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Can Xi build a maritime ‘Silk Road’?

China's President Xi Jinping looks as Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa points to the sea during the launch ceremony of a $1.5 billion project to build a port city on reclaimed land in Colombo

We want a new port over there

You know Chinese leaders could be getting serious about a policy idea when they commission a ‘model drama’ to propagate it.

Xi Jinping’s “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is clearly one such proposal.

On August 27 around 2,000 people turned up for the opening night of the splendidly titled Dream of the Silk Road on the Sea in Beijing.

The two-hour spectacle tells the fictional tale of a Chinese sailor who helps to establish ancient trade routes across the Indian Ocean.

The troupe’s tour schedule over the next few months suggests that the show – which resembles the ‘red’ ballets performed during the Cultural Revolution – will be used to woo overseas interest in Xi’s project. He first mentioned it a year ago at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta. Since then Xi and other top officials have returned to the phrase, talking about resurrecting old trading routes, and presenting them as new opportunities for countries like Myanmar to Pakistan to profit from their littoral status.

As more countries endorse the plan, its centrepiece appears to involve Chinese funding of projects such as ports and free trade zones in under-developed economies along the world’s shipping routes.

For countries like the Maldives, this is a huge boon. “The Maldives welcomes and supports the Silk Route proposal by China and is prepared to actively participate in relevant cooperation,” Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen said after meeting with Xi in his capital Male on Monday.

A multi-million dollar contract for a Chinese firm to upgrade Male’s international airport was also signed during the visit, while Xinhua reported that the Chinese might also finance the construction of a long-awaited bridge between Male and the neighbouring island of Hulhule.

Another major beneficiary of the Maritime Silk Road plan is Sri Lanka, which Xi also visited this week. Surprisingly his trip to Colombo was the first by any senior Chinese leader since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1951. Colombo nevertheless regards the Chinese as a close ally after Beijing helped the current government win a 27-year war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 – largely by providing military hardware, as well as diplomatic support at the UN Security Council.

During his day-long trip to the island, Xi inaugurated the final-phase of a China-financed power plant and agreed to cooperate on a new port development, featuring an artificial island off Colombo.

Negotiations on a free trade agreement have also begun.

But the Maritime Silk Road has also ruffled some diplomatic feathers – specifically in Japan and India.

Japan, which has proposed its own “diamond of security” in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, also feels it is being isolated by the Silk Road plan. Hence, perhaps, the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Sri Lanka just the week before Xi, as well as the trip from India’s newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan a few days before that.

In the past India has accused China of trying to lay a “string of pearls” around the Indian Ocean – a phrase implying the build-up of strategic coastal assets throughout the region that could be militarised by the Chinese navy. Some Indians worry that by endorsing Xi’s Maritime Silk Road their country will be tacitly giving Beijing the nod to further extend the “string of pearls”.

“India has been invited to join the Chinese proposal in what is clearly a bid to unsettle it diplomatically,” India’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs Kanwal Sipal wrote in the Indian Defence Review back in February.

Ports in Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan were the primary causes for Indian concern over maritime encirclement.

However, for now the Maritime Silk Road is a concept-in-progress. It is too early to judge whether it is a benign effort to harness Chinese prowess in helping other developing nations with major infrastructure projects, or whether the programme may have more covert goals.


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