The Maritime Silk Road and a New Paradigm for Globalization
History tells us that back in the 16th century, when China found out that Portugal had invaded Malacca, the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty was deeply offended. According to the well-known Portuguese adventurer Tomé Pires, Portugal’s application for the establishment of an embassy in China was then rejected in 1521. Two years later, in retaliation for the invasion, the Chinese authorities executed 23 Portuguese and incarcerated many more.[i]
The point of this story is that Malaysia and China have a common history that goes back many centuries. The 15th and 16th centuries essentially tell us about the era of “globalisation” as spearheaded by China then – when the word or the concept was not even heard of.
The Ancient Silk Road as a prototype version of globalisation goes back even further to the Second Century BC when during the Han Dynasty of China, an elaborate network of trade routes connected major cities in the West and the Middle East to China.
Today, we have the Maritime Silk Road which I would regard as an alternative road to globalisation in the 21st century in the sense that it is not a “West-centric” paradigm. To my mind, this new Silk Road offers a more “Asia-centric” approach in trade and commerce, and cultural ties and opens up vast opportunities for multi-lateral dealings not just between China and ASEAN but the rest of Asia as well.
This new conception of globalisation is important because in reality the world is NOT flat, whatever may be the merits of Thomas Friedman’s popular book. And as Joseph Stiglitz puts it: “Not only is the world not flat: in many ways it has been getting less flat.”[ii] So, the idea of there being a level playing field for all countries in the world and that free market capitalism should be the main mantra is just unfounded.
In the early eighties, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the father of the nation’s quantum leap from a traditional agrarian-based economy to a proto-knowledge and newly-industrialised economy with modern infrastructure, propounded the “Look East” policy. To my mind, as we approach 2020, we must continue to look East but with our heads tilted Northwards to an angle that we may call North East!
In this new perspective, the indebtedness of developing countries and international fiscal instability demand a new way of resolving consequential issues. The Bretton Woods institutions created after the end of the Second World War cannot be expected to be able to deal as effectively. For example, as the developing nations in Southeast Asia as well as Africa embark on a renewed drive for infrastructure development, major issues of financing will arise.
In this regard, the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) spearheaded by China represents a crucial and significant step in the new path to more egalitarian globalisation. This is because what Asia needs urgently is world class infrastructure in the major logistical sectors and the financial capacities to drive these ventures. This is apart from trade and investment.
The world is looking at China as the rising economic behemoth, some with genuine admiration and some with a tinge of envy. In this regard, China’s commitment to peaceful development is absolutely crucial for the Maritime Silk Road to succeed.
In my view, the suggestion by certain quarters that China would use its military superiority for imperialist designs and geopolitical hegemony is unfounded. Gunboat diplomacy, by way of a display of military might, was used by certain Western powers in the past, to project their influence on weaker nations. Today, it can no longer be regarded as politically correct or even strategically sound.
China, on the other hand, will continue to demonstrate a foreign policy founded on peaceful co-existence with other countries. Therefore, it stands to reason that this Maritime Silk Road venture can only make China even more peaceful in both regional and global terms as it embarks on its voyage to prosperity with the rest of the world.
Having said that, we cannot overstress the paramount importance of China bearing the essentials of soft power. That of course should be done, not as a response to the demands of the West, but as the only logical next step for a nation that may eventually drive the Asian Century.
China, I dare say, will have higher moral ground to lead this change but only if they evolve to harness this soft power – because historically, they have been less imperialist, if at all, as compared to the Western powers.
China may provide global leadership in the economic sphere and also be a major military force to contend with but the Asian century will be defined not by just economic and military might but also by the universal values of freedom, democracy and justice.
On a bilateral scale, I must add that, thanks to the foresight of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister the late Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia was the first member country of ASEAN to establish diplomatic ties with China thereby writing a new chapter in China-ASEAN relations.
We have come a long way since those days. Malaysia is an open economy. Within the ASEAN Economic Community, Malaysia is China’s number one trade destination since 2008 with total bilateral trade turnover of USD 106 billion, and in Asia, we are the third-largest trade partner, after Japan and South Korea.
With the enhancement of economic collaboration in a wide spectrum of areas, including halal food production, health care, tourism and railway construction, we see a huge spike in FDI from China in the markets of Southeast Asia, no doubt thanks to the region’s strategic location.
In this regard, the State of Selangor, as Malaysia’s largest contributor in GDP terms, has its own legitimate reasons to see the success of the Maritime Silk Road venture.
China’s vibrant economic initiative will be pivotal in contributing towards greater economic integration in our region. Selangor aims to be an active partner in this. To tap into the anticipated spike in development and its collateral benefits in all the important economic sectors, Selangor is actively promoting its industrial park and maintaining a green sanctuary and eco-system.
The emphasis is in infrastructure development and the export business. The seminar on internet is noteworthy because Selangor is striving towards becoming the first Smart State in the country and we encourage the move towards the Internet of Things.
I would like to congratulate the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce (MCCC) for organizing this international conference which will, as before, produce tangible results in the form of increased investment and trade.
Even more significantly, such conferences are not just business-centric but go a long way towards enhancing bilateral people to people as well as G-to-G relations between Malaysia and China and the region.
I also wish to thank the organisers for choosing Selangor as the venue for this year’s conference and holding it right here at the seat of the Selangor State government.
Let me conclude with a wise saying from Lao Zi:
“A tree you can barely get your arms around grows from a tiny shoot. A nine-story tower begins as a heap of earth. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
[i] Suma Oriental of Tome Pires – 2 Vols. Asian Educational Services.
[ii] Joseph Stiglitz, Making Globalization Work, (Norton & Co, 2006)