China has proposed to revive the centuries-old ‘Silk Road of the Sea’ into a 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The MSR initiative has a clear strategic purpose and is a helpful channel for the Chinese grand strategy. It aims to seize the opportunity of transforming Asia and to create strategic space for China.
The success of the MSR initiative will be extremely consequential to regional stability and global peace. Today, China is in the process of remaking history at sea, and some scholars view it as ‘China’s maritime renaissance’. China’s growing merchant marine; expansion of its global shipbuilding market; increasing reach in building and managing off-shore ports and port facilities; and efforts to develop a modern blue-water navy are evident.
The thrust on reviving ancient maritime routes is the first global strategy for enhancing trade and fostering peace proposed by the new Chinese leaders. The MSR borrows and inherits the ancient metaphor of friendly philosophy to build a new one in the 21st century. 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 the Chinese geo-strategic position in the world.
The idea of the MSR was outlined in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Indonesian Parliament in October 2013 and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s speech at the 16th ASEAN-China summit in Brunei. The Chinese leaders underlined the need to re-establish the centuries-old seaway as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, 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, enhancement of security cooperation, and the strengthening of maritime economies, environmental, technical and scientific cooperation. Thus, there are five key elements of the MSR: policy coordination; connectivity; trade and investment; people-to-people links; and financing development.
China plans to build a series of ‘sea stations’ for safe seaways. On the economic front, the MSR proposal aims to boost maritime connectivity, port and harbour cooperation, and maritime commerce. It also provides a channel for overseas investment for Chinese companies and capital, either in infrastructure construction, or in the manufacturing and foreign commodity trade and service sectors. For China, such outward infrastructure investment is important for boosting its manufacturing sector, addressing its domestic production overcapacity and stimulating domestic economic growth.
At a recent conference at Sichuan University, responding to a question about the action plan of the MSR, one senior Chinese scholar remarked that the Chinese government is following reactions from different countries on the MSR proposal and soon a blueprint of action plan would be available. While, to create functional single market, it is necessary to overcome maritime connectivity issues, the lack of interoperability and infrastructure gaps, it is equally important for China to ensure that it draws up plans, sets priorities, and monitors and coordinates progress on the ground in collaboration with other partner countries.
Furthermore, China will require long-term commitment, political will, and a better coordination mechanism between different agencies and provinces for the smooth implementation of the MSR initiative. As outlined in their speeches, mentioned above, Chinese leaders could consider carrying out joint projects underpinned by the principles of ‘mutual respect and mutual benefit’. Over time, such an approach could be helpful in changing other countries’ perceptions. Chinese leaders may also consider establishing a regional maritime transport framework system with the aim to promote maritime transport facilitation under the MSR initiative.
There is, however, some anxiety within the Asia-Pacific region over Chinese actions on the ground that were contradictory to China’s stated intentions of goodwill and peaceful cooperation. China’s stationing of one of its oil rigs in a disputed territory in the South China Sea flared up tensions and fuelled the ‘China Threat’ discourse in the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, it ruptured relationships, and cast doubts among some of the ASEAN countries vis-à-vis Beijing’s recent announcements of friendship and good neighbourliness.
Given China’s acts of assertiveness, it is difficult for the region’s smaller states to not feel suspicious of any goodwill gesture from Beijing. It will be difficult for China to build a friendly neighbourhood if Beijing’s every move is met with distrust and fear. China forgets that because of its sheer size, any move it makes that it views as insignificant could have large implications for its smaller neighbours. Hence, China needs to address the trust deficit that exists among some of its ASEAN neighbours while undertaking such initiatives.
The MSR initiative could be very helpful in reinforcing cooperation and raising it to a new level of maritime partnership. Nevertheless, China has yet to cultivate the much-needed political and strategic trust.
Opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the views of ISAS.