China’s New Silk Roads: Reinterpreting History

Originally published as ‘Pothole potential on China’s silk roads’, Asia Times Online, 13 March 2015.

Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt (sichouzhilu jingjidai, 丝绸之路经济带) in a speech on 7 September 2013 at the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan[1] and the Maritime Silk Road (haishang sichouzhilu, 海上丝绸之路) during his visit to Indonesia, the following month.[2] The two initiatives – collectively termed the ‘one belt, one road’ (yidai yilu, 一带一路) initiative – taken together with his declaration of a new neighbourhood policy in October 2013 at the first work forum (zuotan, 座谈) on diplomacy towards China’s periphery(zhoubian, 周边),[3] constitute a major Chinese foreign policy initiative. It is designed not just to increase China’s influence but also to put forward a new way of doing business, different from the Western/American approaches and tries also to assuage fears of an impending Chinese regional and global hegemony.

 

Implications for China’s Neighbours

The ‘one belt, one road’ initiative has several implications for China’s immediate neighbourhood that includes India. The Silk Road Economic Belt connecting China with Central Asia and onwards to Europe with Xinjiang at its core is of a piece with similar initiatives such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor (孟中印缅经济带) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (中巴经济带). Along all three economic corridors India is a directly or indirectly influential presence. In the case of the BCIM Economic Corridor, India is a formal member. In the case of the Silk Road Economic Belt through Central Asia, India enjoys enormous goodwill and soft power in the region that transcends political developments and economic relations. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor meanwhile, will inevitably have to develop and draw on connections with the large Indian market in order to reach its full economic potential.

Pakistan’s infrastructure currently is woefully inadequate and its economy short of maturity to develop and provide the returns that Chinese investors seek. Even if political stability through economic development within Pakistan were the objective, this could be achieved much faster and sustainably through an opening up to the Indian economy. Pakistan could thus avoid the roundabout and wasteful current situation of routing Indian imports through third-countries instead of receiving them directly over its land borders and direct sea links with India. As Pakistan’s Minister of Finance and Revenue Mohammad Ishaq Dar has himself noted while praising China’s Silk Road projects, ‘international trade is the only option to sustain economic growth and development’.[4] At least one Pakistani commentator has, in fact, conflated the Silk Road Economic Belt with a ‘China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-India Economic Corridor’ and the Maritime Silk Road with the ‘China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India sea route’.[5] According to official Chinese sources, too, the Silk Road Economic Belt through Xinjiang and Central Asia is seen as having a population of ‘nearly 3 billion’[6] and therefore, must also include India in its calculations. Therefore, it is clear that the Chinese government and its state-owned and private enterprises must see the benefits of including India as part of any long-term and sustainable Silk Roads strategy.

The Maritime Silk Road from China to its west which will touch important Indian cities on its way to West Asia and Africa as is currently being envisaged. In addition, of course, Southeast Asia through which the Maritime Silk Road will first traverse before entering the Indian Ocean is an area of some considerable historical and cultural ties to India in addition to ever-growing political and economic linkages. While New Delhi makes no claim to the Indian Ocean being India’s ocean, the Maritime Silk Road will inevitably depend on Indian resources for protection and order if it is to function smoothly, safely and successfully. This Indian role has been acknowledged as essential and important by all countries from the east coast of Africa to northeast Asia. It is only China that appears to have a less than fulsome appreciation of India’s maritime importance. What appreciation there is, often comes in relation to other countries – one Chinese scholar while dismissing Indonesia’s new ‘global maritime fulcrum’, stated that India had a much better case to be such a fulcrum or axis.[7]

Apart from the security perspective, that should also take into account the crucial role of the United States in Asian waters, it is just as important to take into consider the economic dimension. China’s is Asia’s largest economy and one its largest ship-builders thus providing adequate justification for its idea of a Maritime Silk Road. But Japan was also in the past, Asia’s largest economy and one of its largest ship-builders. South Korea too, is today, one of Asia’s largest economies and ship-builders. And yet neither Japan nor South Korea felt compelled to put forward ideas such as the Chinese one, which also simultaneously falls short of acknowledging other maritime traditions and powers. Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam are also among the largest contributors of sailors to the world’s merchant fleets. These too, are a part of creating or reviving maritime traditions. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s new strategy of forming the ‘global maritime fulcrum’[8] and India’s own announcement of its Project Mausam initiative for the Indian Ocean Region – a cultural outreach programme begun in mid-2104 –will inevitably have political implications. China cannot ignore these developments and must seek to situate its Maritime Silk Road idea within a larger Asian and reality and tradition that acknowledges maritime powers such as India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and of course, the United States.

DSCN4843-From here come upstairs

The View from New Delhi

However, Beijing does not seem to have invested enough effort into convincing India policymakers of both China’s good intentions and its willingness to see India as an important player in its own right in Asia and the world and as a country not to be ignored when China and the United States talk shop.

At the moment therefore, the view from New Delhi is that China’s ‘one belt, one road’ initiative is about consolidating Chinese leadership in the region, particularly in opposition to the United States. This is not a little worrying to Indian strategists who understand that it requires a stable and forward-looking relationship between Beijing and Washington for both China’s progress and a peaceful Asia. Thus, there are questions in India when China stresses both greater economic integration with the neighbourhood and its determination to defend its ‘core’ interests. The latter is, of course, a normal consideration for all countries, including India but China’s formulations at the moment are not entirely free of ambiguities about the (ab)use of its greater economic and military might vis-à-vis its smaller, weaker neighbours.

‘Putting aside disputes’ as Chinese commentators frequently call for is easy for a large country like China, but not so for smaller countries and actually constitutes a form of hegemony. It is not enough to simply acknowledge differences or different ways of doing things and leave it at that but to also have dialogue that acknowledges the equality of all the parties involved.

Clearly, the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative offers huge potential for cooperation between China and India and for the two countries to develop their relations with third countries. The issue for New Delhi is of how willing China is to acknowledge India’s historical role and influence in the areas it now seeks to service through the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative. How capable is China of understanding Indian interests and sensitivities on both continental Asia and its waters? The ‘Asian Century’, after all, will have to be one in which both India and China have to work together – and not just with each other but also together with their neighbours – to establish, if it is to be truly a source of peace, development and prosperity for its peoples.

 

Reinterpreting History

Finally, from a purely historical perspective, the ‘Silk’ in the Silk Roads while referring to a Chinese product should not lead to the interpretation that the road itself was Chinese. This is far from being historically true. In fact, it was the many ethnic groups of Central Asia and West Asia who constituted the trading communities linking China with the rest of the world, carrying European, Indian and West Asian products to China and Chinese products to the other regions. It also needs to be remembered that cotton from India has an equally long, if not longer, history of being traded along the ancient trade routes as silk. It is well-known of course that the name ‘Silk Road’ was originally coined by the German explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen only in the late 19th century but less known is the fact that his explorations and studies also covered the spread of Buddhism from India into China along these Silk Roads.[9] The modern Silk Roads need to also acknowledge this legacy of serving both as a means and metaphor for the exchange of ideas and dialogue between peoples and communities.

Similarly, the ‘sound historical basis’ that Chinese commentators seem to find for the Maritime Silk Road might not be all that sound or at the very least might just as well be true of other nomenclature for ancient maritime routes. For example, the Maritime Silk Road might just as well be called the Maritime Spice Road, referring to Indian products that also found transport to distant markets in China, Southeast Asia and Europe through history. There is, in fact, a new tourism initiative launched by the state (provincial) government of Kerala in India – like Fujian, a coastal province with a long history of maritime trade and commerce – called the Spice Route Initiative, started in 2014. Here too, it was mainly Arab and Indian traders who connected China and Southeast Asia with India, West Asia and Africa, in the past.

The point of this brief digression into history is to underline the fact that China’s modern-day initiative of the ‘one belt, one road’ must remember to take on board all the peoples along these routes. It can work only if China can reassure all the countries and communities involved that not only is their present and future well-being taken care but that their past too, will be respected. China’s record on this score, however, is far from reassuring.

Indeed, China might actually be engaged in a larger exercise of historical revival than of just the Silk Roads. China’s has recently created institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Roads Fund or promoted others like the BRICS New Development Bank, even as it has increased its hard line or assertiveness on issues of territory, sovereignty and image. Taken together these developments appear to constitute a new version of the ancient Chinese political governing philosophy of tianxia (天下). While the concept has been variously defined over history, at its most basic, it represented the rule over peoples with different cultures and from varied geographical areas by a single ruler. In effect, it represented a Chinese conception of political and moral superiority, to go with economic and cultural dominance over China’s neighbours, including its prominent role in arbitrating disputes and conflicts between them. Under a CPC dedicated to preserving its rule at home and using the assertion of China’s rights and influence abroad, as a means to this end, it is possibly this ancient historical concept that might be a more useful framework to understand what China’s current foreign policy intentions are.

 

Endnotes

[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China, ‘President Xi Jinping Delivers Important Speech and Proposes to Build a Silk Road Economic Belt with Central Asian Countries’, 7 September 2013, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/topics_665678/xjpfwzysiesgjtfhshzzfh_665686/t1076334.shtml

[2] Wu Jiao and Zhang Yunbi, ‘Xi in call for building of new “maritime silk road”’, China Daily, 4 October 2014, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013xiapec/2013-10/04/content_17008913.htm

[3] Xinhua, ‘Xi Jinping: China to further friendly relations with neighboring countries’, 23 October 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/26/c_125601680.htm

[4] Zhang Yunbi, ‘Minister praises China’s vision over AIIB’, China Daily, 25 October 2014, http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2014-10/25/content_18800455.htm

[5] Mian Abrar, ‘The man behind the Chinese dream’, Pt, 10 January 2015, http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2015/01/10/comment/the-man-behind-the-chinese-dream/

[6] See for example, Deng Xijun, ‘Concentrate Strength by Common Dream Win the Future by Sincere Cooperation’, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 12 October 2013, http://af.china-embassy.org/eng/zagx/sbgx/t1088523.htm

[7] During an interaction between a delegation from the China Institute of International Studies, Beijing, a Chinese MOFA-affiliated think-tank and the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi on 25 November 2014, http://icsin.org/ICS/EventReportPdf/129.pdf

[8] Rendi A. Witular, ‘Jokowi launches maritime doctrine to the world’, The Jakarta Post, 13 November 2014, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/11/13/jokowi-launches-maritime-doctrine-world.html

[9] The Silk Road, ‘Richthofen’s Silk Roads: Toward the Archaeology of a Concept’, Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer 2007 http://silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/vol5num1/srjournal_v5n1.pdf

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