Thursday, March 20, 2014

China's maritime 'Silk Road' Proposal: India must Tread Cautiously

Kanwal Sibal, 
Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

China's proposition of a maritime Silk Route connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans is part of its propaganda drive to convince the world about its peaceful rise.

Its actions do not match its protestations, but that does not deter China from proclaiming that its rise will be free from clashes, unlike in the past when rising powers challenged existing hegemonies.

China uses the Silk Route memory to serve its interests, ambitions and image in several ways.

The historical Silk Route recalls China's role in world trade and the prize attached to its products by the rest of the world, in past generations.
The Silk Road represented China's economic superiority then, one that it seeks to regain in today's context when it has become the world's second-largest economy and its biggest exporter.

The Silk Road symbolised China's connectivity with the outside world. Connectivity, indeed, is the focus of China's current economic and trade strategy.

It is building east-west relationships, with oil and gas pipelines linking it to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It is building north-south connections to South East Asia, Myanmar and Pakistan.

Through the latter, it is building connectivity to the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, partially resolving its Malacca dilemma.

Yunnan and Sinkiang will draw the adjoining regions to which they are being connected into the Chinese economic orbit given their less developed state, China's economic dynamism, its tremendous export capacities and hunger for natural resources.

China is trying to rope India into its connectivity strategies through proposals such as the Bangadesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor linking Yunnan with our North-East.

India has been promoting east-west connections through Myanmar, Thailand and on to Vietnam, to balance China's north-south connections to South-East Asia.

We have had concerns about Chinese inroads into Myanmar. The BCIM corridor project counters our strategy and yet we are supporting it.

We are ignoring the danger of exposing our North-East to China, an area inadequately integrated with India, parts of which China claims as its own territory and where China has been involved in past insurgencies, not to mention the gun running from Yunnan to local insurgents that continues to a degree.

Even if, as part of our policy of furthering our engagement with China, we prefer not to be seen as opposing the project openly, the easy manner in which we accept such Chinese agendas is questionable.

Having seen the Silk Road idea working well politically on Asia's continental landmass - with the US touting the concept of a New Silk Road linking Central Asia to South Asia - China now proposes a maritime Silk Route linking it to Asia.

The memory of Admiral Zhang's sea-voyages in the early 15th century to South-East Asia, India, Hormuz and the Somalian littoral will no doubt be invoked by China to emphasise the historical basis of its peaceful forays to these distant Asian shores.

The concept of a maritime Silk Route seeks to present China's maritime strategy in a peaceful light, as being motivated purely by commercial considerations.

The word "silk" evokes softness and affluence. This is a belated counter to the misgiving - in India certainly - about the so-called "string of pearls" strategy being pursued by China to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean.

The port facilities China is obtaining or building in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan, while justifiable from the Chinese point of view to buttress its huge external trade flowing in large part through the Indian Ocean, raise concerns about China encircling us physically and politically, changing our bilateral equation further to our disadvantage, thereby making it still more difficult for us to resolve our problems with it equitably.

China will, inevitably, follow up with its commercial footholds in the Indian Ocean with naval ones. The purpose of China's naval expansion is precisely to create strategic space for itself in western Pacific and then move into the Indian Ocean gradually, in preparation for which China is learning to operate far from its shores for quite some time now, in the Gulf of Aden, for instance.
The cynicism behind China's proposal is glaring in the light of its aggressive posture in the western Pacific.

The maritime Silk Route begins in tension ridden waters, with China contesting Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus and undercutting it internationally by declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that covers these islands.

China has made illegal claims to large swathes of the South China Sea, embroiling it in strife with several South-East Asian countries.

It now threatens to declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea too, aggravating the situation for its neighbours and the international community at large.

China must first settle these issues amicably to ensure its maritime Silk Route proposal has political credibility.

India has been invited to join the Chinese proposal in what is clearly a bid to unsettle it diplomatically.

If India joins - we seem to have reportedly accepted the invitation - it will be endorsing China's maritime initiatives in the Indian Ocean, including its strategic objectives in developing Gwadar, not to mention its sizeable investments in Sri Lanka.

China is also skillfully trying to counter Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe's Indo-Pacific concept - which has pronounced security undertones - with a mollifying Silk Route concept linking the two oceans.

The American interest in India in the context of its re-balance towards Asia has a strong maritime content, reflected not only in frequent naval exercises between the Indian and US navies in the Indian Ocean, but also US exhortations to India to "act east".

China's maritime Silk Route proposal is too self-serving to receive our support. 

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