The Maritime Silk Road: Its Past, Present and Future
Photo Credit: Asia Pacific Daily
By Tai Wei Lim

The Maritime Silk Road: Its Past, Present and Future

Feb. 14, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho in Wade-Giles spelling) made seven voyages in the maritime trading world of Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa on behalf of the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) during the reign of the Yongle Emperor. His accomplishments in navigational history is universally recognized by many scholars.


The tangible and intangible legacies that Zheng He left behind have been interpreted to fit different historical narratives. Images of Zheng He have taken on multiple forms, from a fearsome gigantic explorer to a testicle-less eunuch. Added to these sets of images, he was deified in Southeast Asia and became a Taoist God with his own following of worshippers.

In the revived contemporary interest in the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), narratives of Zheng He may become part of the current discourse on Chinese plans to revive the maritime trading route which spans cities from China to Italy (the “one road” component of the “One Belt One Road” initiative in official Chinese terminology). Other interpretations see the Maritime Silk Road ending in Antwerp, Belgium in Europe. Regardless of the shape of the contemporary and future MSR, Zheng He’s legend will be continually moulded and shaped by the Chinese government and other stakeholders to support the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.


Some consider Zheng He’s approach to diplomacy as an “Art of Collaboration” which is applicable to International Relations and business. According to this interpretation of Zheng He’s diplomatic overtures, Confucian teachings aim to build an orderly society, a government ruled by virtue, and a harmonious world order. On the international stage, Zheng He fostered tolerant international relations with humanistic spirit of benevolence and racial equality so as to achieve a great unity among nations on a win-win footing.


Therefore, according to its advocates, this “Zheng He spirit” could be a model for contemporary international relations and foreign relations. Reliving Zheng He’s spirit in international relations based on mutual-respect, non-invasion, non-intervention, and fostering good relationships with foreign states will result in the creation of a world order where multi-polar powers are in a partnership to achieve world peace, universal harmony, and equality.


On the other hand, it is possible not to exceptionalize Zheng He’s voyages. Others argue that with the existence of the Arab, Malay, Southeast Asian, and Persian traders before the onset of the Yuan or Ming dynasties, the seas around Southeast Asia had already become a regional trading lake. The regional order therefore is predicated on reciprocal trade between willing kingdoms.


As merchants from large trading units reach out for trade, they need to find willing partners in the recipient smaller kingdoms for reciprocity, regardless of motivation (religious, profit-making or diplomatic). Exchange of goods appeared to be an incentive for Chinese traders to settle in Southeast Asia and become intermediaries between the Ming regime and the local rulers in the region.


In the contemporary era, the idea of mutualistic win-win trade and infrastructure-building exchanges appear to be back in vogue again. In the spirit of regional diplomacy and outreach, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s November 2015 Vietnam visit appeared to be part of a charm offensive to smoothen OBOR outreach to Southeast Asian states. As China was participating in the ASEAN and APEC meetings at the end of 2015, Xi conducted some friendly diplomacy on the back of the meetings. 


Xi was the first top Chinese leader to visit Vietnam in a decade. While relations are sometimes couched in terms of Communist fraternity especially due to Chinese help rendered during the Vietnam War against the Americans, they are juxtaposed with some frostiness and chilly encounters in reality. Relations reached a low point in May 2014 when Beijing positioned an oil rig in the disputed South China Sea. On another occasion, China had to evacuate its citizens after anti-Chinese riots broke out and three Chinese nationals were killed.

In general, China’s charm offensive is historically associated with continental power and its maritime outreach is mainly commercial.

Xi brought the temperature down by meeting the Vietnamese triumvirate of power brokers—the Communist Party Chief, the President, and the Prime Minister. Contentious issues were discussed at the meeting, including maritime disputes, but so was cooperation in the usual economic realm, including trade and educational exchanges. For the Chinese side, infrastructure development was perhaps the most important item discussed, due to the OBOR policy which emphasizes connectivity.


Due to Vietnam’s own internal political dynamics, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s administration was eventually replaced by Nguyen Phu Trong, Tran Dai Quang, and Nguyen Xuan Phuc who are comparatively more moderate towards Beijing. This may then be an opportunity for leaders in both countries to exercise their wisdom in the interest of regional peace and win-win trade for all.


Ultimately, the end objective of connectivity is not just for the partner states to take advantage of China’s economic growth and its vast domestic markets by becoming more integrated with the Chinese economy. China is also trying to link up the Central Asian region with East Asia as the long-term goal of the new OBOR initiative. Vietnam falls within the Maritime Silk Road. Further down the road, if the OBOR is taken to its next logical step, one can even visualize the eventual integration of the Overland Silk Road with the Maritime Silk Road.


This will in turn bring Central Asia not just to China and East Asia but also the territories beyond the Western Pacific, i.e. the possibility of integrating all the regions in Asia through infrastructure construction financed by China’s funding agencies like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund. In the case of Vietnam, there is potential for the Chinese to speak in the same language as Vietnam’s government, given their similar political systems.


In the economic realm, realizing the significance of a combined 600 million-strong consumer market, a young workforce, increasing foreign direct investments, greater net connectivity and tourist arrivals, and Asia’s third largest economy, China understands the importance of Southeast Asia and its regional organization ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). In addition, the ASEAN Economic Community was set up at the end of 2015, an important start of a long journey to form a regional economic community. China will seize on such opportunities to have closer economic ties with the ASEAN Economic Community.


The Maritime Silk Road fund could possibly target underperforming economies, help them construct infrastructure, and also enhance connectivity with middle-income economies like Malaysia through cooperation in port facilities. In general, China’s charm offensive is historically associated with continental power and its maritime outreach is mainly commercial, as in the Southern Sung dynasty’s regional trade network. It only briefly displayed naval ambitions during Admiral Zheng He’s voyages in the Ming dynasty.


Connectivity is not just about the physical transportation networks of highways, railways, ports, and shipping lines. It is also more than the economic integration based on trade and finance. In the long run, connectivity is also concerned with people-to-people connection, social interaction and cultural exchange.


(This updated article draws on the author’s edited volume publication: China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, of which he is both co-editor and contributor. The volume is published by Imperial College Press, London, in 2016.)

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