich their new masters.

Though Frankopan doesn’t mention it, Britain’s interest in British Columbia also stemmed from access to Asian wealth. Early explorers like James Cook and George Vancouver found that sea otter fur brought huge profits from Chinese buyers — profits that justified crowding the Spanish off the northern North American coast.

The Russians, who had occupied Alaska and built trading posts as far south as California, were also stopped. They had started out as the Rus, emigrant Scandinavians who moved south to the riches of Byzantium. Then they’d moved east across Siberia and south again toward British-occupied South Asia.

Like other European fringe nations, the Russians were obsessed with Central Asia’s wealth. They and the British launched the “Great Game,” a covert struggle for control of that wealth. Eventually the United States would replace Britain in the game, only to be sucked into one disaster after another.

Controlling dark earth and black gold

As epic and surprising as Frankopan’s history may be, it’s inevitably a brief and superficial outline. But when he gets into the 20th century, he throws a new light on events. Hitler moved east to seize the fertile dark earth of Ukraine. The U.S. made deals with Ibn Saud, and the British with the Shah of Iran, to control the black gold of those nations’ oil fields. We make deals with the Saudis to sell them armoured vehicles, and tolerate their war crimes.

And by now, Frankopan concludes, we should have learned that trying to get rich by venturing into Asia is a mug’s game. The Russians bogged down in Afghanistan. They were soon replaced by the U.S., which has been bogged down everywhere since 2001, with the costs of its ill-advised wars now reaching $6 trillion.

Meanwhile the Silk Road nations — places that we never think of, like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — are growing richer every day through exploitation of fossil fuels. “The combined proved crude reserves under the Caspian Sea alone are nearly twice those of the United States,” Frankopan writes. Kurdistan has comparable oil resources, and on the Russia-Kazakhstan border the Karachaganak reserve “contains an estimated 42 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.” Turkmenistan dwarfs this with 700 trillion cubic feet.

B.C., meanwhile, has just 400 billion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, with a possible 2.7 trillion cubic feet yet to be discovered. Unconventional sources could amount to another 19 trillion cubic feet.

Coals to Newcastle

The question then is why Asian markets should be interested in a resource that has to be extracted, piped to tidewater, liquefied and shipped across the Pacific, when Central Asia’s resources are so much closer — and likely cheaper.

Premier Christy Clark’s whole plan amounts to taking coals to Newcastle.

My guess is that Malaysia’s Petronas is just hedging its bets with its proposed Prince Rupert LNG project. The corporation’s response to the Trudeau government’s project approval this week was a classic of ambiguity: “PETRONAS and its partners will study the conditions imposed by the Canadian authorities and conduct a total review of the proposed project prior to deciding on the next steps forward.”

And if Petronas and its partners decide to walk away and sign up with Russia or Turkmenistan, no hard feelings; this is just business.

If so, Christy Clark and her Liberals will join the long, long parade of Western opportunists since Alexander who tried to grab a chunk of Asia’s wealth.

Some have succeeded; most have failed. Rudyard Kipling, the poet of Britain’s Asian adventure, might have foreseen Clark’s likely fate when he wrote these lines in The Naulahka.

“And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear: ‘A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.’”  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

Do you have a favourite protest song?

Take this week's poll