The Maritime Silk Road: China’s High Seas Ambitions

By Bernhard Zand / Sept 8, 2016/ Spiegel Online

The powerful Yangtze River winds its way for more than 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) through China, from the barren highlands of Tibet to the densely populated plains on the east coast where, shortly before it flows into the Pacific, a large waterway forks off. It is the Huangpu, Shanghai’s river.

Ships carrying ore, cement and coal, freighters loaded with containers and loose cargo toil their way up the Huangpu until, at its tightest turn, one of China’s most spectacular vistas opens up before them: to the left, the skyscrapers of the Pudong financial district; to the right, the palatial buildings and towers along the Bund, the historic Shanghai waterfront promenade.

Yan Jun, the 56-year-old head of the Port of Shanghai, resides on the 20th floor of one of these towers. He likes to take first-time guests to the next floor up, to the hall where executives of his company, the Shanghai International Port Group, usually meet. Inside the room is a massive, 10-meter long wooden table made out of planks from old quay walls; in front of the window is a globe as high as a person.

If the trading and naval powerhouse of China had a single command bridge, it could be located here. And Yan Jun, a large, elegant man with a deep voice, would be its captain. China’s major industrial provinces, with their megacities on the left and right banks of the lower Yangtze, are like the two wings of a dragon, he says, “and Shanghai is the dragon’s head.” No other port in the world delivers as many products to the global market as Shanghai. China exports goods valuing over $2 trillion a year.

Yan recently spent a few weeks in Europe. His company, like many others in his industry, is on a shopping spree. It is looking at entire ports and individual terminals all over the world, from Jakarta to Djibouti, Pakistan to Panama.

It’s all part of a plan that China’s leadership calls the Maritime Silk Road. Three years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that his country wanted to revive not just the trade route from antiquity that led from China’s western provinces through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe, but also a new sea route to match the one on land. It would be comprised of a network of ports and naval bases connected by canals, roads and trains, built and operated with Chinese participation.

As with the land route, there’s also a historical precedent for the Maritime Silk Road. At the beginning of the 15th century, legendary Chinese explorer Zheng He began the first of seven sea expeditions that would lead him through the Indian Ocean to Ceylon on the east coast of Africa, and onward to present-day Saudi Arabia. Zheng left carrying silk, brocade and porcelain. He came back with spices, rare woods and giraffes. Almost 100 years prior to Christopher Columbus’ trip to America, China was the world’s most important sea power. It’s a tradition that modern China wants to rekindle.

There are three key differences between the resurrection of the maritime and the land-based Silk Roads. First, there the number of countries along the sea route to Europe is much greater, not to mention to the size of their markets. Countries on the Indian Ocean alone are home to a greater number of people than all of sparsely settled Central Asia. Plus, China’s leadership has left open just how far the Maritime Silk Road will go. Panama, where a Chinese company recently bought a port, is “probably a little too far,” says Tan Jian, a senior official with the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “But we will probably add Australia to it.” In 2015, the same firm signed a 99-year lease on the Port of Darwin. Read more…
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