Grand design

Grand design

China’s proposal to build a maritime silk route linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans and touching all countries on their rim from eastern China to West Asia and Africa is being widely discussed now.

The proposal seeks to revive an ancient sea route of trade that had existed side by side with the famed silk route on land  from China through central Asia to Europe. The importance China attaches to the idea is clear from the fact that it was first mooted by President Xi Jinping himself, followed up by Premier Li Keqiang and taken up by other senior Chinese leaders with governments of other countries in the region. India has also been invited to be a part of the initiative. China has set up a large maritime  co-operation fund to support the plan.

The maritime silk route is presented as an economic life line which will boost trade and investment of all countries on the route. It involves development of ports, access from land to these ports, development of sea lanes and creation of financial bodies and arrangements to support infrastructure facilities and trade needs.

China is ready to play a major role in this. While the economic benefits of a busy maritime silk route are obvious, its strategic implications are also equally obvious. The proposed route starts from and goes through  parts of the Pacific where China has major territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

There is a view that China is serving its own strategic needs by building ports in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. This network, called the string of pearls, has even been seen as a counter to the perceived US pivot to Asia and as a potential military threat to India. The area through which the maritime silk route passes  is the world’s busiest sea trade route. Most of China’s oil and raw material needs are met by trade on this route.

So it is natural that China would like to ensure the protection of its trade interests by multilateral involvement in the development of a sea route in the region. It is felt that it would give China the opportunity to invest in regional maritime security  infrastructure for seemingly economic reasons. But its strategic import cannot be underestimated. India and other countries will have to consider this aspect, while responding to the Chinese proposal.