An article published in the Global Times (the state-run Chinese daily) was titled “India’s political goals hinder cooperation with China on ‘Belt, Road’”. The article claims that former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and his National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon “expressed support and interest” in Chinese proposal of the 21stcentury Maritime Silk Road (MSR), but current Prime Minister Narendra Modi “changed India’s attitude” toward the initiative and India has adopted “opposing, delaying and hedging measures toward different parts of the MSR”. While claims made in that article are debatable, it is pertinent to ask: what is the geopolitics of Chinese maritime silk diplomacy?
The current Chinese leadership seems fairly optimistic in its effort to reshape the country’s global profile in a bold and creative way – a key element of which is to build up an economic system with China at the centre of it. China is taking decisive steps to improve its overall geopolitical position by securing natural resources and developing extensive transport networks, including roads, railways, ports and energy corridors. Beijing is also increasing its influence through a series of international investments. Undoubtedly, the proposal of reviving the ancient Maritime Silk Road demonstrates this innovative approach.
The MSR, together with the Silk Road Economic Belt, has emerged as a signature foreign policy initiative and is the first global strategy for enhancing trade and “fostering peace” proposed by the Chinese President Xi Jinping. This initiative has a clear strategic purpose and it is a helpful channel for the Chinese grand strategy. The MSR 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 evidence of China’s growing ambitions. China is influencing perceptions, relationships and organisations all over the world.
The Chinese leadership has promised to transform China through a national rejuvenation in order to realise the “China Dream”. Beijing is also responding to the region’s need for investment and development and aims to unlock a massive trade potential and bolster economic development through this initiative. It has become a defining strategy for economic outreach to China’s partners. The MSR initiative, in fact, is an attempt to create a favourable international environment conducive to China’s continuing development, and thus it has to be seen as an important element of Chinese grand strategy. This ambitious initiative will receive funding from seven capital pools, among which the Silk Road Fund, AIIB, the BRICS Bank, and the SCO Development Bank are likely to play major roles. With full political and financial support from the Chinese government, the MSR strategy has become one of the key tasks in China’s diplomacy.
Several Chinese scholars claim that the initiative is also part of the new round of China’s “opening up” strategy. China is facing challenges of overproduction and overcapacity, particularly in the steel and construction material sectors. This initiative aims to create more overseas demand, and thus could help in addressing China’s domestic economic problems. There is now a growing need for China to invest more in foreign countries. The labour market is becoming more competitive and costs are increasing. So, through this initiative China could aim for an economic restructuring. Moreover, the initiative is expected to drum up development initiatives in the less developed regions of China to narrow income gaps between regions. Also, the initiative could be an excellent overseas investment opportunity for the Chinese private sector.
More importantly, the MSR aspires to improve China’s geo-strategic position in the world. The Chinese Navy (PLAN) is “at a critical stage of a thorough transformation, extending its operations from coastal defence to far-seas power projection” and the MSR has “set an enlarged scope for the PLAN’s expansion into the Indo-Pacific region”. You Ji, an expert on Chinese military transformation, writes that “the MSR expresses a Chinese Indo-Pacific strategy with clear military relevance” and this initiative has “renewed discussion among PLA about the necessity of erecting a ‘chain of pearls’ towards the Indian Ocean”. The MSR initiative is an incremental strategy and “Xi’s call is being structured into the navy’s two-ocean strategy”. While, Chinese government officials have denied a geostrategic notion of the MSR, a common view is affirmative about its strategic and geopolitical aspects. Indeed, China’s Indo-Pacific ambition takes place in phases – economics complemented by strategic access.
Therefore, the salient points of Chinese maritime silk diplomacy can be summarised as follows. First, this strategy reflects a shift from China’s low-profile international strategy to a more pro-active international strategy to help shape a new international and regional order. Indeed, the control of the sea lanes and points of strategic egress has become increasingly indispensable to China’s strategic designs in the Indo-Pacific region. Second, China seeks to reap the benefits of its growing economic power and expanding influence across the globe. The MSR aspires to secure global access to natural resources, raw materials and overseas markets for sustaining China’s economic expansion. Third, the initiative reflects China’s growing confidence and also a response to American ‘pivot’ strategy. Finally, the initiative is comprehensive, focussed and President Xi Jinping’s pet project. Through this grand vision, the ambition of China’s new leader is to significantly upgrade China’s status in the world.
Over past few decades, China has emerged as a major maritime power and offering maritime infrastructure development to friendly countries. Chinese maritime silk diplomacy offers new opportunities to cooperate in many sectors including trade, infrastructure and cultural exchange, etc. The MSR could spur economic development, promote people-to-people contact and enhance understanding. However, there is cautious optimism among major Asian countries. Also, there is a widespread perception among several Asian countries that “mutually beneficial” development projects often benefit China more than the host country. Indeed, there is a view that the Chinese MSR initiative is more about deepening ties with regional governments and providing work for Chinese industrial companies. Substantial investment in port facilities and related infrastructure in various locations – including in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia – is planned or under way. It is believed that new, expanded or more advanced capacity will improve connections between the sea and land legs of trade movements, raising overall transport efficiency and reducing costs. Enthusiasm for the MSR initiative has been quite limited thus far in South Asia and Southeast Asia, except in Pakistan, and the economic logic of the initiative still seems questionable. As a result, there is a worry that the geopolitical aspects of the MSR may dominate. In the long run the PLAN “will acquire overseas supply points for its naval expeditionary fleets to get to the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific” and “Pakistan has already made the port of Gwadar available for Chinese to use as a naval logistical base”. With the MSR in action, it is only a matter of time before the PLAN will turn Gwadar into “a foothold in the Indian Ocean”. i
Further, China’s more assertive policies, such as in the South China Sea enhance uncertainty and anxiety within the Indo-Pacific region. Given China’s growing assertiveness, it is difficult for the region’s smaller states to avoid a feeling of doubt about the MSR China perhaps forgets that, because of its size, any move it makes could have large implications for its smaller neighbours. Hence, China needs to address the trust deficit that exists with some of its 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. China has yet to cultivate the much-needed political and strategic trust. Transparency and objectivity will help Chinese maritime silk diplomacy to gain greater traction and wider support, including from India.
This article was first published in Centre on Asia and Globalisation’s China-India Brief #81. The article was written by Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy.