Gamini Lakshman, Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, is in China this week, where he met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice President Li Yuanchao. According to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry, the leaders agreed to “fully expand maritime cooperation and jointly build the maritime silk road of the 21st century.”
The “maritime silk road” concept first emerged during President Xi Jinping’s first trip to Southeast Asia last October. The proposal, raised during a speech to the Indonesian parliament, called for increased maritime cooperation between China and the ASEAN countries. As such, the “maritime silk road” would have both diplomatic and economic components. Yang Baoyun, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Peking University told China Daily that “the new maritime silk road will bring tangible benefits to neighbors along the route, and will be a new driving force for the prosperity of the entire East Asian region.”
In terms of concrete steps, the “maritime silk road” calls for China to work with partners to develop maritime infrastructure, especially ports. China already plans to spend nearly $2 billion upgrading the Malaysian port of Kuantan. Cambodian officials have also not been shy about pointing out their need for investment to develop port infrastructure.
Originally, the “maritime silk road” was proposed specifically in relation to ASEAN. However, the raising of this concept during meetings with the Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs reveals a wider vision. It also links the new maritime silk road with the existing “string of pearls,” China’s network of maritime facilities in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The “string of pearls” includes Chinese investment in ports such as Colombo, in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar, in Pakistan. Now it’s clear that China has another name for these ports — the “maritime silk road.”
The “maritime silk road” is an attempt at re-branding for China. Now that the concept has been officially extended as far west as Sri Lanka, its connection to the “string of pearls” is obvious. China has never officially used the term “string of pearls,” which originated in a 2005 U.S. study by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Accordingly, China has somewhat lost control of the messaging. The “string of pearls” concept is often viewed a military initiative, with the aim of providing China’s navy access to a series of ports stretching from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea. This has caused some consternation, particularly in India, which sees itself as being encircled.
The new terminology of a “maritime silk road” allows China to discuss its strategy of investing in maritime infrastructure in ASEAN and further west. Even more interesting, the extension of the “maritime silk road” admits the existence of such a strategy, and gives China a way of clarifying its strategic goals.
China insists that its investment in regional maritime infrastructure is economically motivated — and points out that it will bring economic benefits to host countries. In the words of Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, China’s aim in creating the “silk road economic belt” is “integrating all the existing cooperation, especially that in the field of connectivity with neighboring and regional countries and enabling everyone to share development opportunities.”
Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with China’s Academy of Military Science, wrote a piece for China-US Focus specifically debunking the idea of the “string of pearls.” Zhou rejected the notion that China was establishing military bases throughout the Indian Ocean. He writes, “China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of Sea lines of Communication (SLOC) … Access, rather than bases, is what the Chinese Navy is really interested in.” Zhou posits that China’s economic “mega-projects” in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea will “help to mitigate security concerns.”
Of course, in a way this is exactly what worries observers about the “string of pearls.” China’s idea of mitigating security concerns over territorial disputes in the South China Sea might be different than what its rivals, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have in mind. Even if the “maritime silk road” is an exclusively economic strategy, it still would have obvious strategic implications. For one thing, China has proven it’s not shy about using economic coercion to pursue its interests, making any economic investment a potential weapon. For another, as many have pointed out, China largely relies on paramilitary or civilian vessels to stake its claim to disputed maritime regions. Under this strategy, China doesn’t need to send its navy to the newly constructed ports to exert increased control over the regional shipping lanes. A blurred distinction between civilian and military vessels also smudges the line between a military-based “string of pearls” and a trade-based “maritime silk road.”
The “maritime silk road” has an obvious parallel to the land-based “new silk road,” which runs westward from China through the Central Asian states. Both concepts play off of China’s historical roots as a dominant economic power, fitting nicely in with Xi Jinping’s favorite theme of national rejuvenation. Taken together, the two concepts paint a picture of China as a rising regional power, seeking to spread its economic dominance as far west as Iran, or even Eastern Europe. As Chinese officials point out, its investment in the land- and sea-based silk roads will bring economic benefits for the countries involved. It will also cause increased worries among strategists from the U.S., India, and other regional rivals as the “string of pearls” continues to grow under its new name.