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The Modern Silk Road

By Glain, Stephen | Newsweek International, May 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Modern Silk Road

Glain, Stephen, Newsweek International

Byline: Stephen Glain

Sino-Gulf trade is booming as the world's two most liquid economies create a host of new alliances that are shifting the world's economic center of gravity.

The most hard-boiled forms of human enterprise tend to be the most prolific. Thus commerce along the legendary Silk Road flourished as it did for some 1,600 years because it was negotiated between merchants, not ministers or politicians. Having predated the nation-state and the borders that define them, the world's main commercial artery was lightly taxed and regulated, and free of the political set-asides and subsidies that weigh on today's free-trade agreements. For better or for worse, there were no labor unions demanding living wages for workers, no environmental groups clamoring for high emission standards and no human-rights organizations calling for boycotts of authoritarian regimes.

History repeats itself. In just a few short years, a new generation of merchants have spontaneously revived the ancient spice trade and restored its centrality with a host of modern wares. As opportunities closed in the United States--its economy sluggish, its investment environment increasingly hostile to Arabs and Chinese--new ones have opened between Asia and the Gulf. Unlike China's emerging ties to Africa, which have been attacked as a form of resource imperialism, Beijing's renewed tie to the Middle East is a joining of equals--newly rich Chinese manufacturers cutting deals with flush petro-princes from a tradition of unfettered trade as rich and old as China's. The process began with the simple exchange of Arab oil for Chinese capital and it has since expanded into a web of two-way deals in banking, property development, industry and tourism.

The world's two most liquid economies are creating a new commercial bloc that is rebalancing the global economy. With much of the world teetering on the brink of recession, China and the Middle East continue to expand and converge at a brisk pace. The transatlantic route is still the richest of the world's major trade channels (worth $1.5 trillion in trade and investment last year), and the European Union and the United States remain the largest export markets for both China and much of the oil-rich Middle East. But the new Silk Road is growing at a faster rate. Trade between China and the Middle East has doubled since 2000, to $240 billion, according to the Dubai International Financial Centre, and is estimated to grow by several times that amount over the next decade. To take just one example, the United Arab Emirates projects that its two-way trade with China will grow by a factor of seven by 2015, to $100 million from $14.2 billion in 2006. "We see the world economy as revolving around us," David Rubenstein, cofounder of the U.S.-based-Carlyle private-equity giant, said at an investment forum recently. "But the economic center of the world is beginning to shift from the U.S. and Europe to the Middle East and Asia."

It's not only trade in goods and oil. Asia and the Middle East are home to the world's largest pools of surplus cash, much of which is managed by six of the top 10 sovereign wealth funds. That makes the new Silk Road a key nexus for the next generation of blockbuster financial deals. A report issued this month by JL McGregor & Co., a Beijing-based consultancy, estimates that the amount of Middle East money flowing into China could reach $250 billion over the next five years. The report compares that figure with the $200 billion it says Gulf investors have divested from the United States since 2003, a consequence of post-9/11 safeguards against suspect money flows and hostility to Arab investment.

In a world where trade is getting the rap for everything from global warming to food shortages, the new Silk Road is largely free from nagging NGOs. Here only money talks. While U.S. President George W. Bush struggles to gain congressional approval for minor free-trade agreements with countries like Colombia and Venezuela--deals, he argues, that are vital for both democracy and U.

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