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China’s Maritime Silk Route: Implications for India

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 16, 2014

    In recent days, China’s proposal for a Maritime Silk Route (MSR) has been a subject of speculation and debate. Beijing’s plan for a maritime infrastructure corridor in the broader Indo-Pacific region, first proposed by President Xi Jinping’s during his trip to Southeast Asia in October 2013, has attracted attention because of its potential to establish a Chinese foothold in the Indian Ocean. Needless to say, China’s outreach to India - inviting it to join the project - has generated much analytical curiosity.

    The first thing of interest about the MSR is that it was initially mooted as an ASEAN-centered project. The intention then was to enhance connectivity and cultural links in China’s strategic backyard – the South China Sea. Beijing later expanded the scope of the project to include the Indian Ocean, but in reaching out to Colombo and New Delhi, it found a willing partner only in the former. India has been ambivalent about the MSR and is yet to make up its mind on joining the project.

    During Indian Vice President’s Hamid Ansari’s visit to Beijing in end-June, China made another unsuccessful attempt at getting India to sign-up. Beijing’s renewed pitch for the construction of ports, logistical stations, storage facilities and free-trade zones in the Indian Ocean was again met with a passive response. While acknowledging Beijing’s sincere approach, the Indian side requested for more details on the project to help reach an early decision.

    This is the second time running that India has successfully skirted the controversial MSR project. The last occasion was in Feb 2014 during the Special Representatives Talks in New Delhi, when the Indian representative had declined any comment or opinion on the issue. India, however, is not alone in inquiring about the project’s commercial viability – many ASEAN countries have been equally probing about is intended benefits. This raises fundamental questions about the project, the principal one being: Why, despite its scale and scope of the planned investment, does the MSR not inspire any confidence?

    The problem with the MSR, essentially, is the ‘opaque’ nature of its proposal. Outwardly, the project is about the development of massive maritime infrastructure and connectivity in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Beijing has been careful to project the MSR as an exclusively commercial venture, trying hard to dispel any impressions of it being a cover for maritime military bases. Surprisingly, however, China has released no details about the project, and this makes many countries doubt Beijing’s strategic intentions. The lack of specifics not only makes it hard to decipher the MSR’s real purpose, it gives credence to suspicions of geopolitical game play by China. Indeed, for a project being touted as a critical enabler of regional sea-connectivity, Chinese planners would have spent much time and effort developing the fine-print. The lack of firm plans, proposals and timelines then does lead to a suspicion that there may be something about the MSR that Beijing is hesitant to reveal quickly.

    Even on the few specifics that China has released, claims appear doubtful. According to Beijing, the MSR involves the development of maritime nodes that will help enhance trade and sea-connectivity and assist substantially in the development of local economies. Beijing has been promoting the project as an economic game-changer and an enormously beneficial enterprise for all host nations. Even so, it is hard to disregard the fact that China is the source of much of the maritime turbulence in South East Asia. China’s positioning of an exploration rig in the Vietnam’s EEZ, its skirmishes with Philippines over the Scarborough reef, and the aggressive patrols off the Senkaku islands clearly shows Chinese intensions in the Western Pacific are anything but benign. With unsettled issues of sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction over disputed Islands in the South China Sea and the East Sea, Beijing’s expectation of a free-pass to create an entire infrastructure corridor in a contested maritime space, appears seriously doubtful.

    Since it has already shown its approval for China’s BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) development plan, chances are New Delhi will be favourably inclined to consider the MSR. It is, however, certain to go over the details carefully before agreeing to the development of Chinese infrastructure in Indian waters. Even though it will be keen to start-off with Beijing on a positive note, the new NDA government in New Delhi would be wary of displaying undue haste in giving the MSR its full approval.

    It is felt that India, like some other Indian Ocean states, is so overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the MSR that even in the face of misgivings it will go ahead and sign-up to the project. According to MSR observers, the fear of being left out of its commercial benefits would lead many nations to uncritically accept the project as an economic and strategic enabler. Since the project proposal comes coupled with the “New Silk Road” – a land infrastructure project that envisages the development an ancient route connecting Western China with South and Central Asia – it will be hard for national policy-makers to desist from signing-up.

    The Chinese state-owned Xinhua News Agency’s recently revealed some information about the Maritime Silk Route. A map attached to the news report showed Kolkata and Colombo (and not the Pakistani port-city of Gwadar) as possible venues of infrastructure development. The omission of Gwadar from the plan appears to be an overt incentive for India to join-up. Saying ‘yes’ to the MSR will, however, serve as an Indian endorsement of China’s supposed ‘benign’ motivations in the IOR. Worse, as informed voices point out, joining the project will not in any way serve to allay India’s original concerns about a ‘string of pearls’ in the Indian Ocean.

    This is not to deny the MSR its short-term benefits, which could - by some accounts - be substantial. China’s announcement of a 10 billion Yuan ($1.6 billion) fund to finance the “maritime silk road plan” is a clear sign that it is serious about moving ahead with its stated plans. These supposedly include port-building and connectivity-enhancing projects within Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean littoral countries that could help local economies enormously. The financial payoffs, however, will likely come at a price and entail long-term strategic implications – especially for regional maritime security.

    The MSR’s essential rationale is the leveraging of Chinese soft-power. The aim apparently is to shore-up China’s image as a benevolent state. Beijing’s would also conceivably use the project’s commercial investments to establish its legitimate interests in the Indian Ocean. And while China can be expected to do everything in its power to force region states to join the project - including offering economic aid to potential partners - the bottom-line for it will be to make an offer to India that is hard to refuse.

    For India, it is instructive that the sales pitch of shared economic gains does not conceal the MSR’s real purpose: ensuring the security of sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Since African resources are China’s focus right now, the project could well be a surrogate for a giant Chinese SLOC running all the way from the East African coast, to the Southern coast of China – created, maintained and controlled by Beijing. In its ultimate form, therefore, the MSR could end up setting up Chinese logistical hubs in the Indian Ocean, linking up already existing string of pearls.

    India’s appreciation of the MSR must be based on an objective appraisal of these new realities. Even assuming the project delivers on its economic promise, it could well turn out to be detrimental to India’s geopolitical interests in the IOR. As Beijing becomes more involved in building infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, it will play a larger part in the security and governance of the IOR, which could pose a challenge to India’s stature as a ‘security provider’ in the region and also adversely affecting New Delhi’s strategic purchase in its primary area of interest.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India