For years, China has sought to encircle South Asia with a “string of pearls”: a network of ports connecting its eastern coast to the Middle East that would boost its strategic clout and maritime access. Not surprisingly, India and others have regarded this process with serious concern.
Now, however, China is attempting to disguise its strategy, claiming that it wants to create a 21st-century maritime Silk Road to improve trade and cultural exchange. But friendly rhetoric can scarcely allay concern in Asia and beyond that China’s strategic goal is to dominate the region.
That concern is well founded. Simply put, the Silk Road initiative is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
Indeed, by working to establish its dominance along major trade arteries, while instigating territorial and maritime disputes with several neighbors, China is attempting to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map.
The strategic dimension of the maritime Silk Road is underscored by the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has led the debate on the subject.
The PLA National Defense University’s Maj. Gen. Ji Mingkui argues that the initiative can help China to craft a “new image” and “win influence,” especially as the United States’ “pivot” to Asia “loses momentum.”
PLA experts remain eager to disavow the Silk Road initiative’s link with the “string of pearls.” Instead, they compare it to the 15th-century expeditions of Zheng He, a Chinese eunuch admiral who led a fleet of treasure ships to Africa. According to Central Military Commission member Sun Sijing, Zheng used the ancient Silk Road without seizing “one inch of land” or seeking “maritime hegemony” (though history attests to his use of military force — for example, executing local rulers — to control maritime chokepoints).
In reality, little distinguishes the maritime Silk Road from the “string of pearls.” Though China is employing ostensibly peaceful tactics to advance the initiative, its primary goal is not mutually beneficial cooperation; it is strategic supremacy.
Indeed, the Silk Road is integral to President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” ambitions, which entail restoring China’s past glory and status.
China, especially under Xi, has often used aid, investment and other economic leverage to compel its neighbors to deepen their economic dependence on — and expand their security cooperation with — the People’s Republic.
Xi’s use of a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to develop the maritime Silk Road reflects this approach.
Already, China is constructing ports, railroads, highways and pipelines in the region’s littoral states, not only to facilitate mineral-resource imports and exports of Chinese manufactured goods but also to advance its strategic military goals. China concluded a multibillion dollar deal with Pakistan to develop the port at Gwadar, owing to its strategic location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, which more than offsets the port’s limited commercial potential.
Twice last autumn, Chinese attack submarines docked at Sri Lanka’s newly opened, $500 million container terminal at Colombo Harbor — built and majority-owned by Chinese state companies.
China has now embarked on a $1.4 billion project to build a sprawling complex roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land in Colombo — a “port city” that will become a major stop on China’s nautical “road.”
Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science, admits that China’s mega-projects “will fundamentally change the political and economic landscape of the Indian Ocean,” while presenting China as a “strong yet benign” power.
This is important, because the new Asian order will be determined less by developments in East Asia, where Japan is determined to block China’s rise, than by events in the Indian Ocean, where China is chipping away at India’s long-standing dominance.
India is certainly suspicious of China’s behavior. But China is treading carefully enough that it can continue to advance its goals, without spooking its intended quarry. The American academic John Garver depicted it best using a Chinese fable: “A frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked.”
Seen in this light, it is not surprising that China has invited India to join the maritime Silk Road initiative. The aim is not only to help calm a suspicious neighbor, but also to slow the development of India’s strategic ties with the United States and Japan.
China’s plans for the Silk Road combine economic, diplomatic, energy and security objectives in an effort to create an expansive network of linked facilities to boost trade, aid strategic penetration, and permit an increasingly potent and active submarine force to play an expanded role.
In the process, China aims to fashion an Asian order based not on a balance of power with the U.S., but on its own hegemony. Only a concert of democracies can block this strategy.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground. © 2015 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)