South East Asia vary of Chinese nationalism and a return of the Maritime Silk Road

The Chinese vision of a Maritime Silk Road is based on the seven great voyages of Admiral Zheng He in the time of the the Yongle Emperor (1360 – 1424), the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty.

The admiral of all seven fleets was Zheng He, the great-grandson of a Mongol warrior. His original name was Ma Ho, the Chinese version of Muhammad, for his father was a Muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Makkah. In 1404, the emperor conferred on him the honorific Zheng, and he was appointed Grand Eunuch, thenceforth to be known as Zheng He. ….

From the point of view of geographical discovery, the Ming voyages must rank as the earliest state-sponsored effort to seek out new lands, markets and spheres of political influence. That the same idea occurred to the rulers of both the Far East and the “Far West” almost simultaneously is intriguing, and it shows that—long before the emergence of a “global economy” in the late 20th century—East and West were responding to the same rhythms of political and economic change.

Zheng He 7 voyages - National Geographic

Zheng He 7 voyages – National Geographic

The reestablishment of the Chinese Maritime Silk Road is said to be a pet project of President Xi Jinping who is a scholar of Chinese maritime history and an admirer of Admiral Zheng He. Even before the Ming dynasty there was extensive maritime and cultural commerce between South India and China during the Song and Yuan dynasties. But the maritime routes withered after Zheng He and left the area open for the Potuguese in the 16th century and later for the French, Dutch and the British who followed. The Maritime Silk Road was among the items to be discussed by President Xi with Narendra Modi on his recent visit to India.

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.

While India is not averse to some parts of the Maritime Silk Road being reestablished, others – and especially Vietnam – are very suspicious of Chinese intentions.

Maritime Silk Route

Maritime Silk Route

Most countries have maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea, but also see a threat to liberty, security and maritime safety at sea.

The restoration of “Silk Road on the Sea” is both an ancient ambition of the leaders in Beijing, and a symbol of Chinese nationalism. So it hides a lot under what seems beneficial to the surrounding neighbors of China. The essence of Chinese intentions in the idea of ​​building “new silk road” at sea are:

Firstly , create a new order in which coastal neighbors follow a trajectory operated and dominated by the Chinese. The “Silk Road on the Sea” is part of the  “string of pearls” master plan to transform China into a maritime power and compete with American superpower.

Secondly , “Silk Road on the Sea” is a diplomatic tool to execute foreign policy with China’s neighbors. Through the use of “Silk Road on the Sea”, the Chinese are trying to create a soft image, useful for the rise and expansion of its influence.

Thirdly , “Silk Road on the Sea” provides an opportunity for China to promote its policy of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” so as to exploit marine resources in the region, especially energy resources of oil and gas. 

Fourth , the initiative “Silk Road on the Sea” is to further the territorial claims on islands by China. Successful implementation of the initiative “Silk Road on the Sea” will create conditions favorable for the presence of the Chinese coast guard  especially the South China Sea, the Strait Malacca, Indian Ocean, and help to expand Chinese maritime influence and enhance the influence of its military on the sea. … As with ancient Zheng He’s voyage the objective is “to establish and enforce sovereignty “over the Paracels and Spratlys (of Vietnam). To justify its claims to sovereignty. China will continue to use the “Silk Road on the Sea” for aggressive actions in the South China Sea make the situation hotter and more physical.

Fifth , China will use initiative “Silk Road on the Sea” to implement a divide and rule policy of the neighboring countries. There may be the possibility that some countries will be attracted to the immediate economic benefits, are willing to overlook the problem rules and norms of international law to support the initiative “Silk Road of the Sea ​​”of China that will harm the interests of the country which has sovereignty disputes with China over some island. On the other hand, this does not exclude the possibility that China will increase the pressure and aggression with countries that do not support the initiative “Silk Road on the Sea”.

Sixth , the initiative “Silk Road on the Sea” also aims to push the United States and the Western countries out of the area. This initiative is important in order for the policy to “rebalancing strategy in Asia – Pacific region” of America. On the economic front, “Silk Road on the Sea” is to fight Agreement Trans-Pacific economy (TPP) of the United States. Thus, one can see “Silk Road on the Sea” China will make competition between the United States and China increasingly fierce.

Once the “Silk Road on the Sea” is formed China will set out new rules to force other countries to comply; China will act unilaterally ignore international law. The actual situation in the South China Sea has proven time over this. Seen from this perspective, the “Silk Road on the Sea” is not only a threat to the security and territorial sovereignty of neighboring countries, especially countries with maritime disputes with China in the South East, but also a threat to freedom, security and safety of navigation at sea.

China has officially put the materials to build the concept of “Silk Road on the sea at a meeting of Senior Officials (SOM) ASEAN – China. ASEAN countries have not yet responded. …..

For Vietnam, the initiative “Silk Road on the Sea” is a challenge to the sovereignty of the islands of Vietnam just as Zheng’s ships in ancient times were used as an argument concerning the sovereignty of archipelagos Sa and Truong Sa of Vietnam.

But Malaysia, while still vary, is tempted by the possibilities of development on the relatively under-developed East coast in Kuantan.

More than 600 years ago, the legendary Ming Dynasty diplomat Admiral Zheng He made seven epic journeys to the West via a route known as the maritime Silk Road.

First used in the Qin and Han Dynasties (AD 25-220), the nautical passageway connected the ports of south China to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia and Africa. Silk, china, tea and spices exchanged hands from Guangzhou, the starting point, to the countries around the Gulf. 

Now, China is proposing to rebuild this centuries-old seaway into a 21st century maritime Silk Road. Kuantan, on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is hoping that modern day Chinese vessels will share Zheng’s assessment when he landed here in the 15th century: that this city facing the South China Sea is an ideal gateway to the region and beyond.

Located 250 kilometers from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Kuantan is the east coast’s economic hub and its most modern city; although by no means as cosmopolitan as its west coast sisters. The capital of the state of Pahang is being developed into an integrated logistics and industrial hub for the East Coast Economic Region (ECER), a major project by the Malaysian government to decentralize economic activities.

Crucially, it provides fast access to China through its namesake port. The multipurpose, deep-sea port serves the resource-rich hinterland of the east coast and is a leading petrochemical hub port and container terminal for that part of the peninsula.

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