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  • The Maritime Silk Road and India:The Challenge of Overcoming Cognitive Divergence
  • Zhu Li (bio)

The Sino-Indian relationship is the most important major-power relationship in Asia and is also the most subtle and complex. It has a significant impact on Asian geopolitical relations and regional economic development. Border disputes have rendered the relationship delicate and unstable for more than half a century. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative put forward by the Chinese government is attracting much discussion in the Indian government, think tanks, and media. Indian policymakers will need to determine how to respond to China’s grand blueprint for promoting regional economic cooperation in the new era. This essay will examine China’s priorities for the maritime component of the OBOR initiative in the Indian Ocean, consider Indian and Chinese concerns about that aspect of the project, and evaluate India’s choices with regard to participation.

China’s Maritime Silk Road: Key Priorities

When Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Indonesia in October 2013, he claimed that Southeast Asia had been a major maritime hub since ancient times and proposed that China and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should jointly build a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The MSR is one component of Xi’s OBOR initiative, with the other component being the Silk Road Economic Belt connecting Europe and Asia. Since Xi proposed the OBOR initiative, the Chinese government has strongly embraced the principle of joint construction to meet the interests and development strategies of all states involved. In March 2015, China’s State Council issued the document “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,” which provides a comprehensive presentation of the OBOR framework.1 It indicates that the MSR initiative [End Page 20] will focus on jointly building smooth, secure, and efficient transport routes to connect major sea ports.

The long-term blueprint for the project requires careful selection of key countries and entry points before construction begins. Two factors are taken into consideration in choosing countries for the MSR. The first is whether countries are located on maritime trade routes or have marine transportation centers, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Singapore, Myanmar, and Kenya. A second factor is whether states respond positively to the initiative and have a good foundation of economic cooperation with China.

The Indian Ocean is a major maritime trade and energy channel for China and is of great strategic significance for the stable development of the Chinese economy. Energy security, in particular, is a key priority. After becoming a net petroleum oil importer in 1993, China became the world’s largest oil importer in 2015. In that year, China’s imported crude oil reached 335.5 million tons, of which more than 60% was transported via the Indian Ocean. In 2015, imports represented 60.6% of total oil consumption.2 Trade security is also critical. The Indian Ocean is the most important route for imports to East Asia and Southeast Asia and for exports from these regions to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The development of port infrastructure in these key regions will not only benefit China’s economic development but also greatly facilitate the social and economic development of other countries in East Asia, in Southeast Asia, and around the Indian Ocean rim.

Accelerating infrastructure construction is a major factor in encouraging regional economic cooperation. Thus far, the MSR includes joint port construction in Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Some large Chinese companies are also making investments in ports such as Piraeus in Greece, Said in Egypt. and Antwerp in Belgium in accordance with their own development strategies.

MSR Security Issues: Different Concerns between China and India

India’s geographic location and growing economy will have a great influence on the MSR. Since Xi put forward the OBOR initiative, it has provoked considerable debate in India, particularly over its security implications. [End Page 21]

Indian perspectives on the MSR. India was one of the first countries invited by China to participate in the OBOR initiative. According to Indian media reports, in...


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