The absence of the US at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali has given China an opportunity to downplay its ‘charm offensive’ in the Southeast Asian region. During the meeting, China proposed the revival of the ‘maritime silk road’ (MSR). China and ASEAN share unique geographical ties; linked by land and water .This route is a symbol of cultural and historical linkages between the two. China’s relations with Southeast Asia were traditionally called Nanyang (or South Sea); this was based on the Tributary System. Perhaps, MSR can be seen as the shared aspirations of both peoples, linking their common memories.
Essentially, MSR was a maritime trade route for trading of silk between China and South Asia, West Asia, Europe and North Africa. Maritime history illustrates that states have relied on maritime power for a full realisation of their power potential. Thus it is no surprise that China is pushing the MSR as a soft power projection in the region to enhance its trade ties. Looking at the timely proposition of the MSR, two questions arise: what is the larger Chinese game plan in the region? Is a route of this nature plausible in contemporary times?
Chinese Game Plan in the Region
China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner while ASEAN is China’s third largest trading partner. Bilateral trade has grown from USD 55 billion in 2002 to USD 400 billion in 2012 with a quantum jump of 600 per cent. At the meeting in Brunei, Li Keqiang promised to take it further to USD 1 trillion by 2020.
Ahead of the APEC summit, Xi Jinping visited Malaysia and Indonesia. He signed a five year pact aimed at increasing bilateral trade to USD 160 billion by 2017, and in Indonesia, he addressed the Indonesian Parliament. By emphasising economic relations and bringing in the MSR, China is trying to add historical and cultural dimensions to bilateral relations.
Besides the thriving trade, China is vexed in the territorial dispute of the SCS in which four out of ten ASEAN nations, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, are involved. The SCS is an important source of oil and natural gas and is directly connected to the issue of energy security of all the states. China specifically wants a bilateral solution to the dispute but the ASEAN countries are in favour of a multilateral one. Most recently, there has been increasing pressure on China to sign a Code of Conduct.
There is a power vacuum in the region and the SCS cannot be solved militarily. Further, Chinese assertiveness can cause regional instability. Any anomaly in the region will push these countries closer to external powers like Japan, UK and US.
The US, Japan and Australia have already met on the sidelines of APEC and have issued a statement opposing unilateral action that would change the status quo in the SCS. Taking note of the fact that more than half of the world’s super tankers pass through the region’s waters, John Kerry reiterated Hillary Clinton’s remarks (2010) on the freedom of navigation and the principle of unimpeded lawful commerce.
The larger Chinese interest in the region is that it needs ASEAN resources and its market. It wants a stable and peaceful regional environment in its neighbourhood and greater international space to realise the ‘Chinese Dream’. For this, they are prioritising good neighbourly ties with ASEAN for long-term peace and development. To this end, China is trying to cement peaceful relations with ASEAN countries by upholding good faith and taking the initiative to share its development dividend. They are mindful of the fact that a good neighbour is more important than a distant relative.
MSR: Possibility of Revival
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li have toured ASEAN extensively; it reflects their strategic outlook of developing relationships with neighbouring countries. The new leadership is trying to diffuse tension in the SCS by using various techniques, of which MSR is one. However, a revival of the MSR looks bleak. Also, earlier the route was used for the import of precious stone, wood and spices but today it will used for oil and gas, which is directly connected to the energy security of not one but many countries. There is an emerging security architecture in the region which has led to an increased arms build-up, and the assertiveness of new regional powers has further complicated the regional military balance, which makes the MSR an unlikely prospect.