By Simigh Fruzsina, PAGEO Geopolitical Institute
China’s continuously increasing role in global economy is accompanied by a growing number of challenges concerning security policy, which entails the forced increase of the willingness to make a political or even military intervention. While building One Road, One Belt, China shall ensure a sufficient financial background, or at least a part of it, for the ambitious projects, and not merely through multilateral financial institutions and bilateral agreements.
What Connects and Threatens
The idea that the deepening of economic relations will sooner or later put an end to military conflicts dates back to the 1990s. According to Rosecrance, those states may be successful in the new, emerging world order which ensure a high added value to finished products, supply services and carry out various financial processes. However, since basic production is inseparable from this, the opportunity of economic self-sufficiency is impaired. Thus, the evolving mutual dependency of states contributes to replacing territorial, expansionist goals with a cooperative atmosphere ensuring economic growth. It derives from the fact that continuous trade and a free flow of investments required for this growth are ensured in a peaceful, stable, predictable environment.
However, appropriate logistic, infrastructural and political coordination and cooperation are also required for making it operate as efficiently as possible, especially because geographical connectivity – including adjoining borders or routes crossing them – increases vulnerability at the same time. The better accessibility of routes, however, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, from the viewpoint of security policy, it improves the opportunities of authorities to act. On the other hand, it also provides human, drug and arms trafficking with more opportunities. However, if regional cooperation is successfully extended over the protection of public goods, the improvement of two-way trade, the development of tourism and interpersonal relationships, all these problems will become resolvable in the long term, parallel with the development of the infrastructure.
Security for Asia
In his speech delivered at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA ) in Shanghai in May, 2014, Xi Jinping stressed that “we need to innovate our security concept, establish a new regional security cooperation architecture, and jointly build a road for security of Asia that is shared by and win-win to all.” The Chinese President also pointed out that “development is the foundation of security, and security the precondition for development. For most Asian countries, development means the greatest security and the master key to regional security issues.”
It is congruent with the Chinese idea that economic development is the best way of resolving social problems, demonstrated by for example the Chinese “Go West” programme. Within the framework of this programme, Chinese companies are encouraged to relocate their production and operations into the inner, western and, compared to the coastal regions, less developed provinces of the country. They expect this will pacify the of the Uyghur minority living in Xinjiang province in a very tense situation.
Xi also added that the problems of Asia shall be addressed by cooperation within Asia, with peaceful means and “one cannot live in the 21st century with the outdated thinking from the age of Cold War and zero-sum game.” This is primarily directed against “Pivot to Asia”, since China regards it as a hostile, overbearing policy. First and foremost, it wants to achieve the exclusion of the American military force from East Asia. On top of that, each state has the equal right to uphold its security. “A military alliance targeted at a third party is not conducive to maintaining common security. Every country has the equal right to participate in the security affairs of the region as well as the responsibility of upholding regional security. No country should attempt to dominate regional security affairs or infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of other countries.”
However, it is rather easy to mistrust this statement, especially if we consider China’s growing assertiveness on the South China Sea. The countries of Southeast Asia are afraid, as a result of the growing projection of power, of the impairment of their freedom of navigation – it is exactly what China ties to ensure for its own interest. In addition, although China claims it respects, above all, the sovereignty of other states, the countries have increasing doubts about the investments and the companies implementing them, especially if Chinese companies want to enter such strategically sensitive areas of the states as ports, communications or energy infrastructure. The mistrust of China is further fuelled by the fact that the attitude of the countries in the region is not consistent to the question whether it is worth confronting China either on the South or East China Sea, or it is preferable to stay away from the conflict in order to attract Chinese capital and investments. The question arises whether China actually just intends to strengthen its asymmetric position of economic power with the Maritime Silk Road to such an extent that in time it won’t be a question any more in whose favour regional disputes are resolved. Piracy along the maritime route and terrorism, knowing no borders on the mainland, on one of the most important routes in Central Asia mean a constant problem. This latter one threatens Chinese oil extracting companies and Chinese employees working for them not only in the form of the expansion of the Islamic State but also in Afghanistan, and even at home, in Xinjiang as well.
Long-term planning is further hampered by the internal political instability of target countries of investments, owing to which it is not inconceivable that in the case of a change of government, the new leadership will terminate the agreements concluded with China. In addition, civil wars and other armed conflicts are not favourable, either, for the implementation of the Silk Road project.
The Silk Road in Central Asia
The continental corridors of the new Silk Road have to cross either Central Asia or Russia in order to reach the Middle East and Europe. Swanström, however, notes that this is most indicative of China’s lack of military preparedness to protect its interests. In the Lanzhou Military Region in China’s west has a force of only 220,000 troops distributed over an area of 3.4 million square kilometres. This is arguably insufficient given the geographical features, while China still focuses the majority of its military capacity on its eastern shores. In addition to low levels of preparedness, tensions between Central Asian countries routinely see borders closed, which may threaten the freedom and functioning of transport corridors. Furthermore, central government control in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remains weak with competition between regional elites and fractions undermining stability. In order to resolve this problem, external political and military support is required, which, however, is against the basic principles of Chinese foreign policy and also threatens the sovereignty of the state. But the question arises: if China urges state-building only from outside and orally, but is not willing to provide any political support fearing the consequences of higher-level commitment, how efficient could the investments of the Silk Road be?
Parallel to the pull-out of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan, the instability of the country potentially spilling into countries of the region is getting increasingly worrying. During his visit in Kabul in 2014, Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out that Afghanistan’s “peace and stability has an impact on the security of western China, and more importantly, it affects the tranquillity and development of the entire region.” The weakening and slow fragmentation of the Taliban, on the one hand, present severe challenges to any meaningful engagement in peace talks, but on the other hand, may contribute to entering the region of the Islamic State. Third, the Taliban has recently cut the power lines from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan that provide electricity to Afghanistan. Thus they are openly threatening areas that China intends to develop through the Silk Road.
Since the stability of the Afghan state is so closely related to the security of Xinjiang, China stopped urging the pull-out of NATO forces, and even hinted that the pull-out in 2014 might be far too early. The fact that major American forces could not deploy in East Asia during their engagement in Afghanistan also contributed to this. However, it does not change the fact that Asia must act very carefully in Central Asia, since the pull-out and the decline of the Russian economic influence present the opportunity to gain greater influence in the region. However, economic methods will not be sufficient. These challenges may be easier to face if there is cooperation between people, education is promoted and information sharing between countries works, for example through the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
It must be also noted that although this centre has been set up in Tashkent, it has not been able to come up with any specific results. It would be time for SCO to present a sufficient operating mechanism, with which it is able and willing to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism (the “three evil forces”) threatening the region, as well as organised crime.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the flagship project of One Belt, One Road. But the planned large-scale investments can go wrong. There is a risk that the Pakistani system will be simply overloaded by the volume of investments China intends for the country. This may easily arouse hostile emotions in local inhabitants, or alienate them at the least. Certain poorer provinces, such as Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, accuse the Punjab-dominated government – with Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff in the lead – of expropriating the advantages of development for the centre, Punjab. In contrast, other provinces would rather stay out of Chinese investments because they see them as a threat to their traditional way of life. They are ready to voice their dissatisfaction even with weapons.
Already existing militant groups, such as ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), the Pakistani Taliban or other anti-state militant groups extremely endanger the implementation of projects and the people working on them, as well as the trade of goods later. For this reason, the Pakistani armed forces promised to ensure a unit of 10,000 people to protect the Chinese people working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. However, this is no guarantee that the concerns of locals will be soothed in the long term.
China tends to ignore or, at best, inaccurately asses the cultural, ethnic and environmental characteristics of the target countries of investment, in the name of pragmatism and neutralism. Balochistan, where Gwadar port can be found and will be connected with Xinjiang through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is Pakistan’s largest and most impoverished province, and has been under attack by separatists, insurgents, and Islamic militants (now including the Islamic State) for over a decade. Although armed insurgences are not at all a new phenomenon in the province (the inhabitants of Balochistan have been fighting for autonomy since the British colonizing period and then as annexed to Pakistan), China cannot ignore what is going on in the province across which it intends to transport 19 million tons of petroleum to China, and where it plans to build 2,000 km of road and railway infrastructure to Kashgar.
China May Also Be Tripped by Itself
There is also a scenario in which the workers of Chinese projects are not faced with external threats but they can hinder implementation themselves. In Western Europe China is regarded a potential security policy risk. The new British government formed after the resignation of David Cameron and led by Theresa May delayed a final decision on a $23 billion project serving the construction of a new nuclear power plant, Hinkley Point C until a review. The prospects of the restart are not improved by the fact that in the meantime the United States initiated a legal proceeding against the workers of CGN (China General Nuclear Power Company, the company having a large stake in the Hinkley Point C project), accusing them of spying and conspiring with the Chinese state in order to illegally develop nuclear technology in China “with the intent to secure an advantage to the People’s Republic of China”. In addition, Western Europe, although willing to trade with China, is still afraid of potential security policy implications which would arise from a Chinese infrastructural investment within the European frontiers.
Land or Sea?
The officers and experts of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) don not completely agree whether PLA is prepared to protect the New Silk Road with military instruments as well, if necessary. According to Qiao Liang, the PLA does not have the necessary capabilities; but Chinese fighting capacities have to be strengthened to make Chinese armed forces go global. Zhu Chenghu argues PLA is already prepared enough, but the basic principles of foreign policy prevent PLA from asserting interests more emphatically abroad. According to Major General Ji Minkui not only the PLA but the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well, as a coordinating platform, should have a larger role in protecting the Silk Road.
However, there is a consensus that China has to develop a network of places where Chinese armed forces can rely on to extend their operational range in order to protect the Silk Road and strategic Chinese interests.
Is the “String of Pearls” too tight?
The phrase ‘String of Pearls’ was first used in 2005, in a report provided to U.S. Defense Secretary by Booz Allen Hamilton. He alleged that China was adopting a strategy of naval bases stretching from the Middle East to the shores of southern China.
The ports include:
• Colombo and Hambantota on Sri Lanka;
• Gwadar in Pakistan;
• Chittagong in Bangladesh;
• Meday Island in Myanmar;
• Port Victoria on the Seychelles;
• China has been lobbying for the development of a deep-sea port at Sonadia Island;
• and the latest one, Djibouti.
India has been tensely watching all Chinese investments in ports or other infrastructure ever since, being afraid that China is not making measures just to protect oil shipments but also intends to encircle India from the Indian Ocean.
Maritime Silk Road
China has considerable exposure and investments in the middle East and Africa. Since “the majority of China’s seaborne energy imports transit through the Indian Ocean region and the South China Sea Beijing attaches greater importance to the security of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs).” According to BP’s Energy Outlook, China’s oil import dependence will rise from 57% in 2012 to 76% in 2035, while gas dependence will rise from 25% to 41%. The transport system, however, is vulnerable to disruption at key maritime choke points such as the Malacca Straits or the Straits of Hormuz, and such incidents could block energy trade and seriously impact the level and volatility of energy prices and also result in physical supply shortages.
Although economic realities suggest that it is more realistic to be afraid of a terrorist attack than of the United States or any other country supervising the specific straits blocking traversing transport, China wants to mitigate the risks to the minimum.
Taking military realities into consideration, if we regard China as a developing country, it is completely absurd to suppose it may be capable of actual control over the route of the Maritime Silk Road. The American navy is unmatched. In this light, any kind of Chinese military activity to the west of Singapore can only focus on ensuring free access to maritime routes. In short, it means “China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of Sea lines of Communication (SLOC)”, Bo Zhou, honorary member of the PLA and professor of the Academy of Military Science argues.
By the end of 2013, China had become the largest trader and the largest oil importer in the world, hence the security of SLOCs from Bab-el-Mandeb through the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits is vitally important for China. Currently, their security mostly depends on two countries, the U.S. and India. The U.S. is the only country that has the full capabilities to cut off the routes at any time, but it is unlikely to exercise such capabilities, unless, perhaps, in an all-out war with China. Despite all friction, India is not likely to cut off China’s oil transport routes, either.
For the present, the ports developed by the Chinese serve mostly commercial and logistic purposes, while Christina Lin calls attention to the fact that China does not need to build or operate naval bases outside its borders, as the US does. Nowadays much greater emphasis is placed on accessibility and rights of use than ownership. In addition, since the investments of the New Silk Road would be used mostly by state-owned commercial companies, there is no barrier in front of the Chinese navy to have access to these bases if necessary.
Although Gwadar port lies in the volatile Balochistan province, it is only 400 km from the Straits of Hormuz. On the one hand, it means that western Chinese provinces will have better access to the oil of the Middle East if the port is successfully built. On the other hand, it also means that the deployment of the PLA may be considerably easier and faster if any problem threatening the import occurs in the Straits of Hormuz.
Although China insists these investments all form parts of the Maritime Silk Road, adding Djibouti to the list raises some questions. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs argues it is not a military base but an establishment enabling the replenishment of Chinese naval units when they participate in anti-piracy missions of the UN. Djibouti is a country with a strategic location, on the trade route connecting the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. In addition, its political system is rather stable, except for the president stepping up strictly against any attempts toward western democracy. China is getting less and less capable of protecting its economic interests in Africa without military presence. Several Chinese citizens were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Kamerun, killed in Mali, taken hostage in Sudan and Egypt, and are subject to regular atrocities in Angola, too. Furthermore, the memory of Libya from which 35,800 Chinese citizens working there had to be evacuated on rented vessels is still vivid. This was the first and the largest non-combatant evacuation operation of the navy of the PLA to date.
China had had the choice of going it alone in Oman. Instead, Beijing chose to go alongside the American and French bases “in an already cramped space”, indicating the PLA is not hiding anything. Although American experts still disapprove China’s growing military capacities near the American Camp Lemonnier, which is home to 4,000 American personnel – civilians and members of the Combined Joint Task Force – participating in anti-terrorism operations. But China’s presence here offers a better opportunity for European countries to explore and experience cooperation with the PLA during evacuation, non-combatant operations.
Despite all these constructions and developments, it is still likely that China will be content with building the ports of the Silk Road for commercial purposes. If it wanted to set up openly military establishments, it would do so in East Africa, where China would have greater room for strategic and diplomatic manoeuvre and the presence of the Unites States is not so intense.
Technology, telecommunications and economy encourage people to be involved in the relationships they create. In today’s globalised, interdependent world appropriate infrastructure, roads, energy networks, communications networks, internet, etc., are essential for development and enrichment. An isolated, poor country, which closes its borders to investments is most probably to remain poor. Chinese One Road, One Belt and its complementary 21th Century Maritime Silk Road are working on building these missing networks. Parallel to this, however, it is necessary to resolve security problems, otherwise transactional costs might increase. If shifting transport from sea to overland is not worthwhile, and China does not manage to build the transport network, there will be no one to use it.
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