Among the ancient routes shrouded in myth and legend, the Silk Route played a predominant role in connecting Europe with Asia through the exchange of goods, culture and civilisation. The specific designation of the Silk Route is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the mid-19th century, when German geologist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen named the route Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road). Since then this route continues to stir imaginations globally with its evocative mystery.
The Silk Route comprises a strategic initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose ambition is to link Central Asia and Europe with the Chinese economy through the Silk Road Economic Belt and expand China’s trade and strategic reach in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean stretching to East Africa. Given recent developments where China has been making claims and counter-claims with its neighbours in the South China Sea over exclusive rights on important waterways and islands, there is growing concern regarding China’s motive and agenda behind the project.
China is seeking through its 21st century version of the historic Silk Route to create a route that bears no resemblance to the iconic past. Ironically, in the old route, while China supplied goods, it was the Central Asian, Arab, Persian and Indian traders who played the key role in the movement of goods to Europe. No country, not even China, can lay exclusive claim to the route.
The Chinese initiative has no link with the past, despite the same nomenclature. It is seeking to establish a strategic initiative comprising an infrastructure bank accompanied by road, high-speed rail, pipelines, ports and fibre optic cable projects along the route. China watchers believe that the Silk Route is China’s response to what it views as US-led encirclement through its trans-Pacific Partnership Project.
Strategic thinkers are taking a hard look at where this new Silk Route caravan is headed from our perspective. Informally it has been ascertained that we have no intention of jumping on the bandwagon.
The economic factor behind China’s plans is clear. With its ageing population and rising labour costs, China’s economic growth has plateaued. Beijing is seeking to sustain its economic growth by finding new markets for its key sectors.
The development of Chinese ports in countries in the Indian Ocean needs to be carefully monitored. It could pose a challenge to India’s stature in the Indian Ocean region and its legitimate expectation of providing security in its neighbourhood. Of greater concern are China’s plans in the context of the Silk Route project to set up facilities for its power projection, including a Special Transmission Centre in Southern Balochistan to communicate with submarines and aircraft maintenance facilities near the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.
Where do we go from here? China is both an opportunity and a challenge. We have a relationship where we both compete and cooperate. Some argue that India would do well to guard its caution. Others have said that India should regard the initiative from an economic perspective rather than purely strategic, since it would help us to develop our infrastructure and connectivity. The final decision would need to take into account both the strategic and economic perspective. The jury is still out on this one.
Bhaswati Mukherjee is former ambassador to the Netherlands
The views expressed by the author are personal