Articles

Chinese Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Global Threat

This paper was written by John Y. for the course on Geography and Strategy (IWP 634). John is a federal employee at the Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Fiscal Service. John served over 4 years in the Regular Army as an Infantry and Signal Officer for the 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, HI.

The Belt and Road Initiative

China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBORI) was launched in 2013 under Chairman Xi Jinping. Jinping’s vision is for the construction of a land-based belt (ancient Chinese Silk Road), 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and Polar Maritime Silk Road (2018) to connect China with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, East Africa, and Europe. China would achieve this with massive investment in the infrastructure of host nations that would include roads, high-speed rail, airports, seaports, pipelines, and communications.[1] China has committed $4-8 trillion dollars to this initiative that the Chinese would use as leverage to build and maintain infrastructure within host nations.[2] The initiative would create two maritime silk roads and six land-based economic corridors: a new Eurasian “Land Bridge,” a China-Mongolia-Russia, a China to Central Asia and Western Asia, a China-Indochina peninsula, a China-Pakistan economic corridor, and a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor.[3] Upon the completion of OBORI, it theoretically will cover over 4.4 billion people and generate a GDP of over $21 trillion.[4]

The motives behind the OBORI need to be viewed in the context of China’s foreign policy and grand strategy. China wants to return to its former imperial glory and close the chapter where a divided China was dominated by Western powers and Japan.[5] The Initiative supports the Chinese strategic and economic goals to have a prosperous nation and project its influence and power not only regionally but around the world. The Chinese desire to showcase their building acumen and economic progress since the Communist Cultural Revolution. The OBORI would advance the integration of Chinese trade and investments in host nations and place a greater reliance on military and economic support from China. This would benefit China because it would expand into new markets and ensure that host nations rely more on Chinese industrial and commercial exports. A number of these economic projects will certainly expand and enhance Chinese strategic military objectives.

The Chinese have long sought ways to increase their military presence throughout strategically important locations around the globe. While the OBORI certainly advances China’s economic interests, what is also obvious is its expansion of Chinese military assets. China will claim that it is necessary to provide security for the Initiative. One of the largest projects underway is the Pakistani Port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. This project has serious military implications because it gives the Chinese navy a deep-water port for access to the Indian Ocean.[6] In Djibouti, the Chinese military has built its first overseas military installation. Another location is in the Sri Lankan Hambantota Port, where the Chinese were granted control for 99 years.[7] These expansions in the Indian Ocean give China greater influence over the foreign policies of host nations because of the leverage over them in terms of financial assistance.[8] These three projects along the OBORI are implicit efforts to give China’s military access to these three locations.[9]

Chinese Grand Strategy

With the end of the Cold War, the Chinese Grand Strategy has moved away from just a defensive measure of controlling and stabilizing its internal regions and provinces. The Chinese government continues its policy of suppression of internal ethnic minority groups in western China, i.e. Tibetans and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. The purpose of this policy is to secure its western borders and bring security and stability to its westward economic corridors. China has long desired to bring its self-declared rogue province, Taiwan, back into the fold. Chinese leaders have been successful in isolating Taiwan politically by providing OBORI projects and funding only to countries that do not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Currently, China has prioritized resolving its territorial disputes with seventeen of its nearest neighbors. The island disputes with ten nations in East Asia consist of the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Senkaku Islands, Ryukyu Islands, and several other smaller island chains and atolls.[10] The Chinese want to exploit these island chains for fishing rights, oil and natural gas exploration, rare earth metals, other natural resources, and their strategic locations for commercial shipping and military sea routes. China has clashed with India on multiple occasions over the Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, in addition to having border disputes with Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Tibet, Laos, and Mongolia.[11]

Chinese Strategy for the Heartland/Rimland

With its One Belt, One Road Initiative Strategy, China has been applying the principles of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and Spykman’s Rimland Theory. China, knowing that the world’s most important region is the Eurasian Heartland, has been seeking ways to increase its presence and influence there. As Mackinder has stated, “Who controls the Heartland will rule the world,” and Spykman stated that “Whoever commands the Heartland commands the Rimland and the sea routes of the world island.” Hungary became the first European country to sign the OBORI, and its centralized position in Central-East Europe will allow Chinese expansion into the European Union markets and the Heartland. Several OBORI economic corridors would give China access to the Baku oil pipeline, natural gas pipelines, and railways currently under construction that would provide transportation from Central Asia through the Caucasus into European markets. China is staking economic claims in the Heartland because it knows it is where so much of the world’s natural resources are transported and where the crossroads of future wealth creation will be.

Chinese Control of Maritime Chokepoints: “String of Pearls”

China is positioned in the Indian Ocean to put itself in control of the sea lines of communication. The “String of Pearls” is a geopolitical theory about the Chinese network of current and potential overseas military bases, infrastructure projects, economic corridors, and ports of the Indian Ocean region.[12] These “pearls” run from Mainland China to the Port of Sudan, Sudan. Along these sea lines are the strategic maritime chokepoints of the Strait of Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Lombok Strait, where 60% of the world’s commercial and oil shipping lanes are located.[13] These commercial locations can be used for military purposes and connect Chinese naval forces along a maritime route. Opponents have voiced their concerns about host nations being unable to pay back their debt and losing these strategic locations to Chinese control and, with them, regional chokepoints. India is troubled by the Chinese-Pakistani Economic Corridor infrastructure projects, which together with its sea-based initiatives of the OROBI, would surround and threaten Indian national security.[14] With China’s global economic imprint expanding with its OROBI, so, too, will its military presence.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is broken down into five theater groups. The Western Theater primarily deals with India, South and Central Asia, Tibet, and Xinjiang; the Northern Theater with the Korean Peninsula and Russia; the Southern Theater with the South China Sea and Southeast Asia; the Eastern Theater with the East China Sea, Taiwan, and Japan; and finally the Central Theater with Capital defense and supporting the other theaters.[15] The PLA’s objective is to create a modernized “world-class” military by the end of 2049.[16] The Chinese have achieved successes in shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistics and cruise missiles, and integrating air defense systems.[17] Communist leadership has used the world’s second-largest defense budget to restructure its military into a better fighting force and improve its overall combat readiness.

China has the world’s largest standing army with nearly one million active troops and the third largest Air Force/Navy aviation force with over 2,500 aircraft.[18] The PLA has more than 1,250 conventional ground-based ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.[19] Also, China has the world’s best integrated air defense systems, primarily composed of Russian S-300s and S400s with domestic copies capable of intercepting ballistic missiles.[20] The Chinese Nuclear Arsenal is estimated to contain over 300 nuclear warheads with more to be built with its expansion and modernizing efforts.[21] These nuclear capabilities are composed of air-launched ballistic missiles and ground and sea missile systems.

The Chinese have advanced capabilities in cyberwarfare and cyber espionage. China could use irregular hybrid warfare tactics similar to what Russian special forces “little green men” did in Crimea, by using Chinese “fishermen” to annex disputed islands.[22] Chinese claims multiple island chains, and it has been building artificial islands that could be used to encircle Taiwan and launch military strikes to take control over disputed islands. Modern surveillance technology, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could provide an early warning system if Chinese forces were massing for an attack. However, the Chinese could neutralize its adversaries’ technological capabilities by using cyber warfare to disable them or by kinetically destroying them with missiles, knocking out reconnaissance, surveillance, and GPS satellites.[23] If the Chinese were successful in degrading or neutralizing a country’s ability to communicate or observe them, this would limit a country’s ability to defend itself or launch counterattacks. Undoubtedly, the PLA will be at the forefront in advancing its interests in foreign policy objectives throughout the OROBI.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)

The Chinese have proven to be astute scholars of Admiral Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History with their modernization and expansion of their naval forces. The Chinese navy will play the largest role in securing China’s OROBI. China has the world’s largest navy, with over 350 ships and submarines and including 130 major surface combatants.[24] The Chinese navy currently fields two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, with a third one under construction. By comparison, the U.S. Navy has less than 300 deployable ships, eleven of which are aircraft carriers. Most of these commercial ports will have a dual military role that will provide China with strategic advantages and will allow them to compete with the U.S. naval presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Beyond the new military base at Djibouti, China plans additional overseas bases to support its naval, air, and sea forces in host countries of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and East Africa. This increased global military presence will undoubtedly challenge U.S. global naval dominance and threaten U.S. bases overseas.

Coronavirus Pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic first began in Wuhan province in the fall of 2019.[25] China not only failed to warn the world of the dangers of the Coronavirus but actively hid its existence for months with assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO). China allowed the virus to escape its borders and wreak havoc around the world. It is still too early to determine, as the pandemic is still ongoing, how much the Coronavirus pandemic will affect the OBORI. The pandemic has closed international borders, led to countrywide lockdowns, slowed the world economy to a crawl, sent Chinese workers back home, infected tens of millions of people, and killed over a million people across the world. China’s culpability and actions in causing this global pandemic have damaged its credibility and reputation, and this could lead host countries to back out or potential host countries to reassess their participation in the OBORI.

Conclusion

The Chinese Communist leadership’s undertaking of its One Belt One Road Initiative demonstrates its clear understanding of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory, Spykman’s Rimland Theory, and Mahan’s work on The Influence of Sea Power upon History. China is putting itself in a position to threaten the national security of dozens of countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and could disrupt the freedom of navigation operations of the world’s commercial and naval forces. The rivalries between the United States/India and China could lead to conflicts with worldwide implications. China is pursuing a global power status that can exert its influence worldwide militarily, politically, and economically. Conflict with the United States or India may seem inevitable, but, until Chinese military modernization and expansion are complete, it will not risk open conflict. China will wait patiently and quietly continue to gather its strength. When the conditions are in their overwhelming favor decades from now, China will strike out to become the world’s sole superpower.

Endnotes

[1] Meltzer, Joshua P, “China’s One Belt One Road Initiative: A view from the United States” (Brookings Institute, June 19, 2017)

[2] O’Donnell, Frank, “China Deepens Militarization of One Belt, One Road Initiative,” (April 23, 2018)

[3] Wharton University of Pennsylvania, “Where Will China’s One Belt, One Road’ Initiative Lead?” (Public Policy March 22, 2017)

[4] Meltzer, Joshua P, “China’s One Belt One Road Initiative: A view from the United States” (Brookings Institute, June 19, 2017)

[5] Erickson, Andrew, “Make China Great Again: Xi’s Truly Grand Strategy,” (October 30, 2019)

[6] Meltzer, Joshua P, “China’s One Belt One Road Initiative: A view from the United States” (Brookings Institute, June 19, 2017)

[7] O’Donnell, Frank, “China Deepens Militarization of One Belt, One Road Initiative,” (April 23, 2018)

[8] O’Donnell, Frank, “China Deepens Militarization of One Belt, One Road Initiative,” (April 23, 2018)

[9] Chandran, Nyshka, “Reports of China using its ‘Belt and Road’ program for military purposes are ‘no real surprise,’” (December 24, 2018)

[10] Krishnankutty, Pia, “Not just India, Tibet-China has 17 territorial disputes with its neighbors, on land & sea.” (July 15, 2020)

[11] Krishnankutty, Pia, “Not just India, Tibet-China has 17 territorial disputes with its neighbors, on land & sea.” (July 15, 2020)

[12] Dabas, Maninder, “Here Is All You Should Know About ‘String of Pearls’, China’s Policy to Encircle India,” (June 23, 2017)

[13] Dabas, Maninder, “Here Is All You Should Know About ‘String of Pearls’, China’s Policy to Encircle India,” (June 23, 2017)

[14] Dabas, Maninder, “Here Is All You Should Know About ‘String of Pearls’, China’s Policy to Encircle India,” (June 23, 2017)

[15] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[16] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[17] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[18] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[19] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[20] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[21] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[22] O’Donnell, Frank, “China Deepens Militarization of One Belt, One Road Initiative,” (April 23, 2018)

[23] O’Donnell, Frank, “China Deepens Militarization of One Belt, One Road Initiative,” (April 23, 2018)

[24] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” (2020 Annual Report to Congress)

[25] Taylor, Chloe, “Satellite images and online searches indicate China had coronavirus in the fall, Harvard study finds,” (June 9, 2020)

Bibliography

Meltzer, Joshua P., “China’s One Belt One Road Initiative: A view from the United States.” (Brookings Institution, June 19, 2017) https://www.brookings.edu/research/chinas-one-belt-one-road-initiative-a-view-from-the-united-states/

O’Donnell, Frank, “China Deepens Militarization of One Belt, One Road Initiative.” (April 23, 2018) https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/china-deepens-militarization-one-belt-one-road-initiative

Chandran, Nyshka, “Reports of China using its ‘Belt and Road’ program for military purposes are ‘no real surprise.’” (December 24, 2018) www.cnbc.com/2018/12/24/china-belt-and-road-reported-military-implications.html

Dabas, Maninder, “Here Is All You Should Know About ‘String of Pearls’, China’s Policy to Encircle India.” (June 23, 2017) https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/here-is-all-you-should-know-about-string-of-pearls-china-s-policy-to-encircle-india-324315.html

Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020.” (2020 Annual Report to Congress) https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF

Erickson, Andrew, “Make China Great Again: Xi’s Truly Grand Strategy.” (October 30, 2019) https://warontherocks.com/2019/10/make-china-great-again-xis-truly-grand-strategy/

Krishnankutty, Pia, “Not just India, Tibet-China has 17 territorial disputes with its neighbors, on land & sea.” (July 15, 2020) https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/not-just-india-tibet-china-has-17-territorial-disputes-with-its-neighbours-on-land-sea/461115/

Wharton University of Pennsylvania, “Where Will China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative Lead?” (Public Policy March 22, 2017) https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/can-chinas-one-belt-one-road-initiative-match-the-hype/

Taylor, Chloe, “Satellite images and online searches indicate China had coronavirus in the fall, Harvard study finds” (June 9, 2020) https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/09/coronavirus-may-have-been-spreading-in-china-in-august-harvard-study.html