Maritime Silk Road

You may recall from your world history class the phrase “silk road,” the connecting overland cross-continental route between Europe and China that for some two thousand years enabled trade of tea, spice, silk between eastern producers and European consumers, along with religious and philosophical ideas, technologies, and disease. This route is probably best known through the writings and adventures of Marco Polo who followed it as described in his popular account of his 13th century journey to the east.

But through that time there was also a less well-known parallel ocean route that extended coastwise through the China Sea and the Southeast Asian archipelago to India, Arabia, Africa, and perhaps even Australia some three hundred years before the arrival of Captain Cooke. There are accounts by Arab and Indian sailors of navigating to China by the stars, logs of night sky observations that allowed for repeat passages in both directions. In the 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He is reputed to have built a huge fleet of treasure ships, large junks that carried the finest porcelains, lacquer ware, and silk in which he made seven great trading voyages and established a moment in history when China ruled the seas as both economic and naval power. This situation collapsed after Zheng’s death as ensuing, more conservative emperors and internal politics diminished ship-building support, the overland route expanded, and European seafarers began to explore these waters as a precursor to what became western dominance of far eastern trade.  Modern nautical archaeologists have begun to clarify and extend this history through the discovery of even earlier ships and voyages that are indicative of much more complex Chinese maritime history that has been previously understood.

Interestingly, today, the phrase “silk road” is being revived in China as a centerpiece of an emerging shift in Chinese foreign policy in support of the nation’s arrival as a global economic power, again a dominant player in world trade. China has recently achieved the second highest GDP in the world and has become the largest importer of foreign oil to meet its tremendous demand for energy.  China’s economic reach regionally and internationally continues to expand dramatically through such things as a new trail link to connect the manufacturing hub of Chengdu to Germany, or the development of a new Shanghai Cooperation Organization and tax-free zone to enable currency conversion, and targeted bi-lateral agreements to augment inter-nation and regional trade. Chinese President Xi Jinping has begun to use “the new silk road” to describe this even more aggressive national and international engagement with the global economy and geopolitics.

There is a maritime component to this as well.

We have spoken before on World Ocean Radio of the expansion of the Chinese Navy

with its new aircraft carrier and growing fleet of warships. The localized disputes with Japan and Viet Nam over various remote islands are indicative of an attempt to broaden Chinese ocean territory with concurrent extension of oil, mineral, and fishing rights. Just a few weeks ago, in a speech to the Indonesian Parliament, President Xi used the phrase “new maritime silk road” to characterize and emphasize his nation’s trade relationships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, after China itself one of the world’s most powerful regional emerging markets.  China today is the largest trading partner of the ASEAN nations, with two-way trade exceeding US$ 400 billion last year, a six-fold increase over the past decade. Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reported the President used the occasion to announce an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, most certainly a means by which the Chinese can finance local ports and other facilities for such trade, and to declare 2014 as a year of China ASEAN cultural exchange, built on what Xi characterized as “common memories.” This new “maritime silk road,” Xi declared, would be the focus of a “diamond decade,” a next ten years of “golden” exchange and cooperation.

If you add these declarations and events to China’s already extant presence in shipping, oil importation, and inexorable internal demand for goods and services, it should not be surprising to see these ambitious maritime expressions of its national interests. If we are doubtful about the role of the ocean in these geo-political trends and maneuvers, we are not seeing the world as it is; we are not observing.