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China can evoke old Latin-American ties to bypass US order

After the Silk Road, the trans-Pacific trade route sustained world economies

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A map illustrating the ancient Silk Road and Beijing's modern-day versions is displayed at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong in January last year.   © Reuters

It can, on occasion, seem that no country takes the Shakespearean dictum "what's past is prologue" as much to heart as China, which has a wealth of history. One of the most fecund historical periods has been that of the ancient "Silk Road," which has become rooted in the popular and political imagination. Less well-known is the trans-Pacific trade route between Asia and what was then Spanish America.

Ironically a Western coinage dating from the 19th century, the "Silk Road" has morphed through the alchemy of contemporary geopolitics into, first, a "new Silk Road" and then recently, into a series of economic and development initiatives and programs known as the "Belt and Road Initiative" which have in turn grown to span most of Asia and Europe.

This evocation of distant history to inform the present is not just nostalgia: The Silk Road -- a time of mutual and symbiotic prosperity between China and its trading partners in Central Asia -- provides a politically attractive paradigm for international relations. There is no need to rely on Western-dominated institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund: China and the region then had their own solutions and will again, as seen with new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The Silk Road had waxed and waned over many centuries, entering its final decline in the late Middle Ages with the end of the pax mongolica of Genghis Khan's successors and the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. It was the consequent constriction of trading opportunities, in particular for spices, that acted as one of the major spurs for what came to be known, without irony, as the European "voyages of discovery."

The key date is 1565. Until that year, no fleet had succeeded in sailing east from Asia across the Pacific to the Americas. But that year, as part of an expedition which also saw the establishment of the Spanish colony of the Philippines and the founding of Manila, the Spanish navigator Andres de Urdaneta, a survivor of earlier expeditions, worked out the right winds and currents to make it from Acapulco to Asia and back. His discovery was called the tornaviaje, or "return trip."

For 250 years, the trading route that resulted -- round-trips taken by the so-called Manila galleons -- connected China with fabulously wealthy Spanish America. Silver from seemingly bottomless American mines provided the money supply for China's economy. So important was this one commodity, that one might, by analogy with the Silk Road, call the trans-Pacific trade routes "la ruta de la plata," or the "silver way."

A monument bearing the image of a Spanish galleon in Manila's Intramuros district (Photo by Jilson Tiu)

Commerce between China and Spanish America formed the lynchpin of trade routes spanning four continents. This marked the first time that the entire world had been knitted together by the worldwide trade and financial networks that form the basis of our modern connected world. The period ushered in the global economy of today.

Historical globalization

Each of the elements that characterize globalization -- trade networks, shipping lines, integrated financial markets, flows of cultures and peoples -- can be found in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. A global currency arose that predates the dollar's similar role by two centuries: First minted in the 1730s in Mexico, the Spanish milled dollar, the "piece of eight," became the first currency accepted more or less on every continent. It spawned the U.S. dollar, the Chinese yuan and the Japanese yen.

China's role as manufacturer to the world dates to this time. Sailors, merchants, professionals and entrepreneurs streamed east across the Pacific. Chinese and Filipinos went to the Americas in tens if not hundreds of thousands. The attributes of today's "world cities" were common in Mexico 400 years ago. This was a time of trade, wealth and learning. Mexican universities and printing presses predate those in what became the U.S. by close to a century. All of this transpired before London and New York were financial capitals, and indeed, before the U.S. even existed.

So China would not be starting entirely from scratch if it were to build substantive relationships in Latin America. Given the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the active consideration at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima of alternatives favored by the Chinese, this is no longer theoretical.

In doing so, China could call upon a shared history which predates by a couple of centuries the Western, but more pointedly English-speaking, economic and political order. That order came with a sometimes inconvenient insistence on tying globalization to liberal political and economic systems, Western standards and norms, and Washington-based international institutions.

Equally, the Philippines might reach back into its past, to a period when it served as the primary commercial and cultural link between the Americas and Asia. Manila, indeed, was then politically part of Mexico, making it, in effect, the westernmost city of the Americas.

History sometimes imposes itself upon the present; sometimes it provides a supporting structure for the future. On his way back from Lima, Chinese President Xi Jinping stopped off on his own tornaviaje at the Canary Islands to meet Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. They discussed the possibility of joint projects in Latin America. Back to the future, indeed.

American leadership in the Western hemisphere may seem rooted in history, but history -- as China well knows -- stretches beyond that. There is in la ruta de la plata a competing -- and older -- narrative. It is a narrative that is historically valid, and may prove both emotionally appealing and politically convenient. It is also a narrative that completely sidesteps the United States.

Peter Gordon is co-author of "The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565-1815" (Penguin, 2017) and editor of the Asian Review of Books.

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