Old Term, New Concept
The “Maritime Silk Road” depicted the trade system in coastal area of ancient Asia with its nearly 2,000 years’ history. Numerous monuments built in port cities of China and Southeast Asia also honor the trade system. However, as foreign media reported, the term “Maritime Silk Road” has never been used by senior government officials during years of economic construction and planning in China.
China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) has been successfully held for 10 years. It is the grand meeting where leaders of China and Southeast Asia get together to promote further exchanges and cooperation in political, economic and cultural fields. On the 10th CAEXPO, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang proposed to continue the glory of the “Maritime Silk Road.” Later that year, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang conveyed the message of regional economic integration during their visits to ASEAN countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered an important speech at the Indonesian parliament and expressed that China is willing to construct a new Maritime Silk Road of 21st century, which corresponded to his proposal of building a Silk Road economic belt in September, 2013 in Kazakhstan.
Then, the Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms was adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee on November 9th, 2013, which made clear that we should push forward the construction of the economic belt of Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road to form a new all-round opening-up pattern. On December 27, 2013, during the National Conference on Commercial Work, Mr. Gao Hucheng, Minister of Commerce of PRC stated, “We should promote the construction of the Maritime Silk Road of 21st century, insist to make coordinated development plans for land and sea and attach equal importance to east and west so as to effectively link up with Silk Road economic belt.”
The concepts of “Silk Road economic belt” and “Maritime Silk Road” express China’s strong aspiration of working with ASEAN countries. Establishing Silk Road economic belt will start from point to area and gradually expand the regional cooperation to Central Asia. While the constructing of Maritime Silk Road will further boost bilateral trade relations on the basis of China- ASEAN Free Trade Area. With a fresh connotation in geography, economy and politics, the “Maritime Silk Road” is attracting the world’s attention.
Some experts explained, President Xi Jinping’s proposal of constructing a new Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century is a statement as well, which aims to further expand bilateral trade between China and ASEAN and serves as a prelude to steadily promote the “Diamond Decade” of China-ASEAN relations, including political mutual trust, economic and trade cooperation, cultural exchange as well as the deepened friendship between the two sides.
A Comeback and An Inevitable Trend of Times
As an important channel, the ancient “Maritime Silk Road” made China’s foreign trade thriving at that time. Served as the transferring station, ASEAN countries have also developed by leaps and bounds in their foreign trade and city scale during that time. More importantly, as maritime road got prosperous, China and ASEAN countries opened their doors to each other, which helped bilateral economic and cultural exchanges become frequent.
According to the Old Book of Tang (the first classic historical work about the Tang Dynasty), “Guangzhou is adjacent to South China Sea. Every year, merchants from Southeast Asia come here by boat and trade with local people.” The History of Song Dynasty showed that more businessmen from Southeast Asian regions, such as, Srivijaya, Giao Chi, Champa, Chenla came to China in Song Dynasty. At the beginning of the 15th century, Zheng He, the famous Chinese navigator in Ming Dynasty, made seven voyages to the Western Sea (today's Southeast Asia) and left his footprint in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan and so on. During 1403-1424, Melaka (a state in Malaysia today) was the biggest commercial center in the east for its important geographical location. The local people in Melaka were very kind to Chinese merchants. Without paying any taxes, Chinese merchants could trade there just by offering a gift, which is a charming story in the history of friendly exchange between the two peoples.
In the past two thousand years, Maritime Silk Road became the epitome of economic and cultural exchanges between ancient China and Southeast Asian countries. In Qing Dynasty, China secluded itself from the outside world and the Opium War led to the end of Maritime Silk Road. However, the friendly exchanges and cooperation between China and Southeast Asia still continued in all aspects.
Today, following the trend, China and ASEAN vigorously rebuild the Maritime Silk Road and enhance maritime cooperation, which will be the best way to deepen bilateral cooperation. Rebuilding the Maritime Silk Road seems like a comeback, but is actually an imperative path for land and sea development between China and ASEAN.
China and ASEAN countries are among the few nations which maintain economic growth and face historical opportunities. With more than 30 years’ reform and opening up, China’s economy has grown steadily and its development has entered a crucial period. ASEAN integration has been in a critical moment as well, which requires the impetus to push forward. Though some achievements are made in land connectivity, the limited land transport capability requires the participation of maritime waterway. The rebuilding of Maritime Silk Road can be a boon to China-ASEAN connectivity.
2,000 years ago, the Silk Road started the economic, political and cultural interactions between east and west. In 21st century, the Maritime Silk Road is assigned with new connotation and meaning for China-ASEAN maritime cooperation. The pragmatic maritime cooperation between China and ASEAN includes network cooperation of port city, maritime research and environmental protection, navigation safety and rescue, combat transnational crimes, the construction of fishery bases, seafood
industry, trade cooperation and maritime satellite information and so on. Also, the establishment of China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund will speed up the development of China-ASEAN pragmatic maritime cooperation.
A Brand New Maritime Blueprint
Ocean is the crucial basis to support the economic, cultural and social development of China and ASEAN countries. China and ASEAN countries have laid a firm foundation for reconstructing the Maritime Silk Road after decades of cooperation. Dr. Yang Qin, Guangdong Research Center for Ocean History at Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences said that the new Maritime Silk Road is not only a trade route that helps supply each other's needs, but also a route for cultural exchanges and peace talks between two sides.
Rebuilding the Maritime Silk Road will undoubtedly bring China and ASEAN enormous economic benefits and influences. Cao Heping, famous economist from the School of Economics at Peking University claimed, if the building of Maritime Silk Road can be carried out successfully, the market between China and ASEAN will be more firmer. It will be another progress as well as a substantial leap, following the establishment of China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. In addition, from a macro perspective, building the Maritime Silk Road will facilitate China-ASEAN Free
Trade Area, one of world’s biggest three free trade areas, to better interact and compete with the other two largest free trade areas: North American Free Trade Area and European Union.
China has a brilliant history in marine civilization. It takes Maritime Silk Road as the spiritual carrier, highlights cultural understanding and mutual tolerance, advocates bilateral and multilateral dialogues and attaches great importance to public diplomacy. “Constructing the Maritime Silk Road” more explicits that ASEAN is the priority of China's diplomacy. It also better confirms the historical and cultural foundation for China-ASEAN cooperation,” said Liu Feng, Deputy Director of Maritime Law and Policy Division at National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Maritime Silk Road will be “the artery and bridge for China's diplomacy with neighboring countries.”
President Xi Jinping quoted a popular Indonesia proverb during his visit to ASEAN countries, “It's easy to make money but difficult to make friends.” Xi also repeatedly emphasized China’s peaceful intent. The proposal of rebuilding the Maritime Silk Road shows the positive attitude of China on jointly safeguarding maritime security and stability by establishing marine partnership with ASEAN countries, helps iron out differences between China and ASEAN and makes the South China Sea become “a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”