Labeling this region as the “Middle East” or the lesser used “Near East,” is standard practice in the West, but the region can equally be called “West Asia,” the opposite end of a vast landmass that spreads from Vladivostok and Shanghai all the way to the Bosporus and the Suez Canal. This designation makes sense given the area’s historic ties and the ancient Silk Road trading routes.
Today there is a new Silk Road, with flourishing two-way traffic between the rest of Asia and the continent’s eastern end, particularly Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Iran. In Geoffrey Kemp’s book “The East Moves West,” he sets out the case for this burgeoning relationship and where it is likely to go. Kemp, an American foreign-affairs think-tank director, adeptly steers the reader through the ties that bind Asia together, from the geo-strategic importance of Central Asia to the big players: China, India, Pakistan, Japan and South Korea, covering economics, energy, politics, military ties and infrastructure projects.
It is a relationship that is clearly centered on energy supplies, with some 40 percent of China’s oil coming from the GCC, India receiving 45 percent of its oil from the Middle East, and Japan reliant on the region for 90 percent of its oil. Such reliance on the region’s resources has resulted in mutual dependence.
With Eastern economies in ascendancy while the West hobbles along, this relationship is set to flourish, with significant economic and political ramifications. Energy dependence on Iran, for instance, has been crucial in allowing Tehran to survive the economic sanctions imposed by America and Europe to curb its nuclear program.
The big question, as Kemp sees it, is whether Eastern Asia’s role in the region will grow beyond the traditional buyer-seller relationship. Economically, it has started to change over the past five years, with Asian countries inking contracts worth $500 billion for infrastructure projects in the Middle East, while the GCC has invested more than $250 billion in East and South East Asia. Both East and West Asia want more.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have adopted a “look east” approach for market growth, while New Delhi considers the GCC, to quote India’s former commerce minister, “as part and parcel of India’s economic neighborhood.” The statistics only reinforce this. For India, the economic relationship with the GCC is more important than with the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United States, totaling $86.9 billion (excluding oil) in 2008-2009.
The UAE is India’s jewel in the GCC crown, the country’s second biggest export destination and the Emirates’ largest importer, accounting for a third of its trade in the Middle East. With Indians making up 33 percent of the UAE’s population and 50 percent of its workforce (of which 25 percent are unskilled workers, 50 percent semi-skilled and 25 percent professionals), it’s no wonder the UAE labor minister said in 2007: “God forbid something happens between us and India and they say, ‘Please, we want all our Indians to go home’… our airports would shut down, our streets, construction…”
With the US flailing in Iraq and Afghanistan and its credibility shot in much of Asia, East Asia seems set to be the new player at the table. But so far the Asian nations have largely refrained from the political arena of the region’s western extremity.
As Kemp notes: “How long they can sustain their hands-off approach is questionable if…they get drawn into the messiness of Middle East politics at a time when the US becomes disillusioned by the burdens of hegemony.”
There are a lot of “ifs” in the book, but given all the certainties proclaimed by Washington of late in its future prognosis for the region, Kemp refreshingly gives plenty of room for thought about the potentials of the new Silk Road.