Ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, China has amplified the pitch on its vision of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) amid the repositioning of American forces in the Asia-Pacific and an emerging trade deal between Washington and its traditional regional allies.
Overlooking the Taiwan straits, Quanzhou, a major city in China’s strategic Fujian province, has emerged as the focal point of the MSR. The revival of the MSR from Quanzhou echoes China’s rich maritime traditions. The city is known to be the starting point of the original MSR, and was central to serial voyages that prominently covered South and Southeast Asia, including India, Maldives and Sri Lanka, which were undertaken by Zheng He -- China’s iconic 15th century mariner.
Picking up the historical threads, President Xi, who, is personally marshaling the initiative to revive the MSR, has included Maldives and Sri Lanka in the itinerary of his visit.
Chinese officials acknowledge that the MSR embeds the search and development of new markets and investments destinations following the economic downturn in the West, which has, so far, galvanised China’s spectacular export led growth. “It is not just about the markets and economy, for the MSR also seeks to revive civilisational linkages through extensive people to people contacts,” says Hu Changchun, Deputy Director General of the foreign affairs department of Fujian province.
In the development of the MSR, China is focusing on countries, which include Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar as well as Indonesia, which became the destination where President Xi first announced Beijing’s plan to launch the initiative. In Fujian province alone, of which bustling Quanzhou is a part, Indonesian companies have already invested $ 320 million in 44 enterprises-- more than four times, the Indian investment in the province.
China’s drive to deepen linkages among the littoral states in South and South East Asia, has deeper geopolitical resonance as it follows the U.S. led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) initiative, which seeks to forge a regional free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region. The twelve participating countries in the TPPP include Washington’s top allies such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand, apart from Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. Observers point out Beijing is interpreting the U.S. Pivot to Asia—a doctrinal shift of concentrating additional forces and equipment in the Asia-Pacific, that runs parallel to the TPP--as part of a “China containment” strategy steered by Washington and its allies.
The MSR is part of a string of Silk Road initiatives that the Chinese are undertaking that includes the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, which aspire to establish integral economic linkages between South and Southeast Asia. Analysts point out that the recently established BRICS Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIDB) could be roped in to fund projects within the Silk Road framework. Officials in the Fujian province say that China will support funding for the development of marine industry, including ship building, logistical infrastructure and industrial parks in countries that participate in the MSR initiative. During his visit to India, President Xi is expected to announce China’s backing for the establishment of two industrial parks, located in Maharashtra and Gujarat.