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Updated: April 11, 2014 00:37 IST

Reviving the Maritime Silk Route

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy
Comment (7)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The thrust on reviving the ancient maritime route is the first global strategy proposed by the new Chinese leaders for enhancing trade and fostering peace. Photo: AP
AP The thrust on reviving the ancient maritime route is the first global strategy proposed by the new Chinese leaders for enhancing trade and fostering peace. Photo: AP

The Maritime Silk Route emphasises on improving connectivity but more importantly, it aspires to improve China’s geo-strategic position in the world

China is experiencing a “Deng Xiaoping Moment 2.0.” The new Chinese leadership seems fairly optimistic in its effort to reshape the country’s global posture in a bold and creative way, a key element of which is to build up an economic system through external cooperation. Undoubtedly, the proposal of reviving the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) demonstrates this innovative approach. Indeed, the success of the MSR initiative will be consequential to regional stability and global peace. It is little wonder then that this proposal has attracted enormous interests among policy makers and scholars.

The thrust on reviving the ancient maritime route is the first global strategy for enhancing trade and fostering peace, proposed by the new Chinese leaders. The MSR inherits the ancient metaphor of friendly philosophy from the old Silk Route to build the new one. It emphasises on improving connectivity with Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and even Africa, by building a network of port cities along the Silk Route, linking the economic hinterland in China. More importantly, it aspires to improve China’s geo-strategic position in the world. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, “The reason why China proposed the building of the Maritime Silk Route is to explore the unique values and ideas of the ancient Silk Route… and achieve common development and common prosperity of all countries in the region.” In fact, since the Tang Dynasty, the MSR had been a major channel of communication, through which ancient China made contacts with the outside world.

Diffusing tension

Amid the ‘irresistible shift’ from the West to the East, Beijing is concerned with the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. Also, the MSR could be an attempt to counter the “string of pearls” argument. China’s acrimonious relations with some states in Southeast Asia due to maritime disputes have created complex circumstances for itself in building better relations with its neighbours. Through their vision of re-energising the MSR, Chinese leaders aim to impart a new lease of life to China’s peripheral policy and diffuse the tension. Chinese leaders want to re-assure their commitment to the path of peaceful development, emphasising that “a stronger China will add to the force for world peace and the positive energy for friendship, and will present development opportunities to Asia and the world, rather than posing a threat.” The idea of the MSR was outlined during Li Keqiang’s speech at the 16th ASEAN-China summit in Brunei, and Xi Jinping’s speech in the Indonesian Parliament in October 2013. Chinese leaders underlined the need to re-establish the centuries-old seaway into a 21st century MSR, while celebrating the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN-China strategic partnership. The main emphasis was placed on stronger economic cooperation, closer cooperation on joint infrastructure projects, the enhancement of security cooperation, and strengthening “maritime economy, environment technical and scientific cooperation.”

The new leaders put forward the “2+7” formula of cooperation — consensus on two issues: deepening strategic trust and exploring neighbourly friendship, and economic development based on mutual benefits and win-win outcomes. They also put forward seven proposals — signing the China-ASEAN good neighbour treaty; more effective use of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and intensive Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations; acceleration of joint infrastructure projects; stronger regional financial and risk-prevention cooperation; closer maritime cooperation; enhanced collaboration on security; and more intensive people-to-people contacts along with increased cultural, scientific and environmental protection cooperation.

China aims to accelerate the establishment of an Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank, which could provide a strong investment and financing platform for multimodal connectivity, like building high-speed rail, ports, airports, within related countries. Meanwhile, in order to get a wider support, China may consider establishing the bank headquarters in one of the capitals along the MSR, possibly Jakarta, Bangkok, Singapore and other countries deemed friendly.

Indeed, China is taking decisive steps to improve its overall geopolitical position by developing extensive transport networks, building roads, railways, ports, and energy corridors through such initiatives. Historically, the MSR was divided into two main sectors: lands “above the wind” (ports in the Indian Ocean) and lands “below the wind” (the straits of Malacca, the South China Sea, the Java Sea, and further east). These terms referred to the season of sailing. Long-distance voyaging along these routes became possible once seafarers discovered the rhythm of wind, which provide reliable power for sailing ships. Shipbuilding and navigation in China were fairly advanced, and Chinese navigators had some ability to predict monsoons.

Strategic objectives

The MSR will also be helpful in promoting certain strategic objectives — for example, in supporting friends and clients, neutralising similar activities by other naval powers, or merely by showcasing one’s maritime power. Indeed, naval power has certain advantages as an instrument of diplomacy. Naval forces are more resilient, and they have greater visibility. Thus, the proposed MSR has clear strategic objectives, and India and many other countries are studying implications of this bold policy statement carefully.

Chinese silk was a great attraction for the rest of the world. Envoys from countries in Southeast, South, and West Asia and Europe were dispatched to establish good relations with China. Historical records reveal that envoys from South and Southeast Asian countries as well as from Rome were among the earliest to come by sea to China seeking diplomatic relations. They brought “treasures” to China as gifts, while their Chinese hosts presented them with coloured silk in return. In reality these polite exchanges were a disguised form of trade, and Chinese silk began to be treated as a symbol of peace and friendship. The MSR developed into a route for envoys of friendship, with far greater significance than a purely mercantile road. The MSR places China in the ‘middle’ of the “Middle Kingdom” and is an effort in initiating a ‘grand strategy’ with global implications. The hope is that the MSR, which served more for trade and establishing friendly relations would continue to do so in the revived form, rather than create new naval rivalries or power displays.

(Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy is with the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore. Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of ISAS.)

More In: Comment | Opinion

It would be a paradox to quote "Deng Xiaoping Moment" to the recent initiative of Maritime Silk Route, as he emphasized on "silent rising" and peaceful co-existence, whereas the recent activities of China only shows its aggressiveness in the name of diplomacy. In fact, China try to influence and project itself as a regional heavy weight and throttle Japan's efforts to win over the minds of South-east Asian countries. The best example is Chinese effort in showcasing Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank as a replacement of Japan International Cooperation Agency, which funds several south east Asian countries developmental projects. India and other countries should read Chinese Invitation with caution.

from:  Rajesh Thulasi
Posted on: Apr 11, 2014 at 18:19 IST

The china's strategy to reshape its geo-politics range from regional
to global basis must be seen as a model by India. It shall not be seen
in context of confrontation. The fact that Chiba is increasing its
social and physical contact with other countries through economic,
military and other cooperation must be an eye opener for Indian
diplomacy which is in deep slumber and is negligent of India's
lessening clout.
India itself can gain from silk route as it will be able to export its
products more efficiently by securing sea lanes in close cooperation
with China because it is not possible for India and China to emerge as
global masters if their is suspicion and confrontation between the
two. Therefore, both must act in concurrence and take this as an
opportunity to increase ties.

from:  Sahil Garg
Posted on: Apr 11, 2014 at 17:06 IST

Recently China has been trying to flex its muscle and has been at
loggerheads with its neighbor. Through MSR, its seeks to promote trade
and commerce in the region for its self-interest, which is definitely
going to benefit economies of the region. The world is global now than
it ever was. But at the same time, it increase China economic and geo-
political influence in the region. But as Chinese economy will be more
integrated to its neighbor, we can hope to see a more friendly approach
on part of China.
As there is no democracy in China, one cannot totally predict which way
the camel will sit.

from:  Adil Azeem
Posted on: Apr 11, 2014 at 10:46 IST

The MSR is not as benign as the Chinese want the rest of the world to believe. For long, the Chinese strategic thinkers had given greater emphasis on a blue-water navy as the most important weapon, even above the possession of nuclear weapons. With the rapid building up of their naval force with such platforms as the Jin-class SSBNs with their 12000 KM range JL-2 ballistic missiles which have just started patrolling the seas, the conclusion of building the aircraft carrier, the Chinese feel that they now have the muscle to exploit the navy for economic, diplomatic, strategic and military purposes. The MSR is a well-disguised attempt to achieve these objectives. If the US talks of Indo-Pacific, the Chinese want to demonstrate that they have a large presence in both these oceans. It also helps the Chinese to exploit the natural resources of the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) states and undermine the Indian influence there. Why is China not agreeing to a code of conduct in South China Sea ?

from:  Subramanyam Sridharan
Posted on: Apr 11, 2014 at 10:13 IST

There is need to take a comprehensive view of Chinese moves not only
towards MSR but in road and rail connectivity. China can move men
and materials from Bejing to Singapore by road. Also rail connectivity
from Vietnam to Kunming via south Thailand, and Cambodia, Laos and
Myanmar. (A Burmese writer envisions a branch to Kolkatta!) Beijing
had also announced its vision of a train service from Berlin to
Beijing via Istanbul and Baghdad –which was dreamt unsuccessfully by
Nazis. Look in this context the slow progress in our Look East Policy.
As for naval moves, see how China is building a rival to Panama Canal
through a railway line passing through Columbia and an actual rival
canal through Nicaragua. Now see the commissions and omissions in our
country. A writer says that China can turn anytime its strengths on
these fronts to its military advantage. Naturally India and other
counties in the region should be studying the implications of these
developments

from:  s subramanyank
Posted on: Apr 11, 2014 at 09:02 IST

China's move is laudable when it faces acquisitions from its neighbors
for creating and acting as an agent of turbulence and mistrust. India
should take a cue from this and hold hands together and foster a better
diplomatic chain that can together answer other complex issues which mar
the relation. Time has come that we take a move as China and foster and
flourish a better Asia with the two major powers of the region leading
from the front.

from:  Divya Prakash
Posted on: Apr 11, 2014 at 08:52 IST

In the 19th century, British policy was to prevent Russia from getting access to the warmer ports in places like the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. If I correctly remember this was attributed to one of the Czars, probably Peter the Great. Now, is not Chine getting to do that? What is the West doing? One of the not so apparent objectives in creating Pakistan was bases on this. Also, Prior to the Second World War, Japan propounded the doctrine of Asian co-prosperity. Is not China doing the same by the new version of the Silk Route?

from:  Jayananda Hiranandani
Posted on: Apr 11, 2014 at 05:58 IST
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