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This article was first published 9 years ago  » News » What China MUST do to get India on Silk Route

What China MUST do to get India on Silk Route

By Dr Rahul Mishra
September 17, 2014 11:31 IST
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China's desire to have India as part of its ambitious Maritime Silk Route makes strategic sense for both nations. However, it would involve substantive assurances from Beijing, says Dr Rahul Mishra

Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his India tour today.

Amidst India’s burgeoning friendship with ‘America’s Asian Allies’ -- Japan, South Korea and Australia -- the main focus of the visit would be on strengthening the foundations of India-China relations. 

Xi chose to start his India visit from Ahmedabad as part of his efforts to develop a rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is a smart move considering that China is working towards improving relations with the Modi government. 

Xi’s itinerary in Ahmedabad includes the signing of an agreement between China’s Guangdong province and Ahmedabad. 

An agreement for civic services will also be signed between Ahmedabad and China’s Guangzhou city. 

An agreement for setting up a Chinese industrial park at Karjan near Vadodara is also on the cards. 

These moves have the potential for India and China to explore greater economic opportunities.

One of the underlying features of the visit is likely to be Xi’s invitation to India to be a part of China’s proposed Maritime Silk Route. 

Building the MSR through the disputed South China Sea is China’s pilot project, which was mooted by President Xi during his visit to Indonesia and Malaysia on October 2-5, 2013. 

The idea was first given by President Xi during his speech to the Indonesian Parliament. 

Notably, President Xi became the first foreign leader to have addressed the Indonesian Parliament.

In strategic terms, it may be argued that making India a part of China’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ -- considered the focal point of President Xi Jinping’s regional policy -- would be one of the major highlights of his visit. 

That, however, would involve substantive assurances from China. 

In fact, in what can be seen as a firm effort to woo India, China extended an invitation to India to be a part of efforts to revitalise the MSR. The proposal was made during the 17th round of India-China border negotiations which was held in February 2014. 

The MSR issue was raised again during Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to China.

At a symbolic level, MSR has been projected as an attempt to glorify China’s great maritime tradition and revisit the contributions of Chinese mariner Zheng towards regional maritime socialisation. 

Zheng, considered an iconic figure in Chinese maritime history, visited the Southeast Asian, Indian Ocean and East African littorals several centuries back.

At the substantive level, however, MSR is conceptualised to serve two purposes: to re-energise relations with neighbours through effective use of naval diplomacy and; to respond to the US’ rebalancing towards Asia in diplomatic terms.

An extrapolation of the MSR scenario would tell us that it is China’s defensive strategy in the long run, and if Beijing’s plans fall in place, it might also involve China’s robust defence diplomacy with MSR member countries.

However, this is only a subject of speculations as yet since the US does not seem to be focussing enough on the rebalancing strategy due to its increasing commitments in the West Asian region.

Apparently, China’s moves for MSR are not just on paper; it has already started working on the project.

In May 2014, China earmarked $1.6 billion (over Rs 9,771 crore) for building ports to step up maritime cooperation with Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean littoral states including Maldives and Sri Lanka.

So far, responses from Southeast Asia and India have been mixed as apprehensions regarding China’s rising military profile linger.

It is believed that once fully materialised; MSR will enhance China’s connectivity with other potential partners by leaps and bounds, thereby reinforce the regional trade and commerce.

Nevertheless, countries such as Philippines and Vietnam maintain that MSR is nothing more than an attempt to strengthen China’s claims on the South China Sea.

So far as India is concerned, MSR is ‘an opportunity in overalls’.

While there can be no two views that MSR would give China unhindered access to the Indian Ocean, if India strengthens its economic prowess and follows up on promises made, MSR would be of great value to India.

One of the big promises of MSR is that greater maritime cooperation covering the areas from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal, Malacca and Lombok Straits would help in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, thereby help in fighting transnational no-traditional security challenges such as piracy, gun running, human trafficking and natural disasters, effectively.

Reaching on consensus vis-a-vis the South China Sea dispute and China’s rising military profile and resultant assertiveness has always been a matter of serious concern for the countries of the region.

The unfortunate incident of non-issuance (initially) of 2012 ASEAN joint communique is a case in point.

Trust deficit between China and its proposed MSR members, including India and several Southeast Asian nations, is a stumbling block for MSR.

Being the biggest power in the region, the onus lies on China in assuaging the concerns of its neighbours and potential members of MSR.

Ambitious as it seems, President Xi’s ideas might see the light of the day if China ‘travels more than half’ to reach out to India and other neighbours.

President Xi’s visit would demonstrate how far China is ready to go in order to realise its MSR dreams.  

The author is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs

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Dr Rahul Mishra