The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – Richard Ghiasy, Fei Su and Lora Saalman




The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a long-term Chinese vision for improved global connectivity, expanded production and trade chains, and closer overall cooperation. Thus far, the BRI has mainly focused on Eurasia and Africa.5 The Road, which is the maritime/coastal component of the BRI, focuses on creating a network of ports, through construction, expansion or operation, and the development of port side industrial parks and special economic zones (SEZs).

In this way, the Road, in tandem with its terrestrial complement, the Silk Road Economic Belt (the ‘Belt’), fills a connectivity gap in large economically heterogeneous parts of Asia and Africa and has no peers that approximate its scale and speed. Alongside the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation on economic development and connectivity among some 90 countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, the BRI has caused strategic and security concerns among a number of stakeholders. Among these, the most outspoken are Australia, India, Japan, Vietnam and the United States; France, Germany and the United Kingdom in Europe;
and critical political elites and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in some BRI recipient states.6 A number of these concerns apply to the Road. Moreover, the Road, and the BRI in general, was elevated by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to the constitutional level following the BRI’s fourth anniversary in October 2017.

This reflects the strong political support from the CPC for sustaining the BRI as a red thread in Chinese foreign policy, and has significantly enhanced the Road’s strategic importance and longevity. Many observers both within and outside of China have come to associate the BRI with China’s President, Xi Jinping, and it has become a marker of his ambitious leadership. For years to come, a considerable allocation of Chinese political, financial, economic, diplomatic and human capital should be expected to be devoted to the initiative. This will be needed, as the Road is continually expanding its geographic scope.