Silk vs Cotton: A tale of love and hate

Written by Chowdhury Mujaddid Ahmed
(Former President, DUMUNA)
Negotiator | Political Analyst | Strategist

On June 15, in the Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh, the Indian and the Chinese Army got into a clash. After the 2017 Doklam Crisis, this is the major faceoff between these two. Both are flexing muscles in the military domain but the reality is somewhere else.

Like today’s world, the ancient world was connected too, perhaps not by super-fast 5G networks or bullet trains but they had something which not only connected the world but also built civilizations. They were the trade routes. Among the ancient trade routes, “Silk Roads” were the most influential ones. These trade routes connected the East and West. In this network, there was the great Persian civilization, Northern Africa, Southern Europe, and both China and India. Today’s central Asia is the result of these routes. In modern days Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan some great artifacts still echo the contribution of the Silk Roads. Now the question comes why it is called the Silk road? The answer is Chinese silk. Silk was one of the major goods which were traded from China to fertile crescent. It was a symbol of political and social power. The chanyu (the then tribal leaders) used to wear silk and used it as a reward to the worthy (The Silk Road: The New History of The World, page 10) In periods of time silk become so powerful it became an international currency and with Silk China grew stronger. The roads carried Chinese silk to Europe and the Mediterranean, pottery from France was sold in Persia, and Spices and condiments of India were used in Xinjiang. Oxford historian and scholar Peter Frankopan’s commented in his book The Silk Roads- “This was a World that was connected, complex and hungry for exchange”. However, China made the best out of these roads. When the roads lined the steeps into an interlocked network China’s expansion ambition skyrocketed. Their ambition lay beyond the Gansu corridor, a route 600 miles long linking the Chinese interior with the oasis city of Dunhuang, a crossroads on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. This expansion of China’s horizon linked Asia together. (The Silk Road: The New History of The World, page 8)

In modern times, China wants to revive its old glory of the Silk Roads. So, in 2013 China came with the most ambitious economic plan of the century. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); this initiative promises it will connect Asia, Africa, Europe and South-East Asia via land and maritime trade routes. The plan is to connect 70 countries together. And with a vision of completion by 2049 China is extremely serious about it. China has also committed 900 billion to 1 trillion US dollars for infrastructure development. Most of the participant states are looking forward for it. Only but one. China’s old friend India. India boycotted the first Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in 2013 and second one in 2017, citing its concern over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, China’s flagship BRI project in Pakistan. India cited issues of “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” as the roots of its concerns (The Diplomat). Because the CPEC project passes through Indian-claimed but Pakistan-administered portions of Kashmir.

But India had something else in mind all along. To cut the fine Silk it was rosining up its desi cotton. To counter the Belt Road initiative or the modern Silk Road, in 2015 in a conference named Indian Ocean: Renewing the Maritime Trade and Civilizational Linkage in Bhubaneswar, India presented it ambitions for the new Cotton route. The location of the conference was also very symbolic. Because finest quality of Cotton was found in the greater Bengal and the cost lines of the Bay of Bengal. Like the Silk Roads the Cotton route also has its glorious past. Cotton was first exported from India during the 1st century CE.

The coastal area based Indian traders were regular suppliers Cotton. Archaeological discoveries at Myos Hormos and Berenike ports of the Red Sea, indicate cotton was exported to Central Asia via the ancient Silk Roads. Cotton was one of the major products of ancient trade and that cotton was supplied via a maritime trade route which connected India with Egypt and all the way to Mexico. Because of high demand cotton turned into highly sought commercial good. So, to fight fire with fire India decide to revive their route with some modifications. The first step was involving Russia with the cause. Secondly, connecting the southern reaches of the continent via road and rail infrastructure. Bringing Africa close and allow inter-change. In the South Indian Ocean, a strong point of Cotton route is incorporating island states, the route will also work as a safeguard against china in the western Indian Sea. Finally, Cotton route will be the gateway to ASEAN. Fun fact: why India is silent in Rohingya crisis? Well Cotton Route will create an ASEAN highway through Myanmar.

China is the largest trading partner of all its neighbors also the biggest investor. Being the biggest defense logistic provider with BRI, the presences of China in South-Asia is quite notable. In the race of wining neighbors’ hearts India do have some plans. It is directly linked with energy and agro-trading with Bangladesh. Have notable investment in Myanmar, Bhutan is heavily dependent on trade and communication on India. And India is also trying to work closely with Afghanistan to connect Russia and Iran with the Cotton route. At May 2016 a pact signed by India, Iran, and Afghanistan for the establishment of a “transit and transport corridor” with Chabahar as a regional hub for maritime cargo. However, things turned South for India after the abolition article number 370 and the Citizenship Amendment bill. And recently Nepal became an issue regarding Kalapani.  

When India is dealing with kind of silent treatment from its most of the neighbors, Bangladesh became more important. In this love and hate Bangladesh government is showing very good diplomatic skills by keeping both doors open. As a result, Bangladesh will be the trail ground of Chinese company Sinovac’s vaccine and will have preference when the vaccine is ready.

As for China and India’s own trading, in the ground of economy we all set things aside that is why India almost imported totaled $65.1 billion in fiscal 2020 and exported at $16.6 billion to China which translated into a trade deficit of $48.5 billion. Interestingly, Chinese imports contributed to over 30% of India’s aggregate trade deficit. Over the past 3 decades, India’s exports to China grew at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 30% but its imports expanded at 47%. (The Economist). Because both understands political transformation and harmony is required for a poor society to become rich. China is one of the countries that made the switch from economic policies caused poverty and the starvation of millions to those encouraging economic growth. (Why Nations Fail, page 67) and same goes for India. So, even if situation deescalates dearly there could be trade barriers. But only temporarily. At least these can be said by keeping the Sino-Indo balance of trade in mind.

Finally, it can be said, it is very unlikely we will see another Sino-Indo conventional war. And as for heavy militarization in the border area, it is just like a heavy weight lifting competition which looks furious but has no violence in it. This epic tale of these two great nations articulates the ever-green forbidden love. It is like the first love we can never get. Where it is difficult to be together but silently keeping trace of one another.

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