By Vivek Bhattacharyya
Edited by, Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
Maritime Silk Road (hereby referred to as MSR) is a flagship policy of Chinese diplomacy that intends to address several of China’s problems at one go; by connecting twelve inland Chinese regions with fourteen neighbouring countries along the lines of the ancient Silk Road, securing lanes to import raw material, getting new export markets; and countering the influence of USA and Russia in that part of Asia. It was first proposed in 2013 by the twin leaders of China. President Xi Jinping mentioned it in his address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek while Prime Minister (Premier) Li Keqiang spoke about it at ASEAN+China summit in Brunei.
That begs the question – Why MSR? With the (alleged) String of Pearls policy already in place to counter India, why not simply scale it up to contain bigger players? The answers to such questions are multidimensional.
Firstly, the economic reasons. The Subprime crisis which took root in the U.S. in December 2007 caused a global economic pandemic. In response, the Federal Reserve resorted to quantitative easing to ease dollar outflow into the market. But once the markets registered a recovery, the Fed initiated what is popularly known as “tapering”; withdrawal of dollars. As the dollars dried up, so did FDI and import orders from US and EU. As a result, China’s export and FDI driven economic model started to wither. Hence, China turned to its 14 neighbouring countries as new export markets, which it plans to link via MSR. Moreover, China has the “Rich Coastal areas vs poorly developed interior regions” tussle. The two areas are clashing frequently, and it is becoming a festering cesspool of multiple socio-economic problems, thereby giving greater legitimacy to the demand of extremists for democracy. Hence the country has both inter-China and intra-China concerns to address.
Secondly, this is a move to defuse tension within the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and be a counter to the influence of the United States and Russia. In 2011, along the lines of the South China Sea dispute, China’s camaraderie soured with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan. This initiative seems to be an aim to ease tensions, and thus this can be seen as China’s proverbial olive branch to the ASEAN countries. It is also meant to be a counter-weight to the US and Russia. The US’s Pivot to Asia policy, it’s support for democratic transition in Myanmar, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it’s security ties with Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other South Asian nations, and Russia’s proposed “Customs Union” with Crimea agreeing to Russian access to the Black sea and the Suez Canal, has made China feel the need to package and sell a diplomatic balancing weight as a philanthropic and economic deal.
Thirdly, it is meant to secure strategic supply lines. Strait of Malacca is regularly haunted by pirates, but more than 85% of imports to China come via this Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC). Moreover it is a gateway to access the Bengal Bay and the Indian Ocean – the water bodies, which if controlled, allow monopolistic naval access to the whole of South Asia. But to get there, China needs to shake hands with ASEAN members, which it exactly what it aims to do, as mentioned before.
So how should India react to this bold move? The Chinese approached ex-National security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and asked India to join the Maritime Silk road (MSR) project. But the then-in-power UPA II government was busy with the 2014 General Elections and hence the MSR decision was put on the backburner. The author argues India can swing either way – work in tandem with China on equal parity; piggyback on their investment and let them augment their presence in the Indian Ocean; and then grab the combined economic benefits from this project. But on the other end of the spectrum, given the recent poor track record of the Indian diplomacy to turn aggressive even on a need-to basis, once China establishes its influence across the Indian Ocean, it can reduce India’s status to a pauper and offer pittance in exchange for cooperation; and hence Indian should see the project as taboo.
President Xi recently invited India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to join the MSR initiative. But the incumbent Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has maintained status quo; saying it requires mutual trust, respect, free flow of commerce and ideas, and stability, for such an initiative to be successful. In other words, India’s stand, and wisely so, remains conditional. If China lowers the barriers of its economy to Indian goods and services, helps address India’s trade deficit, maintains peace along the Line of Actual Control, then India is well-served joining MSR.
Vivek Bhattacharyya majored in Electronics Engineering, and is a Foreign Policy and International Relations enthusiast. He was formerly associated with Non-Traditional Security Research Centre (NTS-RC) at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), and Observer Research Foundation, besides having written extensively to The Hindu and the Indian Express on similar issues. Other interests include constitutional and international law, socio-political issues and literature. He believes human stupidity is a far bigger threat to mankind than ISIS, and can be reached at