When the ancient Chinese reached into Central Asia, one of the first assets and resources they were interested in were strong and powerful steeds — nicknamed “blood-sweating” horses — from the Central Asian plains that could run fast. These connected China with the greatest series of trading routes that would develop into what became known as the Silk Road. The overland Silk Road connected a series of trading outposts that ranged and stretched between Western Europe at one end and China at the other. The Silk Road eventually expanded to connect most of the world’s people and known trading economies but it did leave out other parts of the world that were separated by large bodies of water. The Native American Indians in the Americas, the Mayans and Aztecs in South America, the Aborigines in Australia, Pacific Islanders, people living in the Southeast Asian island archipelago (Maritime Southeast Asia) and others were not part of this trading route.
Technology made it possible to gradually connect some of these bodies of water. The development of all-weather ships; the emergence of knowledge about monsoon patterns; the inventions of the tear-drop hull, steam engine, and compass; and the establishment of trading outposts along maritime coastal lines were some of the many important developments that culminated in what would eventually be known as the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). In modern times, the MSR was reinforced by the arrival of European trading vessels that brought with them navigational knowledge and modern technologies that eventually overcame weather patterns when they were able to propel ships without the need for wind. Coal-powered steamships were the pioneering piece of technology in this sector of development.
China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative is therefore a new development adding on to the earlier historical developments that made maritime trade possible. The maritime trade is a reflection of the process of globalization, bringing different civilizations, societies, cultures, religions, and ways of thinking together to create a cosmopolitan space. Currently the world’s crucial maritime spaces are patrolled by the great powers. The UK navy handed over the baton to the US navy in the 20th century. For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the US was seen to be a benign world power that kept the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) open for trade and its navy patrolled the sea lanes together with those of the other responsible powers of the world that are also stakeholders in global maritime trade.
The Indian navy is also an important contributor of peace in South Asia and the Indian Ocean with its aircraft carriers, fleets, and ships. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) kept the Atlantic Ocean safe for navigation and collective security needs. The US-Japan alliance, in place since the 1960s, has also kept the sea lanes peaceful in East Asia (or the Pacific side of East Asia) for trade and other economic needs. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has also held exercises, coordination, and joint patrols with other major powers including China to ward off piracy and other transnational challenges. In other words, the maritime silk road is a collective venture in which all great powers contribute towards the common good. The element of peace and security in the maritime space is a form of commons that all nations and countries can tap into and benefit from. East Asia would not enjoy its level of prosperity today without safe SLOCs and trade, which gave rise to the so-called “East Asian Miracle.”
China’s potential role in the contemporary MSR is tremendous, and China should seize the moment to move up the value chain in the maritime space.
Japan, the four tiger economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), China, and the rest of East Asia started off as export-led economies that needed to export their goods through the sea lanes to the rest of the world for trade, foreign revenues, material resources, and commodities, and they prospered from reaching out to foreign markets, especially the lucrative and large consumer market of the US. Trade, in other words, was the lifeline of most if not all of the East Asian trading nations. The rise of China brought more opportunities to the Maritime Silk Road.
China has at least three great contributions it can make to the maritime spaces of East Asia. First, China’s powerful navy, a blue water fleet currently supported by one aircraft carrier (Liaoning) and soon to be joined by another carrier, can jointly work with Southeast Asia and other major powers to ward off piracy in the Straits of Malacca. This requires joint, open, and transparent efforts coordinated with ASEAN for effectiveness. Working and coordinating with ASEAN and other major powers ensures complementarity with local knowledge, respect for sovereignty, and benefits for all for the common good. It reinforces China’s responsible global power image and also creates trust for its MSR initiative as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Second, China’s massive infrastructure-building capabilities can build better ports and other facilities that can help connect the maritime space in a better way. There are great opportunities for such infrastructure projects so that the pie is large enough for many funding agencies, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Asian Development Bank, as well as other international organizations and development banks. There is much space for all to work together in the name of regional functionalism. Infrastructure building can help to bring nations, economies, and countries closer together by tying them up in integrated developmental projects, both in planning as well as executive stages. This can reduce the trust deficit amongst the different players in the region and contribute to peace. When nations are enmeshed together in criss-crossing patterns of collaboration, the potential for tension and conflict between them lessens.
China can assist Southeast Asia in industrializing and facilitating ASEAN’s dream of a common market. The ASEAN Economic Community was formed in December 2015, and is the start of a long movement towards integration. China can invest in these economies, and build a middle class of consumers which will eventually become an important world market for China as well as other major trading partners. It is a no-detriment win-win situation that can benefit all stakeholders. In playing this role, China is also moving up the value chain of industries and can transfer older industries that it is no longer competitive in to the developing economies of Southeast Asia. This presents complementary economic opportunities for China. For example, Myanmar, the last economic frontier of Southeast Asia, is just opening up and can benefit from industrial investment from China. China’s potential role in the contemporary MSR is tremendous, and China should seize the moment to move up the value chain in the maritime space.