China's 'Maritime Silk Road' as a Hegemonic Project

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 10/24/2013 10:12:00 AM
 The wrangling over both the US government shutdown and the debt ceiling caused Barack Obama to cancel his attendance at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) shindig being held this year in Bali, Indonesia. So he stayed at home to deal with a localized insurrection led by an angry, mostly whitebread crowd, "Tea Party" members, they call themselves. Just desserts, I say. His absence triggered yet another round of commentary about the existence of American hegemony in general and its alleged "pivot to Asia" in particular. Some say the absence does not matter; others think it's a culmination of US decline.

At any rate, this notable omission only served to highlight China's latest plan (gimmick?) to curry favor with other nations in the Asia-Pacific. After having its Noughties-era outreach efforts to ink economic agreements alike free trade deals undermined by its strident assertions to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the PRC seems to attempting to return to a more diplomatic approach. The Silk Road was named after the commercial routes plied by China when it was an empire. At APEC, keynote speaker Xi Jingping's main talking point concerned the "Maritime Silk Road" which once again promises improved relations with neighbors through commercial ties.
On Oct. 3 during his trip in Indonesia, Xi [Jingping] said in a speech that China and the ASEAN will promote maritime cooperation and build a 21st-century maritime Silk Road. This was also brought up by Li [Keqiang] in his seven-point proposal on China-ASEAN cooperation in Brunei on Wednesday. [B]uilding a maritime Silk Road will involve a new consensus, including discussing the signing of a treaty on good neighborliness, friendship and cooperation, strengthening security exchanges, setting up an Asian infrastructure investment bank and prioritizing maritime connectivity development...

In the seven-point proposal, Li [Keqiang] said "the two sides should launch negotiations on upgrading their free trade area and strive to bring bilateral trade to one trillion U.S. dollars by 2020 so as to allow ASEAN countries to benefit more from regional integration and China's economic growth." Zhang Jiuhuan, former Chinese ambassador to Thailand, Singapore and Nepal, said, "Upgrading the free trade area is another significant step for the Chinese government to beef up China-ASEAN cooperation." 
President Xi and Premier Li have been flogging this idea for many months in ASEAN countries, although they have not yet taken it to the Philippines and Vietnam with which it has the most pronounced maritime disputes in Southeast Asia. Still, they allude to the success of the China-ASEAN FTA which they wish to use expand and use as a focal point in strengthening ties:
Starting operation in 2010, the China-ASEAN free trade area is the largest one among developing countries. China is the largest trading partner for ASEAN, and the association is the third largest trading partner for China. According to Zhang, bilateral trade volume between China and the ASEAN grew from 78.2 billion U.S. dollars in 2003 to 400.1 billion U.S. dollars in 2012. Volume reached 210.56 billion U.S. dollars in the first half of this year, up 12.2 percent year on year.

Zhang said "upgrading the free trade area" is needed for both sides. He said the area will help improve the trade of commodities and services and investment cooperation in order to provide convenience and freedom. "All-dimensional cooperation will create more favorable conditions for the maritime Silk Road," said Zhang. "China's economic growth will also bring about more opportunities." 
The idea remains the same in a liberal sense: improved economic ties will smoothen relations--including frayed ones over territorial disputes. However, reception of the Maritime Silk Road idea is mixed among Southeast Asian countries as you would expect: Malaysians are more sanguine, but then again their territorial conflicts with China are not particularly heated. How successful can the Maritime Silk Road project be in calming neighbors? I personally believe that building more economic ties is welcome, but they will be accompanied by more guarded opinions of China's broader intentions. That is, for how long can it afford to give security matters lesser priority while the "security dilemma" the PRC has created makes others feel insecure?
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li have toured ASEAN extensively; it reflects their strategic outlook of developing relationships with neighbouring countries. The new leadership is trying to diffuse tension in the SCS by using various techniques, of which MSR is one. However, a revival of the MSR looks bleak. Also, earlier the route was used for the import of precious stone, wood and spices but today it will used for oil and gas, which is directly connected to the energy security of not one but many countries. There is an emerging security architecture in the region which has led to an increased arms build-up, and the assertiveness of new regional powers has further complicated the regional military balance, which makes the MSR an unlikely prospect.
Moreover, isn't this the same China that disinvited the Philippine president from participating in a trade mission due to the South China Sea imbroglio? More commerce is welcome, but I believe that economic and security matters are becoming less positively correlated in terms of Sino-ASEAN dynamics. That is, stronger economic ties do not necessarily imply improved security ties. Remember, trade has been increasing against a backdrop of worsening conflicts over the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam especially.

Lastly, wasn't the Silk Road at its height when China effectively enforced a tributary system on others in the region? Perhaps the metaphor China has chosen is not a good one since its original iteration had others accepting their subordinate position relative to the Middle Kingdom. The PRC always says it does not seek hegemony (alike white people do), but it has given the rest of us reason to doubt.