Reconnecting the Knowledge Silk Routes

A Knowledge Silk Route to change the world

Roopen Roy

(Views are personal)

The original Silk Routes connected the East to the West ---from China through India to the Mediterranean nations. The origin of the Silk Routes can be traced back to 114 BC. Of course, as the name suggests, they carried rare and precious silks from China. But the trade was in diverse cargoes apart from silks: ceramics, perfumes, spices, dates, saffron, pistachio nuts, frankincense, sandalwood, colored glasses, gemstones, gold and silver. On the Silk Routes, both land and maritime, travelled pilgrims and monks, explorers and scholars who cross-pollinated knowledge and exchanged wisdom, inventions and intellectual properties.

A former Chinese Ambassador to India Mr. Wei Wei penned an insightful piece on the origin of Silk Routes. He wrote, “More than 1,600 years ago, a 65-year old Chinese monk named Fa Xian (Fa-Hien) made his maiden pilgrimage to India to look for Buddhist scriptures. The route along which he travelled was later called the Silk Road, and the route he chose to go back to China via the Indian Ocean was named the Maritime Silk Road. The Silk Road embodies the spirit of peace, cooperation, openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning and hard work.”

At the moment, we are focused on reconnecting the old trade routes by rebuilding roads, laying down railway tracks, improving air-connectivity and re-establishing maritime routes and ports. The re-building of physical connectivity would indeed spur trade and economic activity immensely. It would have a multiplier effect on the regional economic development.

Yet we cannot forget how it all began. It started with a quest for new ideas, knowledge, wisdom and divine insights. There is a need to rebuild the intellectual and knowledge silk routes as well.Today’s precious silk brocades are ideas, intellectual property, fruits of collective research and cutting-edge innovation and knowledge. Much of these ideas flow through academic and research collaboration and through free and unrestricted digital highways that connect intellectual communities.

While reimagining geo–politics, why can we not think of out-of-the-box collaboration models. India, China, South Asia and ASEAN together have a huge market and a large, young workforce. If we can harness the multiple advantages of market, talent and intellect into a virtuous construct , miracles will happen.

Let us ask tsome tough questions without emotions. China manufactures most of Apple’s products. Yet all the shareholder value is captured by Apple in the US. Neither China nor India has as yet been able to create a Microsoft, or an Apple or an Oracle or a SAP. Why? Because India has focused on IT services and China has focused on hardware manufacturing . Both countries are behind in creating valuable Intellectual Property.

Let us digress a bit and look at the history of Airbus aircrafts. European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company was set up to build communications systems, missiles, space rockets, helicopters, satellites and related systems. Airbus was a division formed to compete against US manufacturers like Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed who had a strong oligopoly in commercial aircrafts.

In the mid-1960s the Europeans realized that as stand-alone countries they would not be able win against US manufacturers. UK and France which had fought a bitter war with Germany joined hands at the government level to collaborate in research, design and manufacturing. Today, Airbus has manufacturing facilities in the UK, France, Germany and Spain. It also assembles aircrafts in Tianjin for the China market.

As part of the Knowledge Silk Route vision, why can we not pursue some bold ideas that will change the world? Why the next NASA cannot be created collaboratively? Why the next Google or Microsoft or Apple cannot come out of Asia with headquarters in Hangzhou and Bengaluru or Kunming and Kolkata?

Having two headquarters and co-owned companies is not a new business model. Look at Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever. Royal Dutch Shell is an Anglo-Dutch company and the 4th largest oil company in the world in terms of revenues. Unilever again was formed in 1929 by the merger of British Lever Brothers and the Dutch margarine producers Margarine Uni. It operates in 190 countries and is the third largest consumer products company on the planet. It is co-headquartered in Rotterdam and London.

Is a Chindian company then a pipe-dream? I do not think so. More than a decade ago, on 10th April 2005 Premier Wen Jiabao had said in Bengaluru, “Cooperation is just like two pagodas. One hardware and one software. Combined we can take the leadership position in the world.”

Cynics point out to a trust deficit . But there are shining examples of cooperation even before governments had signalled collaboration. Take the case of Huawei. It is the largest manufacturer of telecommunication equipment in world, having overtaken Ericsson in 2012.

Huawei had set up a R&D Center in Bengaluru way back in 1999. It was Huawei's first overseas software R&D Centre, engaged in developing cutting-edge software products and platforms. Today, it employs over 2,000 Indian engineers, is the largest and one of the most important R&D Centres of Huawei and delivers niche products for the international market. As a global company, it also has R&D Centers in the US, Sweden and Germany among other countries.

The vision of the new Silk Routes must be in step with the digital and knowledge age. As we re-build our friendship and connectivity, as we build new roads, railways, ports and airports to connect, we must have a bolder vision. Our planet should be greener, friendlier, free from poverty and hunger and as the Great Poet said “Where knowledge is free and where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” A Knowledge Silk Route that will change the world.

(This opinion piece is based on my speech at the China-South Asia Business Summit in Kunming on 16th June 2015).