All’s Not Smooth Sailing Along China’s Maritime Silk Route – Analysis


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of China’s Rise over the past decade has been its diplomatic setbacks in a region it needs to consolidate first before setting its sights further abroad. The might of the PRC has not been lost on the states of Southeast Asia, some of which have been slowly congealing into a loose ant-Chinese coalition of sorts. Beijing has become aware of its failure to balance its hard power excesses with the reassurances necessary to prevent fear amongst its neighbours from becoming a stumbling block in its goal of regional leadership and is attempting to address its failings via various means, including economic – drawing these states into a commercially integrated ‘maritime silk route’ as part of its ‘peripheral diplomacy’. But recent events have shown the limitations of this policy.

In June the Philippine president Benigno Aquino arrived in Japan for a 4 day visit where he drew headlines after giving a speech likening China’s policies in the South China Sea to Nazi Germanys expansionism during WW2. The timing of the statement was welcome to Japan since 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2 with corresponding levels of Japan bashing across the region. Aquino’s statements drew attention away from the memory of Japanese aggression in the region, focusing instead on the growing threat posed by China to regional stability. Aquino has sought Japanese help in resisting Chinese actions in the South China Sea and is also benefiting from a deal financed by Japan which will see 12 high speed patrol vessels for the Philippines Coast Guard delivered in 2016. In 2012, Aquino’s foreign secretary, Del Rosario stated that: “We are looking for balancing factors in the region and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.”

American forces are also being welcomed back into the Philippines as part of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed by President Barack Obama during a state visit in April 2014.

July 6-10 saw a visit of Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the United States – the first time the party’s leader has ever visited the country, as part of what analysts have called Vietnam’s pivot towards the United States. But here also the sailing has not been smooth; human rights concerns are have been put forward as the reason that groundbreaking developments such as the complete lifting of the lethal arms embargo and the upgrading of the relationship to “extensive comprehensive partnership” were not achieved. Nevertheless, as Alexander Vuving writes “Vietnam and the United States now trust each other far more than either trusts China”. Recent months have seen the signing of a ‘Joint Vision Statement’ meant to guide future relations between the two countries, and the US has pledged $18 million towards Vietnam’s purchase of American Metal Shark patrol vessels. So much for wartime historical memories that continue to haunt Japan.

Added to the mix have been a host of interregional ‘strategic partnerships’ forged as a result of the common Sinic denominator, such as that between Japan and the Philippines, the Japan-Malaysia strategic partnership, the Vietnam-Phillipines strategic partnership, India-Vietnamese security cooperation, as well as a host of enhanced U.S. relations with states in the region.

Bad China

The past 18 months have seen China reclaiming land around disputed islands and reefs in Paracel and Spratly islands at alarming rates. Some 2,000 acres of land have been added to a number of islands in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea. In the Paracel Islands claimed by Vietnam, China has led land reclamation efforts on Duncan and Woody island, with the latter seeing an upgraded 2920 meter concrete runway and other features. These island building measures have been justified by China under humanitarian and civilian grounds, but their strategic significance has not been lost – the 3000m runway on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratleys can be used by both civilian and military aircraft and in 2014 satellite imagery picked up two mobile artillery guns on one of the Spratlys, but later removed. China is building upon at least 7 disputed features in the Spratlys, including the Subi reef, Hughes reef, Mischief reef, Johnson south reef, Cuarteron reef, the Gaven reef and Fiery Cross reef.

Land reclamation on disputed maritime features, coupled with China’s bellicosity at sea have set the stage for the working of balance of power politics to emerge with scientific clarity: the smaller states in the region, once moving closer to China as a result of growing commercial intercourse and a general weariness with ‘American hegemony’ which found global expression after the early 2000’s, now see a shift in emphasis from cooperation with, to hedging against the PRC. To China, the logic of its actions was clarified in 2010 by its then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi who stated that “China is a big country, other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” If it was only that simple.

The provocative defense intellectual Edward Luttwak writes that China suffers from a ‘strategic autism’ which prevents it from behaving as a great power should. Its “acquired strategic deficiency syndrome” has meant that instead of placating the lesser states of the region who are at the frontlines of a China growing at near double digit rates in the economy, and expanding its military at a colossal rate, Beijing instead takes steps which seem deliberately designed to illicit a reaction from those at the receiving end of the stick. In 2011, Vietnamese and Philippines oil exploration vessels were subject to Chinese harassment near the Spratleys and in 2012 China occupied the Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines. In 2014 China sent an oil rig, the HD-981 into waters claimed by Vietnam. The episode caused an anti-China uprising in Vietnam where Chinese businesses were burnt down. The HD-981 returned in June of this year. Its this sort of behaviour that led Joseph Nye to remark that “Only China can contain China“.

Throwing money at angry folk

Considering all that has happened over the past year and a half, it is somewhat perplexing that in october 2013 president Xi at a ‘work forum on Chinese diplomacy toward the periphery’ announced a new effort to heal the rifts between China and its maritime neighbours to the south. ‘Peripheral diplomacy’ according to Xi meant to “strive for obtaining an excellent peripheral environment for our country’s development, bring even more benefits of our country’s development to peripheral countries, and realize common development.” Michael Swaine writes that the forum “was held at least in part to respond to increasing tensions between Beijing and many nearby states in recent years due to worsening territorial and resource disputes.” Perplexing, because despite Beijing’s clarity on the matter, relations with its ‘periphery’ are still heading south.

One means to achieve a better ‘periphery environment’ however, was Xi’s 2013 announcement in the Indonesian parliament of a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road which seeks to draw in states from Southeast Asia all the way to Europe via the Indian Ocean into a commercial project designed to enhance inter-regional trade via the promotion of “standardized and linked trade facilities, free trade zones and other trade facilitation policies, financial integration promoting the renminbi”. The maritime silk route forms the oceanic component of China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy of Eurasian economic integration – the overland Silk Road Economic Belt was announced by Xi in Kazakhstan in september 2013. Some 90 billion dollars have already been earmarked for the projects via the AIIB, the New Silk Road Fund and the BRICS New Development Bank. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers ominously wrote that the success of China’s AIIB bank marked “the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system.”

Whereas Deng Xiaoping advised China to maintain a ‘low profile’, Xi seeks a policy of ‘national rejuvenation’. This has translated into China’s boisterous and counterproductive policies in the region, which Xi hopes to redress by placating criticism of China via a carrot and stick approach hinging on access to China’s maritime silk road trade and investment network, and hard cash. Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University explains that “The policy now is to allow these smaller countries to benefit economically from their relationships with China. For China, we need good relationships more urgently than we need economic development. We let them benefit economically, and in return we get good political relationships. We should “purchase” the relationships.” Put differently, Yan says “If we cannot make these neighbors benefit from the relations, these countries will ask, “Why should I be on good terms with you?”

Beijing’s tactic of buying friends and influencing people, with cash, loans, and access to its lucrative market of over a billion people, is clearly at work among ASEAN. When the Philippines took China to court in 2013 over the legality of its South China Sea ventures, Beijing responded by significantly curtailing much needed investments in the Philippines, a clear warning to those who would step out of line once the money starts flowing. But as the Philippines intransigence and Vietnam’s American outreach demonstrate, and as Norman Angell found to his dismay in 1914, mutually beneficial commercial exchanges are not enough to quell political differences. ANU’s Feng Zhang wrote that “the persistence of South China Sea tensions and China’s growing military clout in the region will dispose them (ASEAN) to view OBOR (One Belt, One Road) in geopolitical terms, not in terms of economic cooperation, which Beijing prefers.”

But what does ‘One Belt, One Road’ mean in the long term? Consider the words of Deng Xiaoping in 1994; China’s international goals must be to first “oppose hegemonism and power politics and safeguard world peace; second, to build up a new international political and economic order.1” This of course sounds a lot like American policies after WW2 – which Beijing claims to reject. Xinhaunet seemed to give the game away when it wrote that “While the Marshall Plan was crucial to Western European countries’ rise from the ashes of WWII, it also helped the United States to establish the U.S. dollar-centered Bretton Woods System, which practically ensured the absolute dominance of the U.S. currency. But China does not want that.” Eurasian integration and development via infrastructural alliances, regional security organizations such as the SCO and CSTO, and the promotion of the Yuan as a regional trade currency may well be the instruments of forging a credible post Cold War political and economic order.

Without being too dramatic, it’s useful to conclude with the conclusion of a Yale analysis stating that the One Belt, One Road initiative could mark “a major step towards recreating the Chinese world order of the ancient times known as tianxia, that is, all regions of the known world that belonged to the heavenly-mandated emperor of China. This new world order will not be simply rhetorical, but could impose significant geopolitical implications.“

*David Hurrell studies International Relations & Diplomacy at the University of South Africa and blogs at

1. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, 1997, page 170

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