CHINAS STRATEGIC SHIFT

CHINAS STRATEGIC SHIFT TOWARD THE REGION OF THE FOUR SEAS: THE MIDDLE KINGDOM ARRIVES IN THE MIDDLE EAST

BY CHRISTINA Y. LIN 

MARCH 18, 2013

xt4f3424e1 China’s interest in the Middle East is first and foremost

  • energy-driven. In 1993, when it became a net oil importer for the first time, Beijing embarked on a “go out” (zhouchuqu) policy to procure energy assets abroad to feed its growing economy… The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rests on continued economic growth and delivering a rising standard of living for the Chinese population. As a corollary, China is also concerned about
  • security of energy supply lines and Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCS).  Because the United States is considered its main opponent in the international system, China is wary of U.S. naval dominance and the risk of choking China’s energy supply through the Malacca Straits should hostilities break out over Taiwan. This is referred to as the “Malacca Dilemma,” where 80 percent of China’s oil imports traverse this chokepoint that is vulnerable to piracy and U.S. blockade… The Middle East is also a strategic logistics and trade hub for
  • China’s exports and market access in Europe and Africa. China understands the importance of having strong economic foundations for military power and sees that continued market access for their exports to fuel China’s economy would build up their war chest to further underwrite military modernization.The
  • EU is currently China’s largest trading partner ahead of the United States. Moreover, China also has vast interests on the African continent–both via infrastructure projects and long-term energy supply contracts.  More than 1 million Chinese are in Africa (up from about 100,000 in the early 2000s), with trade at $120 billion in 2011. In 2009, China overtook the United States to become
  • Africa’s number one trading partner.  As such, the Middle East is a strategic region that connects Europe, Africa, and Asia markets. Thus, given the
  • Middle East’s location as a trade hub linking the three continents, a vital region for market access, and site of vast energy reserves to fuel China’s continued economic growth, the CCP deems the Middle East as a high priority on its foreign policy agenda. As the United States “pivots” towards Asia, China will naturally seek strategic depth in areas that were once dominated by the United States and its Western allies…In order to procure energy assets and ensure security of energy supply, China has adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, it has embarked on
  • a “New Silk Road” of infrastructure projects. China is turning historical trading routes of the ancient Silk Roads into a modern grid of overland pipelines, roads, and railways for its energy supplies–called the New Silk Road. This is to circumvent naval chokepoints and hedge against risks of naval blockades or embargoes. Second, it has increased military power projection to protect overseas interests. China has also embarked on military (especially naval) modernization to protect overseas interests and adjusted its
  • strategy from “coastal defense” to “far seas defense” for the PLA Navy (PLAN). China uses a combination of economic, political, and military tools to further this two-pronged strategy.

 China is building various infrastructure projects in the Middle East and Africa. These are usually bilateral agreements with the government to bypass market forces of tender and competition. One such example is the 2012 Sino-Israeli agreement for Chinese companies to build a cargo rail line linking the Mediterranean port of Ashdod with Eilat in the Red Sea, dubbed the “Med-Red rail,” and the “steel canal” to bypass an increasingly unstable Suez Canal under the Muslim Brotherhood’s control… Likewise in Egypt, China recently penned bilateral government agreements with President Muhammad Mursi to build railways, telecommunications, and other infrastructure projects backed by Chinese concessional loans, providing funding with advantageous conditions that few other countries are willing to provide.In addition to bilateral agreements, China also provides competitive package deals that may include military aid in addition to concessional loans, as well as loans for oil, loans for strategic minerals, and/or loans for infrastructure projects. Western companies cannot compete, because

  • Chinese state-owned companies are backed by China’s $3.3 trillion war chest.

For example, in Afghanistan in 2007, China’s Metallurgical Group (M.C.C.) outbid the second runner up by 70 percent, offering $3.5 billion for the Aynak cooper mine estimated to go for $2 billion. M.C.C. offered $1 billion more than any of its competitors from Canada, Europe, Russia, the United States, and Kazakhstan. The entire package included a one-stop shop to build railways, a 400-megawatt generating plant to power the copper mine and Kabul, coal mines to feed the plant’s generators, as well as schools, roads, and even mosques for the Afghanstan…

China also uses its influence as a

  • UNSC member for preferential treatment and to further cement its ties with host countries. In the past, China has used its veto power to shield, or water down, sanctions on countries accused of human rights violations and illicit nuclear programs…  In fact, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad visited Beijing in 2004 to seek
  • economic cooperation based on the Chinese model of development–maintaining authoritarian control while experiencing economic growth. This is referred to as the Beijing Consensus, which challenges the Washington Consensus stipulating that only political liberalization will lead to economic growth…

China also tries to further its influence via coalitions of non-Western countries, such as

  • BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) or the
  • NAM (Non-Aligned Movement), which convened a summit in Tehran in August 2012, ending Iran’s isolation. Participants at the level of minister or higher from 80 countries attended, and 50 countries sent their heads of government. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also attended, as well as China–an observer of NAM since 1992–and Russia was invited as Iran’s special guest. With 120 member countries and two-thirds of UN states dual-hatted as full NAM members, China naturally used the NAM summit platform to push for enhancing the UN’s role and to promote cooperation within NAM countries…

Moreover, China is aligning with key countries that have problematic relations with the United States and the West–Iran, Syria, and Turkey–that are also of geostrategic significance and lie on the littoral of

  • the four seas: the Caspian, Black, Mediterranean, and Arabian/Persian Gulf. This energy-rich “Region of the Four Seas” lies in the “strategic energy ellipse,” which has over 70 percent of the world’s proven energy reserves.Syria’s Bashar al-Asad first promoted the concept of a “Four Seas Strategy” to transform his country into a trade hub. The Ankara-Damascus-Tehran triangle would become the nucleus of an approach that aimed to include Iraq and the Caucasus in a geographical continuum linking the Four Seas.

Beijing has wielded its UNSC power to shield Iran’s nuclear program, water down sanctions, protect Syria’s Asad regime, and upgrade military ties/strategic partnership with NATO member Turkey…The Chinese view that the United States currently controls the west bank of oil rich Persian Gulf via its pro-American proxies (e.g.,Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf states), rendering the Gulf an “internal sea” for the United States. However, if China and Russia expand relations with Iran, they could maintain a “minimum balance” to thwart possible U.S. naval embargoes against other countries. If the United States and China should ever have a military clash over Taiwan, Washington would not shut off China’s Gulf oil supplies since China, Russia, and Iran control the Gulf’s “east bank.” …

Nato_vs_scoSource: Wikipedia

China… is building railway networks connecting Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe…Dubbed the “Iron Silk Road”, in November 2010, China signed agreements with Iran to connect railways through Central Asia, as well as onto Turkey and Europe… 

Fig-7Source: “The Railways of the Middle East, Visions 2025,” UIC strategy, February 2008, International Union of Railways.
 
The Chinese military has also changed its strategy from “coastal defense” to “far sea defense”,  seeking to project naval power well beyond its coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific. Admiral Liu Huaqing, who modernized China’s navy as its commander from 1982-1988, defined the Sino-centric concept of the Near Sea, as well as the Middle and Far Seas as depicted in the Map below.

 

Fig-6iSource: Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, China Sign Post, No. 55, March 6, 2012

In an interview with Xinhua in 2010, Rear Adm. Zhang Huachen, deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, said, “With our naval strategy changing now, we are going from coastal defense to far sea defense.” He added, “With the expansion of the country’s economic interests, the navy wants to better protect the country’s transportation routes and the safety of our major sea lanes.”…

Around the Mediterranean, China is acquiring stakes in shipping and logistics companies and is expanding ports in Greece (Piraeus Port), France (Port of Marseille Fosx 4XL container terminal), Spain (El Prat pier in the Barcelona Port), as well as rail, air terminals, and fiber optic networks in Portugal (Huawei and Portugal Telecom) and Italy (air terminal north of Rome). In the Eastern Mediterranean, the China Harbor Engineering Company is expanding Lebanon’s Tripoli port. In Israel, it is cooperating with Ashdod port authorities and building a light rail from Tel Aviv to Eilat. It is also connecting the Eilat port to the Ashdod and Haifa ports in Israel. In Egypt, China’s shipping company COSCO has a 20 percent share in the Danish Maersk container port in Port Said… Across the Suez Canal in the Red Sea, China is already enlarging Port Sudan, which gives China the ability to deliver maritime shipments (whether civilian or military) to Sudan, East Africa, and the Horn of Africa region. Near the Persian Gulf in February 2013, China took operational control of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port from Singapore’s PSA International, which it also built.

However, China still faces obstacles in challenging the U.S. military and realizing its goal as a dominant maritime power. The Mediterranean is still dominated by NATO and the U.S. 6th Fleet, and the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf by U.S. 5thFleet.  In the near-term, China’s navy will show its presence as a new kid on the block in the far seas, but will be unable to challenge U.S. naval pre-eminence.  However, over the longer term, as the United States and NATO cut back on their defense budgets due to economic woes while China continues to increase its spending and military modernization, the U.S. naval position may begin to erode as China becomes a formidable competitor for influence in power projection in this region

“counter-encirclement strategy”  

Since the 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq, China has become more active in pursuing a “counter-encirclement strategy” against perceived U.S. hegemony in the Middle East… In 2005, Jin Liangxiang, research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, argued that China was experiencing a new activism and that “the age of Chinese passivity in the Middle East is over.” He declared, “If U.S. strategic calculations in the Middle East do not take Chinese interests into account, then they will not reflect reality.”That same year, President Hu Jintao delivered a message to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the “New Historic Missions” strategy, which underscores the PLA’s role in safeguarding national interest overseas.There is also a rising tide of domestic nationalism, with China’s own historic narrative as a victim in the past “century of humiliation” and that the time has come to reassert the Middle Kingdom’s proper place in the world…Chinese leaders and strategists have often lambasted

U.S. strategy of encircling and containing a rising China.

China views that its eastern flank is already surrounded by anti-Chinese alliances forged by the

  • U.S. defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand, in addition to
  • defense cooperation with Taiwan, Singapore, and Indonesia.

With the post September 11 War on Terrorism and subsequent stationing of U.S./NATO troops in Central Asia and Afghanistan, China is now encircled by a U.S. military presence to contain its freedom of action.  Air Force colonel Dai Xu, a renowned military strategist, wrote in an article, “China is in a crescent-shaped ring of encirclement. The ring begins in Japan, stretches through nations in the South China Sea to India, and ends in Afghanistan. Washington’s deployment of anti-missile systems around China’s periphery forms a crescent shaped encirclement”.

encirclement_0_3 (1)Source: Laura Canali, “How America Wants to Check China’s Expansion,” Heartland: Eurasian Review of Politics, April 2005

As the United States embarks on its pivot to Asia in order to contain China and it partners with Southeast Asian nations to counter China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is taking counter-encirclement steps… As U.S. influence begins to wane in the Middle East and pivots, or “rebalances,” toward the Asia Pacific, China is seizing a strategic window of opportunity to fill the growing vacuum and attempting to shape a post-Arab Spring region that is more hospitable for China’s power projection capabilities. A rising power with expanding interests, China will become more proactive in the Middle East and North Africa…   

In July 2012, China’s State Council approved the establishment of a new national prefecture on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, which is disputed territory between Vietnam and China. China’s Central Military Commission announced that it would deploy a garrison of soldiers to guard the Paracel Islands, announced a new policy of “regular combat-readiness patrols” in the South China Sea, and began offering oil exploration rights in locations recognized by the international community as within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.Although China established a new military garrison and unilaterally annexed a disputed area, America’s reaction has been muted. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Senator James Webb (D-VA) observed that China’s economic power and its assertive use of its navy and commercial vessels to project influence has changed the dynamics in East Asia. He criticized, “In truth, American vacillations have for years emboldened China.” He added that East Asian allies were “waiting to see whether America will live up to its uncomfortable, but necessary, role as the true guarantor of stability in East Asia, or whether the region will again be dominated by belligerence and intimidation.”…

The credibility of the U.S. security guarantee is at a critical crossroads. The U.S. course of action will have long-lasting ramifications for regional security both in the Middle East and in East Asia. If United States fails to reassure its allies, there will be a loss of confidence in U.S. security umbrella. This in turn will lead to an arms race and increased nuclear proliferation that threatens to destabilize both regions…

Dr. Christina Lin is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. This study was originally presented at a Middle East Roundtable at the Joint Staff, Pentagon on September 18, 2012, Washington, D.C

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