The formal document titled Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road(MRS) has been released by the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China with State Council authorization in March 2015. The MRS, which was financed with a billion-dollar budget by PRC, has caused the tectonic evolutions of geopolitical importance in the sovereignty areas of many countries on the route of the sea line from the Chinese coast to the upper depths of the Adriatic. Muara Port in Brunei, Djibouti Port, Haifa Port of Israel, and Trieste Port of Greece, strategically crucial for regional and International power competition, have been leased by PRC for 10 to 99 years. On the other hand, rumours of the sale of Kish Island, located on the southern coast of Iran, to the PRC under the USD400 billion deal will be another example that will take its place in the strategic islands chain on the MRS route. Thanks to the vast financial assistance, MRS causes some countries on its route to gain geopolitical importance while also revealing changes that will cause some countries almost to lose their current geopolitical influence. In this context, with their distinctive politico-military, economy, populations, and geopolitical location, three Muslim countries, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey, face significant geopolitical changes due to their geographic location located on the route of the MRS.

The Odds of the Thai Canal (or Kra Canal) and the Future of Malaysia’s Geopolitics

Initiating various massive projects by the rapidly growing giant neighbour PRC in economic, technological, and military fields enabled once more to take the Kra Canal Project among the primary concerns for neighbour countries and regional powers. Malaysia’s Malaca Strait, which hosts the transition of 80 per cent of Chinese oil import flow, is coming to a stage that cannot handle this transition which has exceeded its capacity over time. Moreover, the opening of the Kra Canal, which will connect the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, will drastically diminish transit time across the busiest maritime shipping route for PRC. The Thai government has approved a budget of $5.3m to study the plan for the project almost for the first time. Although it is argued that it will cause the separation of Malay Muslims in Patani in the south of the country and will cause the destruction of flora and fauna, it is said that the PRC is involved in the budget of the project or will be ready to cover it. More interestingly, besides the PRC, India, Australia, and the USA, which are the Quad member countries that are positioned as a strategic alliance in the region, are willing to support Thailand on the Kra Canal Project. In the case of opening the Kra Canal, it will turn into an essential gain in time and money for both the PRC and the merchant ships of other countries. On the contrary, with the bypass of the strait of Malaca, Malaysia will not lose only one of the most significant strategic and economic sources that can be used as a bargaining power on the table in the case of a sudden crisis; beyond that, it will simultaneously lose its current geopolitical significance which has strategic importance among the Asian countries and the other international trade networks.

Has Transfer of Gwadar Port Been a Win or a Loss for Pakistan?

Pakistan is another significant Muslim country located on the MRS route. Compared with Malaysia and Turkey, Pakistan currently seems to be in a more advantageous position. Before Gwadar Port was transferred to the PRC in 2013, it was not a well-known port and almost was considered an idle situation. After Pakistan approved the transfer of the deep-sea Gwadar port to the PRC under the CPEC/MRS, the port became an attraction centre by being equipped with technological facilities and economic investments. Additionally, Pakistan’s new strategic port now has three multi-functional berths; two cargo vessels of 50,000-tonne capacity can be accommodated at a time, with the container’s yard area reaching 140,000 square meters. Moreover, the Gwadar port is expected to be the largest deep-water port in South Asia and can handle 14 million tonnes of bulk cargo every year, with the total container volume increasing to one million TEUs.

Despite the expectations that were establishing multiple economic and industrial regions, physical roads, railways connecting Pakistan and China and undoubtedly strengthening economic and commercial cooperation, Debt trap claims create paramount uncertainty for the future of the project. The allegations were further strengthened firstly after Mahathir Mohammed came to power in Malaysia in 2018 and suspended many agreements with PRC. Moreover, given national interests, Sri Lanka’s government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa followed the same way and wanted to undo the previous government’s move to lease the southern Hambantota port to a Chinese initiative.

Recently, the transfer of control of the Bundle and Bhuddo Islands to the Federal Government, which was previously under the control of the regional government of Sindh province, caused political turmoil in Pakistan. Sindhi ethnic nationalist politicians reacted harshly to the ordinance because they believed the islands could be transferred to China as another component of the CPEC and causing the PRC to further deepen its influence. The Pakistani government and many Pakistani scholars also claim that most of the criticism is based on the US and India. Contrary to the criticisms made over the hostility to the PRC, the government officials and Pakistani scholars state that thousands of business resources have been created within the scope of the Gwadar Port / CPEC Project and that it has become a vital transit point connecting Asia, Africa-Middle East, and Europe, where billions of people live. Comparing criticisms and defences and considering the previous situation of Gwadar Port, it can be said that MRS has a positive impact on Pakistan’s geopolitical position, at least for now.

The Transmogrify of Turkey’s Historical Geopolitical Position Before and After Maritime Silk Road

Turkey had a vital geostrategic position thanks to its location on historical land and sea trade routes, being surrounded by seas on three sides, connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe, and also hosting important international waterways like Canakkale and Istanbul Straits. Only a few decades ago, many commercial and travel routes from Asia to Europe or the opposite way from Europe to Asia were forced to pass necessarily transit by Turkey. Over the last decade, none of them had a significant impact on the geopolitical position of Turkey like MRS. Neither problems with NATO nor the permanent settlement of Russia to the Mediterranean through Syria. The MRS had a destructive impact on Turkey’s historical geopolitical and geostrategically position.

The sensitivity of Turkey over the Uighur issue and association, the presence of Uighur fighters in Syria with Turkey led to the PRC bypassing Turkey almost for all its strategic investments. The formation of alternative investments in the ports and technological facilities set up around the harbours by PRC in countries neighbouring Turkey simultaneously created alternatives for international trade networks. Haifa Port in Israel, Piraeus and Trieste Port in Greece, Egypt Suez’ Sokhna Port, and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Ports has now emerged as vital geostrategic alternatives to Turkey for trade flows and military activity occurring between Asia and Europe. Thus, thanks to the enormous investments from the PRC, these ports both increased their revenues by astronomical figures and managed to become among the most critical ports in the world. This situation particularly has enabled the opening of dozens of alternative trade routes, transit harbours, and sea lines to bypass Turkey and access Asia to Europe or from Europe to Asia and Africa.

To sum up, compared with others, Malaysia seems to be in the best position among these three countries because the Kra Canal is still a project. Although Pakistan is faced with a possible debt trap, on the other hand, thanks to Gwadar Port, which was considered almost idle compared to now, it has received billions of dollars in investment and has gained significant geopolitical importance. Turkey was extremely negative affected by the MRS among these countries due to receiving minimal investments from the PRC. Turkey’s recent regional expansion efforts can be read as balancing efforts against its lost previous geopolitical importance.

Lokman Karadag is a PhD student in Political Science at the International Islamic University Malaysia. Image Credit: CGTN