By Rayomand Bhacka
Ever since the Global Financial crisis (2008), China has made repeated forays into utilising economic means to define maritime security. Initially, this came around through stray efforts at naval modernisation to defend and enhance Chinese connectivity abroad until President Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road initiative. Since then the subsequent benefits and pitfalls of this initiative have prompted western policymakers to assess China’s global ambitions through the dual lens of investment and infrastructure. In this sense, the BRI has been sure to set alarm bells in the west over a possible Chinese economic hegemony in the developed world prompting them to rush forth with initiatives of their own such as Build Back Better. Accordingly, this paper seeks to analyse how throughout the years, China has used economic forays to define maritime security for itself up until the creation of the Maritime Silk Road – a strategic sea route of economically significant ports.
Since Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2014, the idea of China having a hold on the global economy and infrastructure has been evolving. This was first realised through a massive legislative plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative – a massive global infrastructure connectivity initiative connecting Beijing to the rest of the world through a series of high-profile investments in massive infrastructural projects. Spanning across 60 countries, this project boasts of a total revenue of $4-8 trillion. This is further supported by a massive advertorial campaign which tries its best to convince client states of a win-win situation under the initiative. One of the central aspects of the One road segment project is the Chinese desire for a 21st century maritime silk road, as it was during the Yuan Dynasty in the ancient period. China seeks naval prominence through an infrastructure initiative whereby it gains nominal control over strategic holdings in the Indian Ocean region. As the BRI expands, China’s trade interests are growing in diversity and number, which makes it urgent for Beijing to plan about protecting these interests from rival regional and global powers contesting influence in these waters.
China’s thrust into the IOR
That being said, the actual starting point of China’s contemporary thrust into the Indian Ocean was December of 2008, when the PLAN inserted two advanced missile destroyers (Wuhan and Haikou) and one logistics support ship (Weishanhu). The purpose of these deployments was to protect vital sea lanes near the Gulf of Aden from Somali pirates. Since then, the Gulf of Aden has witnessed around 30 escort task forces, 900 ships and 22,000 troop deployments from the PLAN. Thus, since the beginning, piracy has been an important ticket for China to mark its presence in the western Indian Ocean and albeit strategically the most lucrative part of the waterway. Such starting moves carried a strong resemblance to a strategy proposed earlier by Mahan known as ‘Flag following trade’. Herein Mahan propounds that as shipping and trade are key to the prosperity of any nation, so is the possession of naval supremacy and the military muscle to protect waterways. Connecting this to the Chinese economy, we find that since Deng Xiaoping, China has had to survive on a humongous import of oil as a source of energy to keep its technological and manufacturing supremacy alive. Currently, Beijing is the largest importer of oil, with over 80% of its oil imports passing through the Indian Ocean. For this reason, sea lanes to the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean have assumed an important role in China’s economic rise. These waterways have often added to China’s insecurities, especially after the “Malacca Dilemma” that it has faced over India and Southeast Asia’s abilities to cut off Beijing from the Indian Ocean. As a result, since the mid-1980s China’s naval programme has evolved from being a low cost near coast protection strategy to an advanced far seas security strategy in the 2000s aimed at the protection of key waterways.
This directly stemmed from the theorization and implementation of China’s maritime defence strategy as seen in the PLAN’s expanding ventures under the Defence White Papers in 2006, 2008 and 2010. However, the biggest step toward naval modernisation was highlighted by the 2013 defence white paper titled ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’. The document states that the PLAN is ‘developing blue-water capabilities of conducting mobile operations, carrying out international cooperation, and countering non-traditional security threats, and enhancing its capabilities of strategic deterrence and counterattack.’ Such capability enhancement efforts have and will enable the PLAN to take more responsibility to safeguard China’s overarching global ambitions.
Essentially, far seas defence (as stated in the defence white papers) involves the PLAN to station its assets along sea lines of communication, strategic choke points and areas infested with non-state armed groups. Such measures ensure that China is fast enough to respond to economic threats as well as foreign interventions in issues involving its strategic interests. This narrative was reflected in the 2013 edition of a book called the Science of Military Strategy, which maintains that around 30 sea lanes of communication link Beijing to 1200 ports in 150 nations, which are extremely vital for China’s economic ambitions. This shift is crucial since an expanded and powerful Belt and Road network away from home will require a strong PLAN capable of protecting its interests, citizens and overseas assets. Unlike the U.S.A, China doesn’t have a strong network of navies and is already grappling with various maritime boundary issues on its coastline, making open seas defence a big challenge. Coupled with this is the urgency that came with U.S president Obama’s sudden shift towards East Asia, which although hollow, helped accelerate the growth of the PLAN to where it stands now. Nevertheless, the most important piece here is the 21st century Maritime Silk Road under the BRI, assuming that China is successful in holding on to the geostrategic holdings and chokepoints it has acquired through the project. This uncertainty stems from the BRI’s operations in politically fragile states where the risk of disruption is high and therefore requires an expanded naval presence responsive to the slightest of threats, which could severely affect not just China but also the globe.
Through such ambitious ventures, China seeks to make the open waters of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean region as suitable for the pursuit of its key interests as possible. Here’s where the aspect of discourse power through the BRI comes into the picture. Discourse power is an important vision of soft power that influences existing political values, regional makeup, introduces new values and shapes agendas. With growing economic power, China is ramping up its efforts in terms of international discourse. The CCP has begun to realise that although the United States is the biggest economy in the world, China is the power that sculpts emerging trends in the global economy. China seeks to achieve this through the MSR segment of the BRI, whereby it convinces member states that the China centric development model is more advanced, comes at lower interest rates and is more cooperative to the regime in power. The various debt trap theories (such as those with respect to Sri Lanka) suggest that through this initiative, China practically takes ownership of land under a loan burdened government in the name of loan repayment and uses it as a military installation in the face of an infrastructure project. These installations, with PLAN facilities then start acting as instruments for the projection of Chinese naval supremacy.
Now, while the world watches China’s plans evolve, many nations are critically concerned about where this road goes. While some nations are deeply concerned and sense indications of war in China’s behaviour, others see an avenue of opportunity in further integration. One such region is the South-China Sea. Here, most sections of western policymaking provide us with two kinds of issues. These include non-traditional ones like environmental degradation, resource pressures, influence over local economies and traditional security/geopolitical concerns such as Chinese investments in critical infrastructure and the advanced political leverage it gains when dealing with maritime disputes involving regional powers. A combination of these concerns creates a hostile environment for certain Southeast Asian nations as well as western powers, given the strategic significance of the South China Sea. Numerical figures show that around 21% of global maritime trade passes through the SCS, including the vital belonging to the TSMC’s operations in the chipmaking sector. A large part of this share of trade is owned by China (64%), with the rest belonging to the U.S.A, Japan, South Korea, Europe and other vital economies in the Pacific. Moreover, the SCS is a vital waterway for the flourishing trade programmes of emerging economies in South and Southeast Asia involving India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the overall security importance of the SCS to Southeast Asian states cannot be underestimated. In that ASEAN nations constitute 50% of the 10 biggest exporters using the SCS. These nations, located on strategic avenues around the SCS and the IOR, boast of huge resources, a growing middle class and strategic positioning. However, in order to sustain an economic growth of such magnifications, Southeast Asia needs a favourable trade environment as well as investments in critical infrastructure in huge numbers. Such needs make Southeast Asian nations desperate for FDIs and China is more than happy to act as such a provider.
Theoretically, in accordance with the region’s needs, the MSR is well poised to fill the connectivity and infrastructure voids in Southeast Asia. Many nations like Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines were already in support of infrastructural integration with China. However, China’s dirty games in the SCS have gravely affected its trajectories under the 21st century MSR. Stalling negotiations and increased encroachment on China’s part have generated negative scrutiny against the MSR along with a general downfall in China’s popularity in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Herein, incidents such as China’s ban on banana imports and travels to the Philippines over the tussle for Scarborough Shoal and the declaration of unilateral fishing by the Chinese ministry of Agriculture have destroyed local industries. With economic dependence on the BRI rising, and the use of critical infrastructure as leverage during a conflict becoming increasingly evident, Southeast Asian nations are increasingly desperate for a diversification in foreign investments. Moreover, there is also this perception that the MSR might be contributing to an arms build-up in the region. Regional states are concerned, more than ever, about China using the MSR as a test run for a potential military power projection in the region, thereby emboldening ambitions closer to home (E.g., SCS) and displacing other powers to create a China dominated Southeast Asia. While it is quite obvious that the Chinese should have a naval presence in areas where the MSR needs security from hostile powers, the lack of a regional security apparatus and the recent lack of commitment shown by the United States has pushed Southeast Asian states into a further state of anxiety. Hereupon, anxiety has led to strategic mistrust on the west, which in turn gave birth to an increased hedging and rebalancing strategy undertaken by Southeast Asian nations.
A similar situation has been unfolding in the broader Indian Ocean region. Owing to China’s aggression pre and post covid, its naval presence in the Indian Ocean have raised alarms for traditional powers trying to establish themselves there. These include India, U.S.A, Japan, Australia and France. Many of these powers, like France and the U.S.A, have around 1/4th of their EEZs located in the IOR, making them increasingly conscious of China’s rapid port expansion under the MSR. Moreover, post Brexit and the EU’s push for self-reliance, a number of nations like the U.K and Germany have started pivoting towards the IOR in accordance with their broader strategy to extract from the Indo-Pacific. The general conclusion here is that successful acquisitions through the MSR have emboldened Chinese ambitions to an overextended limit. So much so that a quick succession of aggressive moves has clearly displayed Beijing’s over-dominant character, which is ruining the reputation of ongoing projects. New developments suggest a slight loss in trust in China and a global pivot towards the Indo-pacific, which makes middle powers more active and the U.S-China engagement more profound in nature.
Rayomand Bhacka is a student at Ashoka University.