The Maritime Silk Road, which was historically used for transporting ceramics from East Asia to other regions in the world, including Europe, has once again sprung back into global prominence with the ongoing disputes over sea-lanes and territories. From the 1500s, along the same maritime route where the ceramics trade had taken place, one empire after another guaranteed regional security for that trade to take place. After the rise and fall of southern India’s maritime empires, Southeast Asia’s Majapahit and Sri Vijaya empires, and the arrival of Arab traders and Islam, Admiral Zheng He (also spelt Cheng Ho) made his seven voyages and paraded Ming Chinese naval might to the trading nodes in the region. A product that attracted a lot of consumer and aristocratic attention were the fine porcelain wares, carried on ships where ceramics were used as ballast to balance the ships for their arduous journeys. Soon after, the Europeans followed suit, starting with the Portuguese spice trade from the 1600s onwards and then the Spanish and Dutch, British and French, and eventually the Americans and Japanese. Currently, the same sea-lanes are now under dispute in the South China Sea. The claimant states include Brunei, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
It is useful to refer back to history and re-discover how these sea-lanes, when not under dispute, were able to encourage trade and commerce amongst the maritime nations in that area. The proliferation of fine decorative as well as utilitarian porcelains (also known as kitchen Qing) is a prime example of how East Asian goods were able to enjoy safe passage and reach new consumer markets as far away as Europe. In the pre-modern days, there had always been a hegemon that would provide peace and security for such trade to take place and that hegemon had always been the strongest maritime power in the region.
In the current situation, the US, which had arrived onto the sea-lanes of Southeast Asia during the Spanish-Filipino war and later established a permanent Pacific presence anchored by naval bases in Hawaii and the Philippines, became the dominant power in the region, and was supported by a military alliance with Japan from the 1960s onwards. The US has been accepted by many East Asian states as a comparatively benign maritime power.
The US has always understood that it is not a claimant to the disputed islands (thus the concept of neutrality) but is concerned about freedom of navigation in the sea-lanes so that its allies and the US itself can trade freely through the Asia-Pacific. The rising power China, which says it also wants to uphold freedom of navigation, is concerned that its interests and territorial sovereignty are undermined by the de facto strategic arrangements. Both sides have legitimate concerns. It is interesting that the ceramics trade that brought East and West together has come full circle with an Eastern power interacting with a Western one in this manner.
However, it is important to note that this situation does not have to be a zero-sum game. Indeed, from the historical picture, not only was the original Maritime Silk Road not a zero-sum game, it became a win-win situation. When Chinese ceramics producers wanted to find new markets, Chinese, Arab, and Persian traders, starting from the Tang dynasty, found consumer markets in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and eventually Europe. At this point in time, Ming China was at the peak of its imperial power and the most technologically advanced civilization in the world, as Admiral Zheng He’s voyages demonstrated. Demand and supply found each other. But when the Chinese ceramics supply dropped due to dynastic decline, self-imposed isolation, and invasions, other Pacific powers like Japan benefited. In other words, there has always been at least one or more major East Asian powers benefiting from trade and commerce in these sea-lanes.
Then it was the Europeans’ turn to become dominant. The ongoing Industrial Revolution pushed the Europeans ahead of other civilizations through mass production techniques that made mass consumption possible through the lowering of production costs. The Maritime Silk Road transmitted these technologies from Europe to East Asia. Japan was the first to receive modern kiln technologies, glaze chemistry knowledge and quality control, which were later introduced to other East Asian countries. Without the sea-lanes being open, there would not have been exchanges of technologies, knowledge, and consumer products. Europe would not have enjoyed East Asian cultural products and aesthetics; East Asian ceramics producers would not have found new markets; and the same East Asian countries would not have had their hands on modern technologies and know-how.
Therefore, as history has shown us that different stakeholders to the sea-lanes have enjoyed access and cooperation through business and trade, it is perhaps more useful to the parties in the ongoing disputes to focus on achieving a win-win situation rather than staking out territorial claims with gunboats. It is now up the wisdom of all parties to seek a suitable solution.