Xi Jinping and the Maritime Silk Road: The Indian Dilemma

15 Sep, 2014    ·   4662

Dr Vijay Sakhuja presents an India agenda to the Chinese MSR initiative.

New Delhi is abuzz with speculation that President Xi Jinping could raise the issue of Maritime Silk Road (MSR) during his visit to India this week and explore business, investments and trade opportunities for China in India. At least three reasons can be identified to uphold the above assumption; first, the issue of MSR was raised during President Hamid Ansari’s visit to China in July this year and the Indian side had indicated that New Delhi would examine the idea. The Chinese would be keen for a response from the Indian side and India may push for the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) corridor to which it has offered wholehearted support and it serves the interests of all the partners. 
The second reason is that the MSR is a pet project of the Chinese President and is believed to have been driven by his knowledge of ancient Chinese cultural and trade connections with the outside world. Apparently, between 1985 and 2002, Xi had personally taken interest in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum, and according to the curator, Xi had perused through the ancient historical records, artifacts and exhibits at the museum and may have ‘learnt a lot about China’s maritime history’ which could have been the driver for his interest in MSR. Xi even secured substantial government grants for the museum. Incidentally, Quanzhou is home to several ancient shrines and temples built by Tamil communities who had established trading contacts with the Chinese during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) periods. Given his knowledge of ancient maritime trade and cultural connections between India and China, Xi may recall the cultural and Buddhist connections between the two countries. It is pertinent to mention that China has committed US $1 million for the Nalanda University.  
Third, Xi Jinping has been hard selling the MSR among a number of countries in Asia, Africa, and as far as Europe. The MSR was first discussed in 2013 with the ASEAN countries and apparently they were a little apprehensive about the idea. But now Singapore has come out in full support and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has indicated that the MSR could act as a catalyst for development of the region. In South Asia, Sri Lanka and Maldives appear to be favourably disposed about the opportunity to build maritime infrastructure and the idea is fast gaining traction in Bangladesh.  Xi Jinping would have discussed the MSR with Pakistan too but Beijing had to postpone the visit to Islamabad due to prevailing political situation in the country. Interestingly, the MSR was also discussed with Iran. The MSR foot print in Africa is in Kenya and a few European countries appear to be onboard. 
An Indian Response to the MSR
What could be India’s response in case MSR comes up for discussions or Xi makes a reference to it during the visit? But before doing that, it is useful to understand the dominant discourse in India about the MSR. The Indian strategic community believes that the MSR can potentially help China consolidate its naval / maritime strategy of access and basing in the Indian Ocean in support of PLA Navy’s future operations. Further, the MSR is essentially a Chinese ploy to dismiss the notion of ‘string of pearls’ strategy, dispel the ‘China threat’ in the Indian Ocean, and legitimize its engagement in various maritime infrastructure projects along the route. China is also facing a number of problems in East and South China Sea over the Senkaku Island with Japan and South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam. It must also contend with the United States with whom these is a near continuous ‘silent tension’ which at times shows up in the form of incidents at sea and now in the air.  In essence, China has its hands full with a number of strategic ‘hot spots’ that can affect its ambitions and aspirations of its ‘peaceful and harmonius’ development. 
It appears that government in New Delhi may have been pushed into a ‘MSR dilemma’. On the one hand, ‘come, and make in India’ is the new mantra of the government, while on the other the ‘China threat’ looms large in the minds of the policy makers given that little progress has been made to resolve the boundary issue in the Himalayas, systematic buildup of military infrastructure along the border, and deployment of missiles in Tibet that may be targeting Indian strategic installations. 
India would be tempted to part take what the Chinese offer in terms of the MSR but would China be willing to address bilateral security issues.  New Delhi would also not like to be caught in a position where it is accused of cozying up to Japan who have offered nearly US $ 33 billion in investment in India, and deprive China of such opportunities.