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Beyond Maritime Silk Road:
China's Objectives and Strategies in the Indian Ocean Region
The term Maritime Silk Road (MSR) was first used by Chinese President, Xi Jinping at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in Bali in 2013. Ever since then the MSR has become a major proposal of the new leadership in China. During Chinese Premier’s visit to Brunei, he announced the establishment of the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund with USD 48 million allocated by China for sponsoring ASEAN-maritime cooperation projects. Further, to take this initiative forward China has set up a ten billion fund for this proposal. The initiative will be funded by the China Development Bank and China-Africa Development and would largely focus on development of the infrastructure in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh where China has already made infrastructure investments. At the BRICS summit held on July 2014 China announced the establishment of a bank for the smooth functioning of the MSR. The BRlCS declaration led to the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The MSR will be one of the main projects of the AIIB announced by China. The funds of the bank will be used to support the infrastructure along the MSR.
With so much of investments on the project; China is trying to venture this proposal as a win-win Opportunity for China and the related countries (Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and ASEAN countries). The essay delves into the economic and strategic aspect of the MSR, further it looks into the larger objectives and strategy of the MSR and plausible Indian responses.
History of the Maritime Silk Road
The MSR originated during the Han Dynasty and flourished until the Ming Dynasty. Essentially, it was a trading route for silk between China and South Asia, Europe and North Africa; thus covering almost entire Indian Ocean. lt has linked China to Europe, vis Southeast Asia. Africa and the Middle East. The MSR starts from the port city of Quanzhou in Fujian and extends around Nairobi, Kenya to Horns of Africa with a stop at Athens before it finally meets the land Silk Road in Venice. In contemporary times, the MSR would transit the Malacca Strait to India, Kenya and then north around the Horn of Africa, entering and using the Suez Canal to enter the Mediterranean before meeting the land -based Silk Road in Venice via the Adriatic. It can also be seen as effort by China to link Asia, Africa and Europe with China as the focal point. To further illustrate the route China has released a map on May 2014. Primarily, it was viewed as an alternative to the terrestrial Silk Road, or the “Silk Road Economic Belt”.
Economic and Strategic implications of MSR
Despite the fact that China holds the highest proven oil reserves in the Asia-Pacific region, in 1993 China became a net importer of oil. Since the 1990 in order to control the level of pollution China had discouraged the usage of coal as a source of energy consumption. China’s own extractable oil is only 2.6 tons per capita; this is 11 percent of the world average. On the contrary, the demand side has increased by thirty percent. The increasing dependence on the Sea Lanes through the 10R can be understood in terms of its increasing energy needs, ‘Malacca Dilemma’, Strategic Petroleum Reserves and the rising importance of the Indian Ocean per se.
Firstly, according to US Energy Information administration, China’s reliance on foreign energy sources is expected to increase in the coming years; it consumed 10.7 million bed of oil in 2013 which is approximately 4 percent more than 2012. Needless, to mention, oil and gas forms a major part of China’s economic growth and social stability too. Hu Jintao in 2007 stated that “to develop maritime issue is one of strategic tasks to boots our national economic development” and emphasised on the importance of developing China’s ocean economy. For this securing the route through the Indian Ocean is certainly the first preference. The increasing dependence on foreign oil and gas in turn has made the transportation of these resources as a critical issue.
Secondly, concern for China is that its eighty percent of oil currently passes through the Strait of Malacca. The Strait is a complete ‘chokepoint’ and in the Chinese Foreign Policy parlance it has already been termed as the “Malacca Dilemma”. In November 2003, President Hu Jintao, called for adoption of new strategies to ease the seeming vulnerability. The narrow corridors represent areas of concentrated shipping that are vulnerable to transport interruption. In the same area China is sceptical of the US presence in the South China Sea region. All through the maritime passage China is finding ways to make a smooth transit. Thus China’s interest in the IOR is primarily dominated by its search for securing energy resources and safeguarding the supply routes through the region particularly through the Strait of Malacca. The resources and energy security concerns are extremely critical for country’s national security. Increasing insecurity of supply today accompanied by growing demand potentially leads to a dangerous security dilemma.
Thirdly, to increase its energy security and increase its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) China has taken steps towards building its Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) to ninety days by 2020. China started building its four Strategic Petroleum Reserves on its coast to facilitate the transfer of crude oil from the ports. The reserves are located in Zhenhai, Zhejiang province; Daishan, Zheijing province; Hauangdao, Hangdong province and Dalian, Liaoning province (Mulvenon). It needs to replenish its reserves constantly.
Fourthly, driving China’s interest in the IOR is the growing importance of oceans per se and also the new maritime strategies of many developed countries, i.e., the US, Russia, Japan and Republic of Korea. Maritime developments in these countries have acted as a catalyst for driving China’s own strategy in the IOR.
Thus bearing in mind the strategic importance of the region Alfred T. Mahan has appropriately said, whoever controls Indian Ocean dominates Asia. The ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the twenty first century the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters. Needless to mention, the geopolitics of Indian Ocean Region will be indeed crucial in the making of ‘Asian century’. The entire development can be seen in terms of larger China’s Strategy of developing extensive transport networks roads, route, railway lines, ports and energy corridors. The MSR caters to China’s Peripheral Diplomacy and Good Neighbourly Policy.
Soon after assuming the power at the Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference (24-25 October 2013), Xi Jinping elaborated on China’s strategic objective for this diplomacy. During the conference he mentioned that China should start connecting with the countries in the route to hasten the infrastructure connectivity to construct the MSR. As a part of the peripheral diplomacy strategy, China follows the guidelines of friendship and partnership with neighbours, sticking to the principle of helping stabilizing and enriching neighbours and highlighting the ideas of intimate, sincere, benefiting and tolerant. The peripheral diplomacy further suggests that “doing a good job on the peripheral diplomatic work is needed to realize the struggling objective of the ‘two Centennials’ and to realize the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation ‘of the Chinese Nation.” Notably, the two one -hundred year goals refer to the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021 when China is expected to become a moderately prosperous. socialist country” that is prosperous , strong , democratic, civilised and harmonious and the 100th anniversary of People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2049.
China along with Sri Lanka has come up with the idea of ‘along the way’. As per the idea, as route covers huge maritime area, it will bring economic prosperity along the countries it sails through. It will promote Asia economic integration and cooperation and promote economic development in the region. Needless to mention, China is stressing too much on the commercial nature of the MSR.
Through MSR China is trying to strengthen the peripheral diplomacy so that there is less tensions in its periphery. This will lead to optimum utilisation of their resources and energy would promote economic growth. A stable periphery will reassure China’s Peace Rise/ Development. Like the ancient route the new MSR is expected to bring considerable profits to its neighbours. China’s territorial maritime disputes with the Southeast Asian countries have already created complex circumstances for itself in building good relations in the region as an effort to build good neighbourly policy China is willing to initiate talks with Southeast Asian countries to sign a good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation. On the other side booming Chinese economy acts as an engine of growth for most Asian economies and is already the leading trade partner of most of the countries.
China is giving too much emphasis on its good neighbour policy that is a vital component of ‘Chinese Dream’. Overall, emphasising on these policies China is trying to create a stable and positive environment that is conducive to the sustenance ‘China Rise/ Development. Even before Xi Jinping, his predecessor Hu Jintao had emphasised on the ‘maritime destiny’.
Through its peripheral diplomacy and good neighbourly policy China is using its ‘charm offensive’ so that it can dispel the growing anxiousness among Asian countries relating to ‘China Rise’. Secondly, it is yet another means to highlight ‘Sino Centrism’ emphasising on Chinese maritime history and inspiring its citizens for grand strategy.
China has started emphasising on its ancient maritime expeditions in the IOR. During the Ming period (1405-1422) under the supervision of Zheng He China had sent seven naval expeditions. His expeditions made China the first country to maintain a naval squadron in the Indian Ocean. Chinese merchant vessels had already travelled through these routes but Zheng He's seven voyages reflected an unprecedented use of maritime power by the Chinese emperor. It is depicting Zheng He's expeditions to emphasise its benign presence in the region. Weaving his expedition into an intricate soft power diplomacy China is depicting the rapid growth of its maritime power as a new phase in its peaceful rise.
China’s Objectives and Strategies
China’s objective in proposing MSR is to counter the “String of Pearls” theory. In a study entitled Energy Futures in Asia, Booz Allen Hamilton, in a report written for Pentagon 2005, has stated, ‘China is building strategic relationship along the sea lane from the Middle East to the South China Sea in a way that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives’. Second objective of China is to establish its images as a benevolent state and by making commercial investments it is trying to project its legitimate interests.
For the above mentioned objectives China has made economic investment in the countries which lie on the way of transportation of its energy resources; Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Kyaukryu in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh. This is further exemplified by the fact that a report in the China Securities Journal provided concrete details of the proposed MSR, noting that a priority of the Indian Ocean based initiatives was port construction and free trade zones, along with infrastructure construction of countries along the route, including ports of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh with China hoping to coordinate customs, quality supervision, e-commerce and other agencies to facilitate the scheme. The MSR will build on the Indian Ocean port initiatives.
It is evident that China’s interest in helping the countries in the development of their port facilities is related to its need to ensure the security of its energy supplies from West Asia and Africa. The main drivers being refuelling, re-restocking, rest, recreation facilities for oil and gas tankers and naval ships deputed for anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
For this purpose, off late China is giving too much of emphasis on Sri Lanka by “calling it a reliable friend and important cooperation in South Asia in the IOR”. Sri Lanka forms the eastern part of the MSR. Using its soft power diplomacy Xi Jinping has said that Sri Lanka is an important partner in building the twenty first century MSR and the AIIB projects. During Xi Jinping’s visits to Sri Lanka in 2014 agreement was Signed on the second Phase of the Hambantota Port Development Project. Agreements were also reached to enhance maritime cooperation and proceed with the construction of the Colombo Port City Project. The establishment of a Joint Committee on Coastal and Marine Cooperation to explore the feasibility of areas for cooperation which would include ocean observation, ecosystem protection, marine and coastal zone management, search for wreckage of Zheng He’s fleets off the Coast of Sri Lanka, maritime security, combating piracy, search and rescue, and navigation security was also signed.
Xi Jinping made three South Asian tours in September 2014, amongst several other issues he emphasised on the MSR. The Map released by Xinhua clearly shows that the three countries of his visit form strategic point in the MSR Since Gwadar was not in the route the President cancelled Pakistan from the itinerary (however there were other reasons also for the cancellation). During his visit to Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom positively, described the MSR initiative as a ‘dynamic’ endeavour by China that would bring it closer to its Asian neighbours. Maldives is keen to avail all the opportunities that come in during the process. The country is keen in the partnership and looks forward to offer its full support to the project and comes up with slogans such as ‘Maritime Silk Route the Dream of the whole Asia’. The visit itself by the Chinese President after 42 years exemplifies the importance of Maldives in the project.
Another, agenda of Xi Jinping visits was to invite India to be part of the MSR. However, India has not responded to the proposal yet. India has come up with a new proposal ‘Project Mausam’ to position itself at the macro and micro level. It would link cultural route and maritime route across the Indian Ocean. Basically, it would contribute to the dissemination of culture and civilisation across the Indian Ocean.
China’s Naval Capability for Power Projection in the IOR?
The People’s Liberation Army and Navy (PLA-N) was established for the purpose of coastal defence (jinhai fangyu). Changing naval threat perception led to the revision of the doctrine to “active defence, offshore combat”.
China’s ‘offshore defence strategy’ which is a component of its ‘active defence strategy’ has a maritime component. It aligns with the China’s 1982 naval maritime plan outlined by Liu Huaqing. It specified three stages for China’s maritime outreach. In the first stage, from 2000 to 2010, China was to establish control of waters within the first island chain that links Okinawa Prefecture, Taiwan and the Philippines. In the second stage, from 2010 to 2020, China would seek to establish control of waters within the second island chain that links the Ogasawara island chain, Guam and Indonesia. The final stage, from 2020 until 2040, China would put an end to US military dominance in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean using aircraft carrier as a key component of their military forces.
One major concept relevant for the discussion of PLAN is the concept of Near Sea and Far Sea. With the ambition of global Navy by 2020; China’s naval strategy has undergone two major changes from near --coast defence (jinnan fangu) strategy prior to the mid-1980s and then to the advancement of a “far-sea operations” (yuanhai zouzhan) strategy by the mid-2000s.
The 2004 Defence White Papers talked about PLA-Navy in detail. It stated the PLA Navy is responsible for safeguarding China’s maritime security and maintaining the sovereignty of its territorial seas along with its maritime rights and interests. The Navy has expanded the space and extended the depth for offshore defensive operations.
The eighteenth party congress work report for the first time defined China as a “maritime power” that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.” The Chinese President Hu Jintao, during his keynote address at the National Party Congress in Beijing on 8 November 2012 called for “enhancing Chinese capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguarding China marine rights and interests, and building China into a maritime power”. Further the Chinese media elaborated on the rise of China as a maritime power. People's Daily commented that this was the “Century of the Oceans". and the world powers were all making maritime rights and interests a top priority.
China ‘s naval modernization effort also includes reforms and improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education, and training, and exercises. Although China ‘s naval modernization effort has substantially improved China’s naval capabilities in recent years, observers believe China ‘s navy continues to exhibit limitations or weaknesses in several areas. Apart from naval modernisation, emphasis was also given to the maritime infrastructure building. This was duly backed and supported by formulation of appropriate policy guidelines for providing the requisite directivity to these endeavours. The most significant development of the PLAN over the past year has been the sea trails and commissioning of China ‘s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. It was commissioned on 25 September 2012. Subsequently, the J-15 aircraft conducted its first take off and landings on 26 November 2012.
Additionally, China is building the Anti Access Area Denial strategy (A2AD) to counter the US power projection into the Western Pacific and the process has intensified with the US ‘pivot’ to Asia. It is mitigating the process of securing SLOC also through the ‘Access Denial strategy'. The PLA Navy is in the forefront of China’s A2/AD developments, having the greatest range and staying power within the PLA to prohibit third-party forces. In a near-term conflict, PLA Navy operations would likely begin in the offshore and coastal areas with attacks by coastal defence cruise missiles, maritime strike aircraft, and smaller combatants, and extend as far as the second island chain and Strait of Malacca using large surface ships and submarines. At the moment, China does not have the power projection capability in the IOR. Despite the fact that China is emphasising the commercial nature of the MSR one cannot ignore the fact that eventually MSR would help PLA-N to enhance its strategic reach and give it a foothold in the IOR.
Here it is pertinent to mention about the statement given by Prof. Sheng Dengli, “Whether the overseas military base has a proper name is not important. What is important to contact the host countries which allow our Navy to take a rest. “
Abovementioned, facts indicate that currently China is trying to acquire foothold in the lOR. it is close to striking a deal in Gulf of Aden and PLAN ships were deployed in 2008 for counter piracy operation. Today, Salalah in Oman is already a supply port for Chinese warship.
It can be argued that within the larger framework of MSR China is definitely drawing a blueprint in the IOR. Some of the ports along the IOR where China has already made investments and enjoys secure and good relations can he prospective ‘place’. There are other factors such as locations, internal stability, and recreational opportunities for sailor that influence decisions on the PLA-N ships visits. Notably, the type of investment that China is making in the IOR comes under the category of facilities. It is easy to upgrade the facility into a base but difficult to convert a base into a facility.
Already in 1985 China made a port call to South Asian ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. China and Pakistan held first ever joint exercise in 2003 and the second bilateral exercise was held in the Arabian Sea in November 2005. At the moment, China’s actual military presence in the IOR is minimal that too in the form of Human Assistance and Disaster Relief, AMAN series exercises, the Peace Ark missions and recently in the MH37O search operations. The development of the entire network in the IOR has been projected by China as a natural outgrowth of an ongoing counter piracy mission; rescue and relief. These can be treated as indications of PLA-N strategies in these global waters.
China’s increasing dependence on the IOR littoral is a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistics constrains it faces because of its distance from the IOR. It is not a South Asian power, but has been seeking to build up for itself a strong South Asian presence which could cater to its strategic needs in the long term. Today, China is looking beyond the MSR and in order to expand its trade and securing SLOCs it is strengthening infrastructural facilities in the Indian Ocean Region. Thus looking beyond MSR the larger Chinese strategies is to project a benign view of China Rise/ Development worldwide. It is trying to use the MSR as a cover to legitimise its presence in the 10R. Much also depends on how much of magnanimity China will show towards its Southeast neighbours in solving the South China Sea dispute. It must dispel its policy of intimidation of smaller countries with which China has territorial and maritime disputes, which creates suspicion of Chinese motives in the region and invites US in the region. The SCS dispute will always remain a thorny issue in MSR. Notably, when the US declared that ‘pivot to Asia’ they substantiated it; however, this may not be applied for China in the IOR.
With the US pivot to Asia the IOR will be most significant area in the global politics than it has ever been. China is following a policy wherein it is seeking cooperation with the IOR littorals and making gradual infrastructural investment in these countries thereby catering to it SLOC impasse. MSR is symptomatic of China’s ambition in the IOR. However, they have not made it clear as to how they would implement it. It remains to be seen as to how China is going to implement the MSR.
Maritime Silk Road: Options for India
Clearly, MSR is an ambitious initiative. As a response, India has launched three related initiatives; Spice Route, Cotton Route and the Project Mausam. India intends to respond to MSR through the “Cotton Route” for the simple reason that silk was not the only product transported through the IOR. The route aims to firm up diplomatic and economic relations with the Indian Ocean Rim countries. India’s first cotton export dates back to the l" century. During those days Cotton use to be transported from present day Maharashtra to different parts of the world. There is evidence of archaeological discoveries from sites at the Red Sea ports of Bemike and Myos Hormos. Sources also claimed that cotton was exported to Central Asia via the ancient Silk Road. In addition, to the cotton yet another famous commodity transported through the route were the Indian Spices. The spices have often been cited as raison d’etre for the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese and the English to sail to the Coromandel coast of Southern India.
The Project Mausam is a regional initiative by the government of India to revive its ancient maritime routes and cultural linkages with countries in the extended neighbourhood. PM Modi’s visit to Indian Ocean countries Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka was also in context of promotion of project Mausam The visit “shows India is determined to adopt an asymmetrical strategy to secure a dominant position in the Indian Ocean through bolstering military and security cooperation with these island nations”
Other Options for India in the region are to strengthen its bilateral relations with the IOR littorals and ASEAN countries. Andaman and Nicobar Island should be developed as a modern transport and shipping hub for the Bay of Bengal Basin and tourism should be encouraged so that it can help in generating revenue for the development of the Union territory.
On March 8 2016, Chinese foreign minister said, “ASEAN is also our preferred partner in maritime cooperation. We want to explore the possibility of establishing a South, China Sea littoral states cooperation mechanism, and work together to maintain and build our common home, the South China Sea”. China has shown very adamant behaviour on the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Hague award on the China-Philippines territorial dispute. India noted the award and supports the freedom of navigation and the UNCLOS in the region. As a part of its ‘Act East Policy’, India should also start being active in the South China Sea region and try to trace her historical and cultural linkages in the region. Given the geopolitics in the region it can no longer remain India’s secondary area of interest. This region is very important for India as almost 55 per cent of trade pass through this region.
Notably, any development in MSR is bound to affect India as it criss-crosses through India’s zone of maritime interest. India needs to adopt a very well calibrated policy in order to deal with the emerging security architecture in the region.
2 | Beyond Maritime Silk Roaduch of magnanimity China will show towards its Southeast neighbours in solving the South China Sea dispute. It must dispel its policy of intimidation of smaller countries with which China has territorial and maritime disputes, which creates suspicion of Chinese motives in the region and invites US in the region. The SCS dispute will always remain a thorny issue in MSR. Notably, when the US declared that ‘pivot to Asia’ they substantiated it; however, this may not be applied for China in the IOR.
Other Options for India in the region are to strengthen its bilateral relations with the IOR littorals and ASEAN countries. Andaman and Nicobar Island should be developed as a modern transport and shipping hub for the Bay of Bengal Basin and tourism should be encouraged so that it can help in generating