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Can China Jump-Start Its Maritime Silk Road in 2016?

According to the director of China’s State Oceanic Administration, China has big plans for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in 2016. Xinhuacited SOA chief Wang Hong as saying that China will advance the MSR with an action plan this year. Wang also spoke of establishing “a China-ASEAN maritime cooperation center and a platform to boost maritime cooperation in East Asia,” according to Xinhua. 

China has already issued an action plan on both the “Belt and Road” – the report on “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” from March 2015. That document laid out routes and priorities for the MSR: “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road is designed to go from China’s coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and from China’s coast through the South China Sea to the South Pacific in the other… At sea, the Initiative will focus on jointly building smooth, secure and efficient transport routes connecting major sea ports along the Belt and Road.”

Yet though the “Belt and Road” were both unveiled in fall 2013, and given a joint action plan in March 2015, development of the overland “Belt” has outpaced the MSR. In particular, China has found eager partners for the “Belt” in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran. Meanwhile, however, the most willing takers for China’s MSR investments are farther afield – such as Egypt – leaving missing links close to home in the sea leg of the “Belt and Road.”

That’s in part because China’s maritime neighbors in Southeast Asia harbor concerns about China’s conduct in the South China Sea. Wang’s championing of the MSR this week provides ironic symbolism of this point. The SOA, of which Wang is the director, is partially responsible for defending China’s maritime territorial claims, including in the South China Sea, by making sure Chinese laws are enforced in those areas – even disputed regions. It’s not hard to imagine neighbors, particularly those who have maritime disputes with China, looking askance at the SOA head’s proclamations of cooperation.

Plus, Wang’s remarks don’t seem to indicate a new strategy for promoting the MSR, or maritime cooperation. Talk of a China-ASEAN maritime cooperation center is old hat; as my colleague Prashanth Parameswaranpointed out last year, China has been talking about maritime cooperation with ASEAN since at least 2011. As part of those efforts, Chinese officials have been discussing setting up a China-ASEAN cooperation center under the aegis of SOA since 2014. And while Wang might be full of optimism for the MSR in 2016, last year was officially dubbed the “Year of ASEAN-China Maritime Cooperation” – without much to show for all the fanfare.

Meanwhile, given China and Japan’s inability to even set up a crisis management mechanism in the East China Sea, the idea of a broader “platform to boost maritime cooperation in East Asia” seems even more far-fetched.

That’s not to say China’s “Belt and Road” hasn’t made any progress at all in Southeast Asia. Last year, China won high-profile railway deals with both Laos and Indonesia, and officially signed another rail agreement with Thailand. Plus, Sri Lanka’s government recently decided to allow a Chinese port development project to continue (initially, Maithripala Sirisena’s administration had delayed the project, citing concerns over the legality of the government permissions granted by his predecessor).

But overall, the MSR is lagging behind its overland twin – and that’s largely because of a reluctance among China’s closest maritime neighbors. As Dr. Xue Li of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has argued in The Diplomat, winning the trust and support of China’s neighbors will be instrumental to the success of the MSR. Over two years after the “Belt and Road” were announced, Beijing is still struggling to achieve that goal.