NANNING — It would take China some time to work out the feasibility of its initiative to revive the so-called Maritime Silk Road, which it hopes will boost trade among countries in the region.
This was one of the thoughts presented by experts on the issue at a media forum held as part of the 12th China-ASEAN Expo, which opens today in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
Several delegates questioned the practicality of the idea, suggesting it might benefit China more than any other nation involved.
The Maritime Silk Road initiative was one component of Chinese President Xi Jinping's 2013 plans for two massive trade and infrastructure networks connecting East Asia with Europe: the New Silk Road and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
The plans aim to strengthen China's economic relations with its trade partners, particularly its Asian neighbours, primarily via a network of transport and other infrastructure projects, possibly high-speed rail, motorways, pipelines and ports stretching across the region.
While the traditional land-based Silk Road would connect central China via Central Asia to Europe, the Maritime Route encompasses Southeast Asia, Oceania and East Africa.
Speaking at the forum, Cheng Bingcai, deputy director of the Training Department of Chinese Academy of Governance, said the route would help shorten the geographic distance among countries and strongly enhance investment and economic co-operation while also contributing to further economic integration regionally and globally.
"The weakness of developing countries lies in their shortage of funds for infrastructure construction. It's good news for the future if China and ASEAN can work together since the idea promotes infrastructural connectivity," Cheng said.
Beijing has promised to allocate an initial investment of US$40 billion to set up a Silk Road fund for the construction of major infrastructure, such as high-speed railways, bridges and ports in Southeast and Central Asia.
In addition, China recently launched a new supra-national financial body, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is supported by 57 countries. Initially, the bank will have authorised capital of $50 billion.
However, while President Xi has tried to reassure China's neighbours of China's commitment to be a good neighbour, friend and partner, sharing common security and prosperity through "thick and thin", and the maritime route is an opportunity for all, there are doubts and reluctance among some of the ASEAN countries to join the scheme.
Li Mingjiang, associate professor from the Nayang Technological University (NTU), divides relevant countries into three groups: the supportive group, the largely supportive group and the less supportive group. The last group consists of those who are still having some kinds of conflicts with China, particularly on the East Sea issue.
"While most countries are positive about the initiative because they understand this is an opportunity, they want to pursue a policy that can balance the economic benefits and the strategic needs of their countries," Li said.
Sharing his view on the issue, Cyril Pereira, the co-chairman of the Asian Publishing Convention, said not everyone was convinced with the initiative because there is a deficit of trust due to moves by China in the last 18 months. He cited China's silent reclamation of 1,200ha of reefs in the East Sea recently, its confrontation with Viet Nam in 2014 with the placing of a drilling rig near Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) and the announcement of "Shansha City" on the Paracels to control flights over the East Sea.
"What China needs to answer is if it truly respects maritime rights for ASEAN countries," Pereira said.
From Viet Nam's capital, Ha Noi, Tran Cong Truc, former head of the country's National Border Committee, said any initiatives to promote trade co-operation and development in the region and in the world were welcomed at present. However, he said China's Maritime Silk Road idea was quite complicated one.
"The proposed route will pass the East Sea area where complicated conflicts are existing and is one of the hot spots in the region. I don't think there should be an initiative to change the status quo of this important area," Truc said. He added that relevant parties needed more time to study the initiative.
Zhai Kun, professor of the School of International Relations at Peking University, said he believed the Chinese Government was making an international relations policy adjustment with the less-supportive countries so they could talk about the initiative, adding that China had started negotiations with ASEAN countries on the Code of Conduct in the East Sea. He claimed this was "a good sign of its willingness to maintain regional stability".
However, he admitted it might take some time until consensus could be reached.
"My guess is that China will start the negotiations with the supportive group of countries in the first place and give other countries in the less supportive group some time to sit back and further consider the offer," he said.
Li from the NTU gave some recommendations, saying that the initiative actually could have a lot potential for people exchange and trade promotion if conducted successfully. The recommendations include enhancing bilateral negotiation between China and related countries to better understand each other's needs and concerns and getting countries from outside of the region to get involved.
"The United States, Japan and India are not wholeheartedly supportive of the initiative. I wonder if it's possible to work out a formal mechanism to get the extra powers to be involved because if the MSR is successfully implemented, it's not only China and ASEAN countries to benefit from the maritime route," Li said. — VNS