Brig.(Retd) Arun Sahgal, PhD  July 2014


Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is part of the Chinese Silk Road project ostensibly to enhance trade and connectivity with the Chinese periphery. However the core of this thinking is based in the ruling Chinese elite’s belief to dominate the peripheral and regional discourse through economic, cultural and political influence.

In Chinese view major threats to its stability and growth emanate from disturbances to the ‘natural order’ euphuism for internal unity and stability. In their calculus internal dissonance has a spiralling impact by externalising internal threats, that could eventually lead to instability and regime change.  Under the above strategic discourse, control and influence over internal and external periphery, including the maritime borders are seen essential to China’s rise and harmonious growth.

The new Chinese leadership conscious of this strategic thinking if not actually perpetuating it held first even conference on “periphery diplomacy” in the last week of Oct 2013, just prior to Third Plenum. It was attended by the Standing Committee, State Counsellors, and the Central Leading Small Group members with responsibility for foreign affairs, in addition to the Chinese ambassadors to important countries. In his remarks at the conference President Xi Jinping emphasized China’s need for a stable external environment that is conducive to domestic economic reform (Glasser and Pal: China-US Focus).  The underlying discourse at the conference revolved around how to shape Chinese policy to exert overall influence along its periphery and to counter the US rebalancing towards Asia.

The Chinese proposal of Silk Routes (continental and maritime) therefore is part of overall strategic construct of peripheral influence and regional integration to enhance Chinese political and economic influence.  Specifically the MSR initiative is part of its attempt to break out of its maritime isolation, constrained by the US led alliance domination of the first and second island chains, which have effectively restricted Chinese maritime space.

With the US as part of its rebalancing strategy aiming to shift major maritime assets including six carriers based battle groups in Indo – Pacific situation was becoming even more critical. Even in the South China Sea an area which it looks upon as its core interests its attempts at control and influence are being contested by regional actors such as Vietnam and Indonesia supported by the US. Chinese assertiveness therefore in the South China Sea is based on the attempt to preserve its core interests in the critical maritime space, vital for Chinese economic development and strategic influence. It is in this backdrop that China’s pitch for Maritime Silk Road” (MSR) to ASEAN, and now to countries in South Asia including India by promising to deepen trade and cooperation needs to be seen. It must be seen as an attempt to leverage soft power and to countervail US dominated rim land strategy.

Proposed Maritime Silk Route

Taking cognisance of above objective realities, prescient Chinese leadership have come up with the idea of enhancing regional cooperation and breaking its isolation by proposing continental and maritime silk routes. MSR in particular is aimed at connecting Pacific to the Baltic Sea a sort of maritime highway, by building infrastructure, upgrading port facilities and creating economic compatibility with countries along the maritime zone. This will serve China’s its strategic interest by straddling routes along which its trade and natural resources flow. Xinhua on May 8, 2014 unveiled the maps showing Chinese ambitious Land and Maritime Silk Roads(Tiezzi:Diplomat).

According to the Xinhua Article MSR will begin in Quanzhou (Fujian province), and also hit Guangzhou (Guangdong province), Beihai (Guangxi), and Haikou (Hainan) before heading south to the Malacca Strait. From Kuala Lumpur, the Maritime Silk Road heads to Kolkata, India then crosses the rest of the Indian Ocean to Nairobi, Kenya. From Nairobi, the Maritime Silk Road goes north around the Horn of Africa and moves through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean, with a stop in Athens before meeting the land-based Silk Road in Venice (Tiezzi:Diplomat).

The maps of the two Silk Roads drive home the enormous scale of the project of linking three continents. The image in fact conveys China’s ambitions to reclaim its place as the “Middle Kingdom,” linked to the world by trade and cultural exchanges. According to the Xinhua article, the Maritime Silk Road will bring “new opportunities and a new future to China and every country along the road that is seeking to develop.” The article envisions an “economic cooperation area” that stretches from the Western Pacific to the Baltic Sea (Tiezzi:Diplomat).

However, the expansive goals envisioned in the proposal are not quite clear. Going by the statements of Chinese leaders and commentaries in Chinese media the aim is to create trade networks, boosting economic activity and productivity, creating access through infrastructural linkages, by boosting trade, transit, port facilities and developing continental arteries as ‘continental land bridges’.

With these China aims to give fillip to its trade, accessibility to hinterland, capitalise on vast manufacturing infrastructure that it has created and in the final analysis build strong economic and political influences with each of the countries along the silk route.  In a sense the Silk Road creates not just an economic trade route, but a community with “common interests, dependencies and responsibilities.” The Silk Road represents China’s visions for an interdependent economic and political community stretching from East Asia to Western Europe. The underlying motive however, is to counter balance American led alliance system by providing alternative trade and economic model to countries already heavily dependent on China.

Perspective from India

Formal proposal to induct India into the MSR was made during the 17th round of talks between special representatives in New Delhi. So far India has been somewhat reticent in its response primarily owing to lack of clarity about the Chinese grandiose economic and trade designs, as also infrastructural linkages and above all the larger strategic motivations.

Indian response to the Chinese proposed strategy of reviving historic maritime linkages should be shaped by both India’s perception of its broader strategic and economic impact and their implications for the overall national interests. According to official sources conceptually up gradation of maritime connectivity between Indo – Pacific and extending it further to East Africa and on to Mediterranean is in tune with India’s own broader maritime economic vision. However there is a lack of clarity on “how and what” of the Chinese proposal. There are also concerns in what does this imply for broader regional strategic partnerships within the frame work of the US rebalancing strategy.

Given the foregoing backdrop, this analysis reflects essentially upon the geo strategic construct of the Chinese proposal. View from New Delhi, is that China is attempting to create trade and economic relationships with ASEAN countries through trade, port and continental land bridges to countervail US influence and draw ASEAN and littoral Indian Ocean within its sphere of influence. Chinese proposals to develop Kunming Railway that will connect China – Singapore and all countries in SE Asia as also the recently commissioned gas and crude pipelines and proposed railway line connecting the Rakhine Coast of Myanmar with Kunming underscores this thinking. A proposal for MSR thus compliments such infrastructural initiatives and allows landlocked South West China access to markets in SE Asia. This in the long run will underscore US rebalancing strategy and exponentially enhance Chinese influence, and allow it to override ASEAN resistance to Chinese claims in South China Sea.

From Indian perspective the entire proposal has to be seen in the context of broader geo strategic implications for India particularly in the Indian Ocean. The strategic objectives of MSR raise questions of Chinese real intentions? China has steadily expanded its influence in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea by building ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and helping build Sandia Deep Sea port in Bangladesh apart from other Indian Ocean littoral engagements through a strategy generally referred to as String of Pearls. Scenario is exacerbated by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka pledging support to President Xi Jinping's MSR initiative as part of the overall Asian Security Plan. Given the emerging scenario, concerns in New Delhi are that countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could be further drawn into the Chinese orbit. One of the reasons for the regional outreach of the Modi government is to prevent such a potentially disturbing development by restabilising Indian credibility with its neighbours. 

Notwithstanding above the major Indian concerns emanate from the architecture of MSR and its linkages with proposed Chinese land bridges that would straddle India from west to East. On the West is the proposed China-Pakistan economic corridor that would link restive Xinjiang province of China with Chinese developed deep sea port at Gwadar. Indian concerns centre around the proposed corridor passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), a disputed Indian territory. The developed road rail communications will allow China to make strategic moves in POK. Given its military and nuclear collusion this is a serious development with major impact on India’s threat perspective. Lastly once the corridor develops over the next few years (2019-20) Gwadar will certainly become an important commercial hub for both China and Pakistan. It will be a serious development given the fact that it provides an access to the Persian Gulf and is in proximity of the proposed Indian developed Iranian port, Chahbhar (40 NM) doubled with its ability to support both naval and commercial activity in South Arabian Sea and along the sea lanes in Western Indian Ocean. In all likelihood it might be developed as a possible future naval and communication base drawing the PLAN directly into the Indian Ocean. Therefore despite the Chinese map showing MSR passing Pakistan, geopolitical realities and huge infrastructural investments clearly indicate it to be a part of the overall strategy, omission in the map could be deliberate to prevent fierce Indian reaction.

Furthermore Chinese facilities along the western sea board have the potential of presenting two front naval threat scenarios, together with the Chinese forays in Bay of Bengal. This will force India to develop additional access points and facilities astride the proposed Chinese Silk Road including Gwadra/Mekran Coast. For examples, working with Iran to upgrade facilities in Chahbhar, work closely with regional countries along the proposed route to ensure credible Indian presence and commercial interests. Lastly it also means that India will need to spend more on long haul vessels, to ensure greater endurance and sustainability for its power projection and expeditionary roles. This will not mean major recasting of plans from existing force levels but nuanced shift in the focus. These perhaps are the reasons why India has not been over enthusiastic for the Chinese MSR proposal.

Second corridor is what is being loosely termed as BCIM acronym for Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar. This corridor will connect India’s north-east with China's Kunming province initially through road and later rail connectivity. India given the restive North East and relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar earlier was lukewarm to the proposal. However, now with a push by the Modi government to improve connectivity, economic and cultural linkages with NE and greater connectivity with SE Asia there is greater acceptance of the idea. If this corridor eventually fructifies this would mean not only enhanced trade and connectivity it would also imply China being able to upgrade infrastructure and port facilities in Bangladesh and Myanmar, that could over period become important trading hubs.  With three major neighbouring countries coming incrementally within Chinese influence and Myanmar becoming major energy transhipment hub securitisation of the Bay of Bengal will follow creating major strategic challenge on the eastern sea board of India and direct confrontation with the PLAN.

Third aspect is the maritime context. Despite the fact that MSR is couched largely as an economic initiative, objective reality is that maritime space in the IOR is likely to be contested despite it being conceived as ‘Global Commons’. Important regional and extra regional actors such as India, China, Japan, Korea and the US among other will like to ensure sea lanes of communications that are vital to national growth and development are kept open and not manipulated by contending powers.

The logic of IOR becoming a contested space is also dictated by the views of Chinese leaders who believe that the growth of the economy and continued dependence on natural resources would have to translate into expansion of Chinese naval power in the long run, requiring capabilities to accomplish missions in the IOR as well. This in fact is the rational and logic that is driving the PLAN to extend its operational range from ‘near’ and ‘middle’ seas an area adjacent to the inner and outer rims of the first and the second island chains to ‘far seas’ that stretch to the East of Indian Ocean extending to the East coast of Africa. It is this broader strategy of projecting power up to and beyond 1000 nautical miles from its territorial waters that is behind the growing focus on maritime force development and possible deployment of nuclear attack submarines and carrier based task forces in IOR by 2020, as also seeking naval bases in the Indian Ocean. 

From Indian perspective these are serious projections. Indian Ocean is largely seen by Indian political and strategic establishment as an area of Indian domination and influence. Just like the Chinese India needs to protect its core areas of interests such as trade, economy and resources driving the outreach of India’s maritime interests. These over period could extend up to Western Pacific, South China Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, the Central and Southern Indian Ocean, islands such as Diego Garcia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and Seychelles. These will also be inclusive of South Africa and Australia as they dominate the Southern approaches of the Indian Ocean. As India begins to interact with the IOR powers off its own coast, shaping of future maritime environment competition will be manifested.



Given the foregoing analysis, India will need to take a hard look at the pros and cons of supporting such a proposal. The dilemma for India is that a number of SAARC countries have already approved the Chinese proposal. Can India afford to be an outlier? If India has to go along what are its strategic options, can India together with Japan and ASEAN offer a countervailing regional initiative in which Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries could be partners. Speed with which China is selling the concept India has to act fast otherwise it will be drawn into the MSR on Chinese terms.

Best course for India is to follow two pronged strategy – deepen its economic linkages and draw China into major infrastructural investments; second hedge on MSR, in any case it will be long drawn process, invest in immediate neighbourhood exactly in those capacities which China is planning and leverage these to draw out neighbours such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka among other to India. MSR is a serious Chinese proposal; India cannot take a diffident stand but needs to pro actively shape the discourse.

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