SPEAKING FREELY China makes waves with maritime 'Silk Road'
By Evgenios Kalpyris
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Recent references by Chinese President Xi Jinping to a revival of an ancient maritime "Silk Road" route between Europe and China were met with well-deserved interest from a host of analysts,
politicians and businessmen.
The idea is straightforward: a maritime route connecting trade and cultures, to run alongside better known land-based "Silk Roads" connecting the country to the continent.
However, the idea also raises a number of issues related to international law, international relations, trade, people-to-people relations and security.
The maritime "Silk Road" could become an important economic avenue towards closer regional and inter-regional interaction.
The value of the idea lies as much in symbolism as in real-life, practical issues. But to make it happen, all interested parties of a state, international or private nature should appreciate that is a new approach to cooperation is long overdue.
The world we are living in, although more complex than ever, is based on a very simple premise: success requires inclusiveness and a common vision.
Opportunities and challenges are often shared by coastline countries and at the end of the day, a maritime route is only as effective as the weakest part of its chain - whether in infrastructure, implemented rules or security environment.
Respect of International Maritime Law is a fundamental aspect in the project's success. As such, freedom of navigation and the respect of rights and duties of coastal states as enshrined in the Law of the Sea and especially UNCLOS are of utmost importance.
Differences between countries with adjacent territorial waters and other sea zones have to be regulated in accordance with international law and the basic tenets of international relations, which demand that states need to resolve their differences peacefully. Threats of use of force or the use of military force are not the way forward nor can they produce long-lasting results.
A maritime Silk Road, because of its very different nature to inland waterways such as the River Danube, cannot be managed by an international committee. That does not mean that international cooperation and coordination is of less importance.
Rather, it is very important that interested parties and in particular countries and the international shipping industry sit together and set priorities in terms of required infrastructure and inland connections to other destinations in Asia and Europe through selected ports.
The sheer size of the required infrastructure demands huge investments which will transform the economies and societies not only of the coastal states but also of all countries and territories which will be at the starting line or the destination of goods.
Furthermore, international organizations such as the European Union and the Association of South Asian Nations could play a supportive role providing expertise and technical assistance. In particular, the input by the International Maritime Organization, which has amassed a wealth of expertise on issues related to the safety of navigation technical specifications and environmental protection, will be essential
The size of the project could justify envisioning the establishment among the coastal states of a very flexible coordination body made-up of contact points, with the initial sole task making governments aware of issues related to infrastructure and cooperation.
It is equally important that views and interests of the international shipping industry are dully taken into account. After all the shipping industry is uniquely positioned to understand the project of the maritime Silk Road in its very core and serve it well not only by providing the commercial vessels but also hard to find expertise and know-how.
Another important aspect of reinventing the existing ancient sea-trade route is tackling new challenges of a common concern which transcend national jurisdiction over territorial waters and other sea zones.
Environmental protection and building maritime security against threats such as a resurging pirate activity are only two of these. Illegal migration is another issue of general concern. Experience has shown that a coordinated approach is the key to success.
Coordinated action in tandem with competent international organizations offer not only the means and know-how to deal with these pressing and solution-demanding issues, but also build bridges of trust and confidence amongst capitals, possibly acting as springboards to attack head-on other more sensitive bilateral or regional issues.
There is a great deal of experience accumulated within the European Union in patrolling external sea frontiers of the Union and mounting an effective naval military operation to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia. The anti piracy operation of the Union is carried on in cooperation with other international organizations and interested countries like, among others, China.
Similar formations adapted each time in accordance with specific circumstances and the level of the challenge could be anticipated by the coastal countries of a modern maritime Silk Road.
For Greece, the target of revamping a comprehensive maritime Silk Road to better connect Europe and China in a comprehensive manner is welcome and makes perfect sense for historic and present-day business reasons. There is also a cultural twist; the original maritime Silk Road route made contacts between ancient the Chinese and Greek worlds possible.
Furthermore, Konstantinoupolis (present-day Istanbul) was the capital for over a millennium of the Greek - Roman Byzantine Empire, and played a pivotal role in the exchange through land and sea Silk Roads of goods and ideas between China and modern days Europe.
The economic side also cannot being disregarded; Greek merchant marine, the global leader by tonnage, has been carrying on its vessels an important%age of Asia-to-Europe imports and exports. Strong shipping ties between Greece and are reflected on the numbers of Greek ships built in those countries' shipyards.
Last but not least, the Greek port of Piraeus because of its unique geographical position, state-of-the-art infrastructure as well as its sea, land and rail connections to European, Black Sea, North Africa and Middle East occupies a predominant position in the European end of the maritime Silk Road. After all it is not by accident that the Chinese shipping giant COSCO has taken the strategic decision to heavily invest in the Greek port which many multinational companies have chosen as the main point of entry of their goods to Europe.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Evgenios Kalpyris is the consul-general of Greece in Shanghai and holds a PhD in international law from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. The article reflects the personal views of the author.