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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chinese Maritime Silk Route and South Asia

China’s ‘New Silk Roads’ policy seeks to enhance land connectivity with Central Asia and establish ‘Maritime Silk Roads’ to connect it with the ASEAN countries and the coastal cities of South Asia.

As the Chinese Premier Xi Jingping gets ready to visit India next month, his foremost priority would be to get India to participate in China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route project. The concept first emerged during Xi’s trip to Southeast Asia last October where he called for increased maritime cooperation between China and the ASEAN countries. Since then, the concept has expanded to cover not only the ASEAN states, but also the subcontinent, the Middle East and the coast of Africa. 

This is not a new concept. The movement of goods has been taking place through this ancient maritime silk route since many centuries and reached its peak in the 15th century. By reviving this ancient trade route, China hopes to set new benchmarks for ‘neighborhood diplomacy’ and seeks to improve ‘regional stability’. However, its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and strategic encirclement of India in the past has made it difficult to regard this proposal without a jaundiced eye.

The Indian Dilemma

India and China are already cooperating in the development of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor which will connect the Yunnan province of China with the other three countries and will form an important segment of the Southern Silk Road. The Chinese accord special importance to India in their silk roads plan as it lies at the intersection of the overland silk roads and maritime silk routes. However, India has so far resisted signing on the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) project not only due to the opaque nature of the project, but also because it sees this project as an attempt by China to establish a foothold in the Indian Ocean. Despite projecting MSR as an exclusively commercial venture meant for the development of massive maritime infrastructure, China has been surprisingly unforthcoming on the specifics of the project which has lead others to suspect its geopolitical motives. 

India has been wary of any Chinese attempt to raise its naval profile in the Indian Ocean and has scorned at Chinese construction of port infrastructure in Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) in the past. However, the sheer scope and scale of the new MSR project and the potential commercial benefits arising out of it are bound to make the new NDA government seriously weigh the implications of rejecting participation in it. 


Response from the Neighborhood

In contrast, the Sri Lankan response to the MSR proposal was enthusiastic as it became the first country to express its support for the project. China is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner after India, and both the nations recently signed a Strategic Cooperative Partnership (SCP) agreement during President Rajapaksa’s visit to China in May 2013. The Bilateral relations between both the nations are at their peak as President Xi Jinping will become the first Chinese premier to visit the island nation next month. With the MSR project, Sri Lanka seeks to enhance its strategic identity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by emerging as a financial hub in South Asia and a link to Africa and the Middle East while China wants to legitimize its increased role in IOR even as it increases the economic viability of its many port infrastructure projects. Both the countries are expected to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to further bolster their ties by the end of 2014. 

Besides India and Sri Lanka, China has also been trying to woo the Maldives to be a part of its pet project. In a meeting with the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen in Nanjing, President Xi invited the Maldives to be a part of China’s ambitious MSR plan. Earlier in July, the Chinese had offered to train the Maldivian Maritime personnel and to increase their involvement in the infrastructure projects in the small island nation. It is not very difficult to understand why China would want the Maldives to be a part of its MSR initiative as the island nation acts as a converging point for hundreds of cargo ships both from the east and the west and can help in expanding east-west trade.

China and Pakistan are moving rapidly towards the implementation of multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). The corridor connects China’s Xinjiang with Pakistan’s Gwadar port. 

Conclusion

China’s eagerness to induct India in its MSR proposal has raised some eyebrows within the strategic community. While Indians remain deeply suspicious of any attempt of strategic encirclement by China through its ‘string of pearls’ strategy, Chinese experts have pointed out that the only purposes of China in the Indian Ocean are economic gains and security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). 

The announcement of a 10 billion Yuan ($1.6 billion) fund for financing the MSR project has shown the seriousness that China attaches to this proposal. The potential short term benefits arising out of this are hard to ignore and can benefit local economies enormously. However, even if the economic benefits of this project were to be delivered, India’s choice must be based on the impact its geopolitical interests will have from such a development in the IOR. The NDA government will have to consider both - the desperate need of connectivity and the threat from China in the IOR before taking any decision on the subject.