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.)