Ships, ports and ocean voyages have fascinated me from my childhood days. Though the fascination did find an early outlet during my student days, it did not blossom until much later as a journalist. Since then I have been an avid reader of shipping news, maritime advances, ocean projects etc. So my interest was piqued when my good friend Richard Griffiths, director of the New Silk Roads project run by the International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden), a global research institute and knowledge exchange platform in Leiden, the Netherlands, sent me a PDF of his latest book The Maritime Silk Road, which I must say did indeed make compelling reading.
I do not know what it was about the book that fascinated me. Was it Griffiths’ impeccable flair for weaving a compelling narrative that was rich with information, facts and figures? Or was his unbiased style of writing and my love for anything historic with a modern perspective? Honestly, I have no answer.
But coming back to the book itself, my bias I must say starts with the title. The child in me immediately goes back to the famous voyages of Admiral Zheng He in the 14th century. It was a subject that has always fascinated me and I wish I could find more about the legendary admiral. Part of my curiosity was also piqued as Zheng He had made several trips to Calicut and Kochi in my home state of Kerala in India during his voyages.
As Griffiths points out, Zheng He’s missions were not really “voyages of discovery” as his fleet mostly traveled on trade routes that had been known for centuries. Instead, they represented a cross between diplomatic and trading missions and formed part of the tradition of establishing peaceful relations between states.
The modern Maritime Silk Road “does not exist, and it probably never did”, he said, but it does embody the very essence of these voyages in spirit. The Maritime Silk Road is an initiative that seeks to integrate international seaborne trade and shipping into the broader and more ambitious vision of infrastructure building and trade facilitation, backed by China’s Belt& Road Initiative.
As I skimmed through the book I realized that the Maritime Silk Road is more than simply a map with ports. At any given point in time, there are some 50,000 merchant ships (above 1,000 dead weight tons) that plow the world’s oceans. Isn’t that a fascinating statistic by itself? Together these ships carry between 70 percent and 80 percent of the world’s trade, depending on whether it is measured by value or by volume. And half of that traffic is carried on the various trade routes that bind Europe and Asia. Indeed the Maritime Silk Road is something that is a vision of dreams.
Though I do not want to dwell much on the actual contents of the book and the technicalities, it does analyze the need for such an initiative and the crucial role it has to play in the global recovery after the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Along with his explanations, Griffiths also has some stark messages for the future.”The oceans are a finite space, but it is also easy to see why, for a long time, they seemed so vast and so remote from the consequences of what we did on land, or even at sea. That is no longer the case. The particles that we pump into the air also heat the water, and the heated water changes the currents and the changing currents affect the winds, and the rains, and the seasons. Increasingly, storms will lash our coasts, tides will flood our ports and winds will fuel the fires in our forests and spread the sands of our deserts. These are the real issues facing us and the Maritime Silk Road,” he said.