Understanding Chinese new silk route

Col J P Singh
‘New silk route’ is a massive Chinese inter and intra continental  strategic initiative which adds new roads and seaways to the historical silk route. It is a great initiative in its developmental frame work and military strategy. It is the brain child of its paramount leader President Xi Jinping which focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries primarily of Eurasia. New silk route comprises of two components, (i) land based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ & (ii) Ocean based ‘Maritime Silk Road’. Both clubbed together are known as ‘One Belt-One Road’ (OBOR). The coverage area of this initiative is 60 countries spanning over four continents. Its alignment shows the Kenyan capital Nairobi, (visited by Modi during his July 2016 African tour), as destination on the new silk route, to be linked by a Chinese made rail-road connecting Nairobi to the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. This initiative calls for integration of the Chinese areas of interest into a cohesive economic belt by building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges and broadening trade. Military aspect, though not visible, is an important component of the strategy and that is what worries New Delhi. According to the financial experts, the entire scheme would cost around 8 trillion US $ which China has organized to raise. Many countries that are part of this belt are also members of the China-led ‘Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’ (AIIB). A ‘leading group for advancing the development of OBOR’ was formed on 1st February 2015 with its steering committee under Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli and is composed by several political heavyweights.
Old silk road had stopped serving as trade route in about 1453 when Ottoman empire’s supremacy re-rose. Then the Europeans realized the tremendous profits that were to be obtained by anyone who could achieve direct connects with Asia. First of all Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in 1492 in search of an alternate trade route to China from Spain. But he landed up in America. The Ocean route from Europe to East was then discovered by Vasco de Gama in 1497-98. Primary aim of this Portuguese expedition of the Indian Ocean was trade.
During his visits to Asian subcontinent in 2013, Xi forcefully projected his idea of jointly building a ‘silk road economic belt’ and the 21 century ‘maritime silk road’ to the world. With China’s investment led growth model having reached its limits, president Xi is seeking to geo-strategically break out of the subcontinent through the ambitious ‘new silk route’ project for new markets to revive its economy and show military muscle. It is also seen as China’s response to the more exclusive mega-economic blocks in the making such as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Asia & Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (T-TIP), both of which are led by US. The new silk road is explicitly oriented to South & Southeast Asia while Europe is the destination for the belt. The OBOR, therefore represents an alternate and supposedly more inclusive economic architecture led by China, competing with what is being led by US.
Premier Modi has also been promoting a Spice Route, a Cotton Route and Mausam Project with a view to tie together the countries around Indian Ocean which are bound together by the monsoon winds. But it has not evoked the desired response from them. Analysts feel that instead of spreading our limited resources thinly over these mostly rhetorical ripostes to China’s OBOR, it may be prudent to focus on limited but strategically key routes and ports along our adjacent seas and islands to safeguard our most important equities.
The silk route derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese Silk carried out along its length over an ancient network of trade routes connecting the West and East right from China to Mediterranean. The trade on the silk route was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, India, Persia, Europe, Horn of Africa and Arabia & opening up long distance political and economic relations between the civilizations. Chinese, those days had taken great interest in the safety of their trade products and had extended the Great Wall of China to protect their trade route. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were also traded besides religions, philosophies, technologies and diseases which also travelled along the silk route.
OBOR is divided into North, Central and Southern belts. North belt passes through Russia, Central Asia and Europe. Central belt passes through Central Asia, West Asia, Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. Southern belt starts from China and passes through Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The central belt is presently embroiled in turmoil and terror. There are complex religious and separatists movements along the proposed belt. Hence it isn’t much talked about at present except China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor which are closely related to the central economic belt. CPEC is often regarded as link between China’s overland and maritime silk route at the Gwadar Port which is crux of CPEC.
(Red and blue lines depict proposed land & Sea based OBOR)
India has been relatively silent on the most talked about OBOR. In the inaugural Raisina dialogue, hosted by India in March 2016, minister for external affairs and the think tank ‘observer research foundation’, signaled Delhi’s concerns towards Beijing’s OBOR and the foreign secretary identified it as having ’emerged as a threat to present day geopolitics’ telling world to understand that new silk route is different from the old. Old silk route served as connector for trade and cultural exchanges. It had very little political connotations. In contrast the new silk route is an overt expression of Chinese power ambitions in the 21st century. Chinese admirals have said, “OBOR initiative is a hedging strategy against eastward movement of America”. By this strategic masterstroke China has succeeded in marketing a shiny brand name ‘new silk route’  to the world. This brand is so dear to the Chinese that when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed the development of new silk route, as a trade and investment initiative, to rebuild Afghan economy after US troops withdrawal, the Chinese foreign minister took strong objection to it. Chinese diplomat told Clinton that ‘new silk route’, was their brand. US conceded and thus terminated brief dalliance with their new silk route. Hence Indian concerns are genuine. India is developing own Andaman and Nicobar Islands as modern transport and shipping hub in Bay of Bengal to link with Trincomalee and beyond to further East. Equal importance is being given to the development of Iranian Chahbhar Port with road and rail link to Central Asia. Ganga-Mekong corridor linking India’s East Coast with Indo-China-Myanmar multi-modal transport corridor including the port of Sittwe is also being developed. OBOR overshadows Indian initiative. Some other perceptional issues are. (i) Perception, process and implementation till date do not inspire trust in OBOR as a participatory and collaborative venture. Unilateral declaration of an idea with accompanying lack of transparency further weakens any sincerity towards an Asian entity and economic unity. Beijing says it is committed to pursuing wide ranging consultations with 60 plus nations OBOR implicates but continues to push it across unilaterally. (ii) Politics of it is another challenge. While Chinese would try not to be seen as projecting their military and political presence along OBOR but it is clear that it’s objective is to encircle and confine India. (iii) While no developing country will turn down infrastructure development opportunities financed by China, they may not necessarily welcome Chinese rules built on their ethos. (iv) To navigate OBOR in SEA without India’s  full backing and getting India on board is a challenge for China. Indian nod would mean de-facto legitimization to Pakistan’s right over POJK and Gilgit-Baltistan under CPEC which is closely related to OBOR.
Options for India. Fundamentally New Delhi needs to decide whether OBOR is a threat or an opportunity. Chinese political expansion & economic ambition, packaged as OBOR, are two sides of the same coin. The answer sticks to both sides of the coin. India should be firm while responding to political facet, it should consider using economic opportunities arising out of other facet. First and the foremost India needs to do is to match its ambitions with capacities. We are far behind China in capacities. Can OBOR assist in the latter? Can Chinese railways, highways, ports and other infrastructure serve as catalyst and platform for our desired double digit sustained growth? Modi is to decide. Simultaneously, India needs to focus on last mile connectivity in its own backyard linking to the OBOR and the slip roads to its own highways to exploit its economic potential to the maximum. There seems to be Chinese keenness to solicit Indian partnership. Arguably OBOR offers India another political opportunity. Can India seek reworking of the CPEC by Beijing in return for its active participation. What is important to understand is that in this century, security, strategy and economy go together. Creating a web of economic and trade relations with countries around India itself becomes an assurance of security. Hence OBOR  just can’t be wished away.