In the wake of growing maritime trade (through Sea Line of Communication), increasing maritime security threats (piracy) and vigorous race for marine resources (petroleum, polymetalic nodules, etc), Naval strength and maritime infrastructure has become indispensable not only for securing a strategic advantage in world geopolitics but also to secure county's vital economic lifeline.
In this backdrop , the new Chinese leadership has proposed revival of Maritime Silk Route as a Sea counter part of it's OBOR (One Belt One Road i.e. land silk route), which will drastically transform its connectivity with Indian Ocean littoral states and countries of South East Asia. The proposed port cities and maritime infrastructure will become conduit of economic cooperation and will elevate China to a strategic vantage.
Why China needs Maritime Silk Route (MSR)?
- To revive Chinese Economy: When the export led Chinese is facing a phase of slowdown, the land and maritime silk route initiatives will act as lucrative investment destination of huge Forex reserve , with a positive impact on its trade and economy.
- Strategic advantage : Given the rising significance of South East Asia and Indian Ocean , the Maritime Silk Route will provide a strategic advantage to Chinese by legalizing its presence in important port centres of Indian Ocean (which has become the new great game of global powers).
- Peripheral Diplomacy: Through MSR, China aims to pose a soft and reassuring posture among its neighbourhood, where tensions are rising over China's hegemonic power projection and unilateral appropriation of South China Sea.
- Maritime security & Regional stability: Presence of mammoth Chinese Navy will ensure maritime security (from piracy, etc) along the entire Sea Line of Communications (SLOC).
- A counter to US pivot towards Asia: MSR will act as a counter balance to US pivot and encircling of China.The economic content will provide a stronger glue to the underlying strategic ambition.
Implications for India
Despite several proposals from Chinese Government, India has successfully skirted out the controversial MSR.
India should sincerely evaluates the advantages and concerns of MSR initiative before taking any decision on it.
- Huge opportunity for maritime economic cooperation: In the backdrop of slowing Chinese export , India can leverage its low cost labour and raw-material. MSR presents an opportunity to strengthen India's manufacturing base, propagate its 'Make in India' campaign, and generate employment opportunities.
- Port led Development: MSR has the potential to act as a vital supplement to the the proposed "Sagarmala" project if properly integrated with Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) and other existing regional maritime infrastructure.
- Maritime Security force multiplier: India can partner the superior Chinese Navy to ensure peace security in the Indian Ocean Rim, which is prone to various security threats ranging from piracy to maritime terrorism.(Indian Navy being the sole security provider in the entire region).
- Political Dividend: Enhanced maritime cooperation and increased Chinese investment will lead to China developing greater stake in India, which may lead to greater interdependence and softening of stance in other areas like border dispute.
Concern Areas are :
- Opacity in MSR: Though China has carefully projected MSR as an exclusive commercial venture, it has not yet released the details about the project, making countries (including India) apprehensive about its tacit & tactic military intensions.
- Doubtful credential: China's positioning of an exploration rig in the Vietnam's EEZ, its skirmishes with Philippines over the Scarborough reef, and the aggressive patrols off the Senkaku islands clearly shows Chinese intensions in the Western Pacific are anything but benign. With unsettled issues of sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction over disputed Islands in the South China Sea and the East Sea, Beijing's expectation of a free-pass to create an entire infrastructure corridor in a contested maritime space, appears seriously doubtful.
- Strategic encircling and string of pearls: India has serious apprehensions that the maritime infrastructure will legitimize Chinese army positioning in the Indian Ocean. The China-Pakistan economic corridor, Gwadar port and growing proximity with India's maritime neighbours can hugely impair India's strategic role in its maritime neighbourhood.
- Indian endorsement of Chinese hegemony: If India joins the race of availing cheap Chinese Infrastructure fund without ensuring it's detailed long term impact and underlying motive, it will end up endorsing Chinese hegemonic stance and loose the confidence of the regional states as an worthy balancer of growing Chinese dominance.
- Chinese ambition in African Resource: With Chinese eye on emerging African economy and it's huge untapped resource, the MSR may turn a surrogate for giant Chinese SLOC, setting up Chinese logistical hubs in the Indian Ocean. This can bring in stiff competition for India as a natural economic partner of Africa (India enjoys a strategic advantage in Africa owing to its historical and cultural linkages).
India's appreciation of the MSR must be based on an objective appraisal of these new realities. Even assuming the project delivers on its economic promise, it could well turn out to be detrimental to India's geopolitical interests in the India Ocean Region (IOR). As Beijing becomes more involved in building infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, it will play a larger part in the security and governance of the IOR, which could pose a challenge to India's stature as a 'security provider' in the region and also adversely affecting New Delhi's strategic purchase in its primary area of interest.