21st Century Maritime Silk Road: Perspective from Myanmar

By Maran Ja Taung
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 23, 2015
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The old Silk Road that existed since the 13th century connects Europe to China overland passing through the present day Central Asian Republics. It was a trading route opened up by the famous Italian merchant Marco Polo bringing in industrial machinery from Europe, such as the printing press, as well as spices from Central Asia to China. On the other way, fine silk, Chinese spices and tea went to Europe from China. It also served as a people-to-people connectivity conduit bringing in different cultures along the route to other countries and to the destinations in China. Along with trade and culture also came political exchanges between the countries situated along the Silk Road. When this Silk Road was being developed and used to connect Europe and China, the Bagan Empire flourished in ancient Myanmar. In fact, Bagan Empire was the first empire founded by King Anawrahta in the 11th century. Although Myanmar civilization was quite advanced under the successive kings of Bagan, the Silk Road never really passed through or touched Myanmar because the route traversed far north of the country. There are historical records stating that Marco Polo attempted to travel to Myanmar but it was not entirely successful.

As to the Maritime Silk Road, it also has a long history behind its existence. In those earlier days, junks and wooden ships using sail power traveled along the sea routes between the Chinese ports situated in the coastal areas and different ports of countries along the route. The purpose of this route is similar to the Silk Road which passed overland on its way from Europe to China and vice versa. But ships of that era could rarely travel all the way from China to Europe and therefore goods were often loaded, unloaded and reloaded along the ports on different ships en route to its destination either in Europe or in Asia.

The present day Maritime Silk Road introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Indonesian Parliament in 2013 actually retraces and reinforces the old Maritime Silk Road that existed centuries ago but with a new vision and a new momentum. According to the Chinese, the new Maritime Silk Road will forge economic partnerships with countries situated along the route and in particular with the ASEAN countries. This road extends from ports along China's coastal areas through the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits, Lonbok and Sunda, thence passing through the northern part of the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Specifically, this road will connect Asia with the Middle East, the eastern part of Africa and Europe. Nowadays, technology has advanced so much so that huge ships weighing more than 100,000 tons transporting crude oil and LNG from the Middle East to the Far East as well as general merchandize on container ships capable of transporting up to 5,000 containers are plying along this route already.

The new Maritime Silk Road will connect the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and create new dynamics in the areas of trade and commerce as well as in political and cultural spheres. It intends to bring development and economic prosperity to countries along the route. Myanmar has already supported the Chinese initiative on two occasions at the highest State level. On one occasion, while on a visit to China the Vice President U Nyan Tun mentioned that Myanmar extends full support to the Chinese initiative and recently at the CEO Summit held just before the APEC Summit in Beijing in November 2014, President U Thein Sein endorsed Myanmar's support for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. As stated earlier, Myanmar is not directly involved in this connectivity; rather it has an indirect connection through the BCIM economic corridor. Although this initiative is intended to be a win-win situation for all the countries involved there are certain apprehensions from a number of countries. China is a rising power and according to the Chinese Dream expounded by President Xi Jinping, China's vision is to achieve a world power status by the year 2050. They see the Chinese naval forces strengthened in the Pacific Ocean. Just as the US rebalance to the Asia- Pacific Region, some believe that the Maritime Silk Road will project China's presence in a more enhanced way in the Indian Ocean. The Maritime Silk Road will also meet the challenges of non-traditional security issues such as human trafficking, drugs smuggling, gun running and anti-piracy activities. At present, China in this regard has contributed to the maintenance of security and order in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia providing deterrence to the sea pirates from that country preying on ocean traffic, together with naval vessels from other countries. The piracy activities are also frequent in the Straits of Malacca and in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. This will prompt the Chinese to provide naval, if not coastal guard vessels to protect the commercial ships that cruise in the seas. The projection of Chinese coastal guard vessels and/or naval vessels into the Indian Ocean might be viewed by India as a potential or possible threat to its traditional domain in the Indian Ocean as well as the seas adjacent to the Indian Ocean. In fact, India has its own proposal to connect India with Central Asian Republics, the Middle East, Europe and the countries of Southeast Asia and the Far East. Even some countries in ASEAN which have disputes with China in the South China Sea may also have concerns and apprehensions on the new Maritime Silk Road.

All-in-all, although Chinese intentions promise prosperity and development, friendship and understanding between nations along the route, these opportunities, however, are confronted by challenges outlined above. To allay these legitimate concerns of several countries, China should and must actively search for appropriate and comprehensive solutions that will address the difficulties. In this regard, China should steadfastly adhere to the longstanding Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. These time-tested principles remain as valid as ever in the conduct of international relations.

Mrs. Maran Ja Taung is a retired Senior Diplomat of the Union of Myanmar. During her career she has held various diplomatic posts at the Myanmar Mission in Tokyo, Singapore, London and Rome. She has also served in various capacities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; International Organization and Economic Department, Protocol Department and at the Training, Research and Foreign Languages Department. She is presently a member of the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Yangon.

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