The Broad Mind | Should India accept China’s maritime silk road proposal?

Both India and China should come forward with guidelines and agendas to discuss regarding such maritime cooperation

By Piyush Singh

At the just concluded 17th Round of Talks between the Special Representatives of India and China in February on the boundary question, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jichei invited India to setup a Maritime Dialogue with China and also to join the “Maritime Silk Road” initiative it had mooted with ASEAN States. This proposal was surprising in the context that China had just carried out its largest ever naval drill in the Indian Ocean involving its largest landing craft Changbaishan cutting through Makassar Straits.

China contends that due to increasing trade and economic activity, the confluence of Indian and Pacific Ocean is necessary since nearly 70 percent of the World trade moves through this area. And Since India is major maritime power in this region, it is necessary that India take part in this initiative to make it a success. The “Maritime Silk Road” project first emerged in President Xi Jinping’s trip to South-East Asia last year. Originally planned to include ASEAN states, it was expanded to include Countries extending from India to the Middle-East. This “Maritime Silk Road” project will complement the Land Based Silk Road connecting China to countries of Central Asia and Europe. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi compared this new concept to the 2000 year old Silk Road, when much of the trade was carried out between China and other Central Asian countries through a series of land connected routes through which culture, trade and economic benefits was brought to all.

However, for this project to succeed China has to address concerns of the “String of Pearls Strategy” around the Indian Ocean. India has legitimate security concerns with regards to China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China’s rapid naval build-up of ports in and around India has raised concerns in Indian military establishment on what is China’s true intention. China contends that it seeks to build these port facilities to safeguard its economic interests and to help in Anti-Piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Since there is no official “String of Pearls” strategy in official Chinese policy circles, the idea of “Maritime Silk Road” is being seen as having the support of top Chinese leadership. This initiative will also help in allaying fears about China’s not so peaceful rise since it will be primarily be focused on trade and economic cooperation. However India’s legitimate security concerns remain unanswered. Former Foreign Secretary of India, Kanwal Sibal has argued that India needs to tread cautiously on such initiative and the proposal is “too self-serving to receive our support”. According to him, China will follow up its economic interest with naval support in the coming future.

SriLanka had become the first country to officially sponsor the “Maritime Silk Road” and is expected to grant China further investment opportunities in the region.  Pakistan though has not yet given official consent to the project; it is expected to do so in the coming months especially since China has invested heavily in the development of Gwadar port. These countries have had an on-off relation with India in the past decade and are seen to move into the China camp in order to counter the Indian influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

In order for this initiative to succeed it is very much essential that India shed its apprehensions and join this Project as an equal to China. China should go out of the way to safeguard Indian Interests and should make it clear that its role in the region is mainly for economic growth and prosperity. Opening of this new frontier between India and China will lead to further economic growth between the two states. India-China trade is currently valued at around $70 Billion and is expected to reach $100 Billion by the year 2016. Trade through inter-connected economic corridors between India and China will help in giving the much need momentum to the slowing economic growth of these countries. China has more than 3.5 Trillion $ in reserves and is looking for new markets for investments and nowhere it is going to find a more suitable market than India. Linking the Maritime Silk Road with the Land Based Silk Road through various economic corridors should bring much prosperity to the region. However China should not make these countries entirely depended on them and should allow local trade to flourish instead of flooding them with Chinese made goods and services. These initiatives of trade should be based on principles of equality through which each country’s intellectual property is protected and safeguarded.

With regard to Maritime Dialogue with China, India is looking at the proposal cautiously since many analysts view Indian Ocean as India’s backyard and any intrusion by China into this will not be accepted. However India should cast-off these apprehensions and should realize that in an increasing connected world it will hard to demarcate areas in the oceanic region. Same goes for China with regard to its activities in the South China Sea.

Both India and China should come forward with guidelines and agendas to discuss regarding such maritime cooperation. The Silk Road concept will go a long way in strengthening of bilateral relations and people to people exchanges as the old Silk Road led to transfer of Buddhism across the great Himalayas to China. The very economic cooperation between the two countries will define the future of Asia as they are regularly shown as adversary rather than friends. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his speech at Central Party School, Beijing in October, 2013 held out the proposition that India and China are destined to lead Asia to its glory days back again as friends rather than adversaries. A win-win situation would be created for both the countries. It is up to the new government to decide what China policy should be pursued? One of adversary or as harbinger of peace in Asia.

Piyush Singh is an intern at the Takshashila Institution

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.