India is apparently ready to join China’s grand ambition to construct a maritime silk road linking the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans according to a Press Trust of India report from Beijing on Friday evening.
Seriously! The outgoing UPA government might have a hard time selling the idea to the Indian strategic establishment that has long been wary of Chinese navy’s rising naval profile in the Indian Ocean and viewed with much suspicion Chinese construction of port infrastructure in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota).
The PTI report cited Chinese officials to say that Beijing extended the offer to India in the just concluded round of talks in Delhi between the Special Representatives of the two countries, India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and the Chinese State Councillor.
Although there has been no word yet from the Indian side, the idea of a ‘maritime silk road’ has been right up the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign and security policy agenda. Like most great powers in the past and as one of the world’s greatest trading nations China wants to be great maritime nation.
Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao put the idea of Beijing’s ‘maritime destiny’ at the centre of Chinese grand strategy in the 21st century and oversaw the dramatic expansion of the PLA Navy. Hu’s naval assertion, however, frightened Beijing’s neighbours, from Japan to India through the Association of South East Asian Nations and increased maritime tensions in Asia’s waters.
Xi is now trying to promote a broader framework to make China’s naval rise less threatening. Central to Xi’s strategy has been extension of the “Silk Road” concept that has largely been discussed in relation to China’s policy towards Central and Inner Asian regions to the maritime domain.
During a visit to South East Asia last October, Xi articulated the concept of the ‘maritime silk road’ and insisted that the region could gain from expanded maritime cooperation with China. In January this year, Xi proposed the maritime Silk Road project to a senior delegation from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
This week, the idea came up in the discussions between the Sri Lankan foreign minister G.M Peiris and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing. According to report issued by the official Xinhua agency, Sri Lanka response was enthusiastic. Beijing and Colombo now hope to build their maritime cooperation in a variety of areas ranging from connectivity to fisheries and environmental protection.
From the Chinese perspective, it was smart move to invite India to join the maritime Silk Road project. But Delhi is likely to be torn between two competing ideas—one is working together with China in the maritime domain and the other is the long-standing goal of limiting Beijing’s influence in the Indian Ocean. If the onus of rejection is on India, the last word on this is unlikely to come from the UPA government.
(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express)