Beijing, Feb 9: China on Monday launched its first cruise liner to sail via its ambitious transcontinental initiative Maritime Silk Road (MSR) on its maiden voyage during which it will visit three South-East Asian nations including Malaysia and Vietnam.
The 21st century MSR project is an initiative of President Xi Jinping to string together partnerships with countries in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, including India. The maritime route entails building or expanding ports and industrial parks in Asia, the Mideast, Africa and Europe.
The cruise liner set off from the Beihai port in southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and has scheduled stops in Vietnam, the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. The 135-metre-long 20-metre-wide ship can accommodate about 400 people and is equipped with wireless Internet access.
Zhang Xiaoqin, vice governor of Guangxi, said the new cruise liner was another milestone in China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) cooperation and would promote maritime connectivity in the region. Xi first proposed the rejuvenation of the MSR and revival of ancient Silk Road connecting China and Europe via central Asia in 2013.
Since then the 'One Belt' and 'One Road' projects which included Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM), and Pakistan-China Economic Corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) have become a buzz word in China's diplomacy.
Beijing proposed to use the strategic projects to expand its trade and influence to better use its USD 4 trillion dollar foreign exchange reserves to revive a slump in its economy and to get major projects for Chinese firms. Xi subsequently announced a USD 40 billion Silk Road fund which became operational this month, a major attraction for small countries hoping to gain from the projects.
India is taking part in the deliberations over the BCIM but has not yet announced its stand on the MSR. India's concerns lie in the fact that China may use the projects to firm up its foothold in the Indian Ocean. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during her recent China visit said there is no blanket support for the project.
She said India will support wherever the synergies of the two countries meet. While Sri Lanka under the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa government backed the MSR, the new government headed by Maithripala Sirisena is reportedly reconsidering the Chinese projects, including the USD 1.5 billion Colombo Port Project -- stated to be key to MSR.
President Sirisena is expected to announce a decision during his planned China visit next month.