China's 'maritime silk road' linking Southeast Asia faces a rocky birth

Beijing's vague vision of better connections between ports and improved maritime co-operation faces scepticism from Asean partners

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 October, 2013, 10:26pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 9:15am

Armed with a plethora of trade deals and investment funds, Beijing's vision of reviving the "maritime silk road" with Southeast Asia has caught the imagination of policymakers and observers in the region.

Experts say China's neighbours welcomes closer economic ties. But doubts about Beijing's intentions - and whether strings may be attached to the project - appear to be making some reluctant to embrace the vision of political and security co-operation with China over maritime issues.

While no concrete details are available on how the modern "maritime silk road" will be forged, many expect a web of trade links and better connectivity between ports and maritime co-operation.

Analysts say the initiatives could further enhance economic ties between China and Southeast Asia.

The revival of the maritime silk road was proposed by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during their visits to the region last week. It is seen as part of China's charm offensive to sidestep lingering tensions over the South China Sea and to counter the United States' rebalancing of economic and security commitments towards Asia, know as the "pivot".

Recalling the historic sea trade route that linked China with the world in the 15th century, the vision of a new maritime silk road signals a systematic approach to expanding China's economic, political and security clout in the region.

"The maritime silk road is more of a symbolic concept," said Yang Baoyun, a professor of international relations at Peking University.

Yang said while the concept still needed fleshing out, enhancing trade and economic co-operation between China and the region could ease tensions over territorial disputes.

A key dimension of China's new approach is its push for maritime co-operation, which could include projects from fisheries and maritime technology to navigational safety and search and rescue.

But lingering political mistrust towards Beijing and unwillingness to compromise on territorial disputes remain the biggest challenges.

Many analysts consider the China-Asean Maritime Co-operation Fund - set up at the peak of the South China Sea tensions in late 2011 - to be part of the silk road initiative.

Both Xi and Li in their speeches last week called on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to "make better use" of the fund.

But the 3 billion yuan (HK$3.8 billion) fund has faced reservations from Asean due to political mistrust, according to one Chinese scholar.

"They think China is too assertive in protecting its sovereignty and using the fund might compromise their interests," the scholar said.

Professor Aileen Baviera, of the University of Philippines, says many Asean countries are reluctant to draw on the fund as they fear there would be political strings attached.

Kusnanto Anggoro, a lecturer at the Indonesian Defence University, says conflicting interests are a key reason why Asean countries held back from using the fund.

While China prefers to focus on non-sensitive dimensions such as preserving biodiversity, Asean prefers trickier projects such as joint law enforcement patrols and navigational safety.

"And the Chinese are not very good at following up and implementation," he says.

Karl Lee, a Malaysia-based researcher with the Anbound Research Centre, agrees. He says Asean is still clueless on how to use the Maritime Co-operation Fund almost two years after it was set up.

"Apart from the notice circulated among government agencies, so far China has only released a list of potential areas of co-operation," he says. He adds that the list has only been released on a Chinese website.

On the economic front, though, experts say Asean is keen for further integration with China.

Xu Liping, an expert on Southeast Asia with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said one likely project would improve links between Chinese and Southeast Asian ports. "One way to do this is to build industrial parks in South East Asian countries' ports," he said.

Lee cited Malaysia's Kuantan port as one possible pilot project under the initiative.

It has been reported that the port, which faces the South China Sea, is undergoing expansion to double its capacity.

China's state-owned Guangxi Beibu Gulf International Port Group is expected to buy a 40 per cent stake in it next year.