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For India, ‘The Maritime Silk Route’ is a rather vague proposal, which can’t make Delhi forget China’s assertive moves, particularly the network of military bases and commercial facilities along important sea lines of communication, from the Chinese mainland to Africa.
President Xi Jinping will soon be arriving for his maiden visit to India. While in Delhi, he is bound to raise one of his pet projects — the New Silk Road.
During a visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013, the Chinese President for the first time spoke of the New Silk Road. He called it an ‘economic belt’. A month later, during an ASEAN meet, he unveiled a 21st century ‘Maritime Silk Road’ plan. For Beijing, there are various ideological and economic reasons for reopening these terrestrial and maritime routes.
According to Xinhua news agency, President Xi’s proposal of ‘one belt and one road’ brought “a new connotation for the old Silk Road, and new vibrancy for the cooperation among pan-Asia, Asia and Europe.”
Beijing believes that their new strategy will help in reproducing the spirit of the old route while promoting economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and friendly relationships.
What was the Silk Road? Wikipedia explains:
“It is a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the West and East by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads, and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time.”The 6,437 km route got its name from the business in Chinese silk carried out by intrepid traders as earlier as the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).
The most renowned part of the ‘route’ was the Central Asian section; the Chinese emperors always took great interest in the safety of this portion.
For centuries, the mythic Silk Road had witnessed, with no hindrance, a flow of goods, technologies, philosophies and religions. The civilisations of China, India, Persia, Europe, and Arabia greatly benefited from the safety of the Central Asian roads.
Buddhism and other Indian cultural and spiritual achievements transited through this route. In June 2014, the corridor of the Silk Road between Xian and Tianshan, the mountain range in Central Asia was even acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The new project is so dear to President Xi that The People’s Daily (PD), the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China recently celebrated the ‘renaissance’ of the route by holding grand functions in Beijing, Xi’an, and Quanzhou. The daily announced:
“Two reporting teams consisting of more than 60 journalists, celebrities, opinion leaders will work along the Silk Road economic belt starting from Xi’an, and the Maritime Silk Road from Quanzhou respectively for about two months.”The Chinese Government used three keywords to define the new project.
The first word is ‘Connection’: For Beijing, the concept of revitalising the ‘Silk Road’ is not only for economic development or due to globalisation, it is also is an important component of the ‘Chinese Dream’.
The second keyword is ‘inheritance’. China feels that compared with the old Silk Road, the New Silk Road’ extends both in space and time:
“Ways of transportation have changed …while the warmth and amity of wayfarers have been inherited from generation to generation.”The third key word is ‘Record’, Beijing wants the world to ‘record’ that Xi’an is a big city with blooming scientific research, education and industries; and Quanzhou, the ancient ‘City of Light’ of Marco Polo, an important centre of development in modern China.
China also wants to build a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (MSR).
Beijing asserts its need to boost ties with port cities in Asia through a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ starting from Fujian province and linking all the littoral countries of the region.
When Chinese Special Representative Yang Jiechi met his Indian counterpart, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon for ‘border talks’ in New Delhi in February 2014, Yang conveyed an invitation for India to join the MSR.
According to the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying:
“The purpose is to integrate all kinds of ongoing cooperation especially cooperation on connectivity in the spirit of (ancient) silk road so that they can connect with each other and promote each other and accelerate regional countries’ common development.”For India, it is a rather vague proposal, which can’t make Delhi forget China’s assertive moves, particularly the network of military bases and commercial facilities along important sea lines of communication, from the Chinese mainland to Africa.
India is seriously concerned by the strategic Chinese bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Maldives. The concept of a ‘String of Pearls’ (a term long ago coined by the US Department of Defence) is no longer in the realm of ‘ideas’, it has become a worrying reality for Delhi.
Another question that Narendra Modi will have to take up with Xi: while China is wooing India to join the Silk Road journey, is Beijing really serious to open trade and cultural exchanges across the Himalayan barrier?
One of the objectives of the new railway line linking Lhasa to Shigatse is to connect South Asia to the Silk Road.
Yang Yulin, deputy director of the railway office of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government announced that during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) period, the construction of a railway connecting Shigatse with Kyirong in northern Nepal and with Yatung, in the Chumbi Valley between India and Bhutan, will start.
But while Beijing speaks of a link between the New Silk Road and South Asia, the Chinese leadership has systematically refused to open up the old Himalayan routes, particularly for the Kailash/Manasarovar yatra.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue of opening an alternate route for the pilgrimage during his meeting with Xi Jinping during the last BRICS summit, the Chinese president remained silent.
During his recent visit to J&K, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) presented the PM a memorandum requesting the reopening of the Demchok road as an alternative route to Kailash/Mansarovar:
“Demchok in Ladakh provides the easiest and the safest access to Kailash Mansarovar. From here pilgrims can approach the holy mountain and the sacred lake in two days. This would also give the much needed fillip to the local economy.”It appears that Beijing has again vetoed the project.
Why then try to entice India into a New Silk Road project when all the passes to Tibet and Xinjiang (the main traditional pass was the Karakoram pass, near the disputed Depsang Plains) remain closed?
The next logical step would be to progressively reopen Himalayan passes to trade and human exchanges (and why not to tourism), and once the Himalayan belt has recovered its vitality, India could think of participating in projects such as the New Silk Road.