Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Why U.S.-China Counterterrorism Cooperation Falters

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Jeffrey Payne

Consistent discussions over the past several years between the United States and China on counterterrorism (CT) cooperation represented an opportunity during a time of tension. The logic behind these discussions is simple: both Washington and Beijing’s interests generally run in parallel when it comes to stopping violent extremist organizations. Yet, despite detailed conversations in several formats, no cooperative plan has emerged. The reasons for this are multifaceted, but they center on this point: the cost of cooperation outweigh the benefits, on both sides. The United States, for its part, should accept that efforts to cooperate with China on CT are not viable, at least in the near term, and instead should focus on expanding CT cooperation with other Asia-Pacific partners.

The CT Problem Set

Degrading and destroying violent extremist organizations has been a national security priority of the United States for several decades and in that time the federal government developed a host of tools for countering terror that vary from intercepting illicit financial transactions to military operations intent on eliminating terrorist organizations. United States CT operations have evolved from those focusing on extremists in South Asia to today becoming a global effort featuring partnerships with dozens of states. CT partnerships have not only assisted in deepening military relationships between the United States and other countries, but also became an irreplaceable resource for intelligence gathering, capacity building, and economic development.

The threats posed by violent extremists continue to diversify. CT is much more than a military or security force strike. Too many both outside and inside of government forget the investments in supply chains, facilities, training, intelligence, community outreach, judicial and police services, development, and simple face-to-face discussions among partners that are needed for CT efforts to be successful. Therefore, many partnerships the United States built in past decades are not simply about combat. Many partners are engaged in the CT fight without contributing military or security service personnel. Quite a few are sources of information about violent extremists, while others provide needed equipment and supplies. Still more, either due to domestic considerations or external limitations, are involved in efforts more accurately described as countering violent extremism (CVE), a term that addresses a host of actions targeting the economic structures, communities, laws, and social fabric, among others, of a country or region in order to inhibit the spread of violent extremism. CVE is distinct from CT, but still related through the overarching objective of ending the threats posed by violent extremism.

What the evolution of CT, and by extension CVE, reveals is that there a multitude of ways in which countries can use the resources at their disposal to erode terrorism. The United States has partnered with dozens of countries in various capacities and in varying intensity to conduct CT operations. Some of these partnerships were easy to build as they merely added on to existing alliances. Still others were issue-focused partners that coordinated on CT-related operations solely. When it came to countering terrorism, preexisting difficulties do not inherently close the door on state-to-state cooperation. Therefore, the fight against terrorism has evolved in such a way where a country like China can become a partner to the degree in which it is most comfortable. So long as partnerships are conducted in good faith by both parties, there should not be insurmountable obstacles to cooperation.      

Why Cooperation with China is Unlikely

The U.S.-China bilateral relationship has long been complicated. Beijing sees itself as ascendant and has pursued actions that signal its intention to become a regional hegemon and alter the dynamics of the region. The United States, the principal architect of the existing regional order and an ally to four of China’s neighbors, seeks to see China rise without fundamentally displacing its position in the Asia-Pacific, nor dismantling the rules and institutions that define the current regional environment. When it comes to the Asia Pacific, the United States and China are in competition.

Yet, outside of the Asia Pacific, the interests of the United States and China are seemingly not as complicated. In fact, on many global issues the view of both Washington and Beijing are complimentary. Thus, a situation exists where the United States and China ‘compete locally but can cooperate globally.’ A more global China, even one that is risk averse, has slowly but steadily gained experience in the cultural context of foreign regions, while also becoming more tied to foreign countries through trade and diplomacy. Today, China enjoys the status of a major power. China is relatively stable internally, possesses the second largest economy, and is building one of the world’s largest and most advanced militaries. It is also a country that increasingly has to concern itself with terrorism, both domestically and as it relates to its foreign investments and expatriate population.

For much of the bilateral relationship, the United States and China have been interested in each other and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing’s engagement beyond the Pacific intensified during the administration of Hu Jintao and became solidified in the current Xi Jinping era. China substantially deepened its economic and diplomatic engagement throughout Africa with China’s banking institutions and commercial development corporations becoming the go-to source of infrastructural development. China invigorated its outreach to Europe both in an effort to gain greater market share for its exports in those economies, but to also develop the relationship networks needed for a stronger continental footing. China gradually and quietly intensified relationships throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf and with other regional resource-rich countries. China’s footprint in Latin America is often overlooked by China watchers throughout the world, but Chinese diplomacy and money have made quite the impact over the past decade. Finally, China ratcheted up engagement with the regions it borders: Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia. Taking as a whole, China’s foreign engagement has made it a global actor that is quickly gaining the capacity to compete with the United States. In fact, negative perceptions regarding the current United States administration’s willingness to retain its traditional global leadership role have led some to look to China.

China’s successful emergence as a global power comes with a cost. One of these costs is that as China became more engaged around the world, the probability of being targeted by violent extremists increased. Chinese nationals or Chinese investments have been targeted by extremists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Kyrgyzstan, and Iraq. Increased risk from extremists have forced evacuations or increased security in Yemen, Kenya, and the Philippines, among others. A handful of attacks have also occurred inside Chinese territory. The first factor explaining why China is becoming more affected by terrorism is its willingness to engage in foreign projects within unstable countries or near conflict zones. As Rafaello Pantucci stated in a recent opinion piece, “turn to today, and as China reaches out to the world through President Xi Jinping’s belt and road plan, Beijing is becoming more of a terrorist target.” Such risk inevitably puts Chinese citizens and capital in close proximity to violent extremist organizations.

China’s greater international political standing is a second factor and its rise has also seen it become more involved in global governance. It is a major contributor to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO), was an active player in the P5+1 Talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and created several major international organizations, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, that indirectly tie China to the internal politics of other states. The third and most often mentioned factor is the emergence of violent extremism among minorities in China, with the Uyghurs most often discussed, who have adopted violent measures as a means for achieving political aims. Beijing claims these violent extremists are a major threat to China’s stability and growth, while consistently emphasizing that violent extremists are tied to terrorist organizations beyond China’s borders.

Recent terrorism- and separatist-related incidents in China. (Washington Post)

The first and second factors are not inherently politically charged issues for the United States, but the same cannot be said for the issue of minority violence. China’s position regarding homegrown violent extremism presents a human rights concern for Washington. Past United States’ administrations have made a distinction between those from minority groups who are actual violent extremists and those who are peaceful political dissidents. The United States has objected to Beijing’s domestic actions in regard to violent extremism due to apprehensions that Chinese authorities are using the threat of terror to repress ethnic and religious minorities, many of whom are in no way tied to violent extremism. But there is no mistaking that some Chinese citizens are violent extremists. A small portion of Uyghur extremists are affiliated with several terrorist organizations including the Turkistan Islamic Party, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Daesh/ISIL, among others. In 2001, the United States designated the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a violent organization that claimed to act for Uyghur rights, as a terrorist organization. But it remains unlikely that the United States and China will soon solve their disagreements over how China classifies terrorism within its own borders.

China’s interests in combating terrorism go beyond the question of violent extremists among ethnic and religious minorities in China. China is increasingly concerned about the impact of violent extremism in Pakistan, has consistently voiced its support for efforts to defeat Daesh, and has publicly condemned the actions of groups like Boko Haram and al Shabaab. According to Beijing, such terrorist groups not only put Chinese citizens and investments in harm’s way, but their existence spreads regional instability. The United States is actively involved in multilateral efforts to defeat violent extremism around the globe, including groups that China has publicly opposed. As the United States and China both share an interest in seeing such terrorist organizations defeated, it is logical for the two states to discuss cooperative action. The recent  Diplomatic and Security Dialogue between senior leaders from the United States and China in June of 2017 highlighted how China wishes not only to see the demise of Daesh, but also hopes to contribute to such an undertaking.

June discussions on CT are the most recent of a series of bilateral meetings between the United States and China that discussed CT cooperation in Track I, Track 1.5, and Track II formats. Both sides agree that there is a shared interest, but over the course of the past five years these discussions have not generated any tangible plan of action as to how to actually cooperate. The problem is one of good faith. China has long been apprehensive about United States military actions in the developing world, specifically in the Middle East. Given that the most intensive CT operations target Middle East-based terrorist organizations, this is not an easy hurdle to clear. Chinese officials and analysts regular discuss the reasons that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a root cause of current instability in the Middle East and have more recently expressed displeasure in what they see as the United States’ and European allies’ disregard of a UN mandate during the civil war in Libya. China fears that if it cooperates with the United States it could become a party to a regional crisis or end up providing diplomatic cover for an overly-ambitious United States military operation.

A screen grab shows Turkestan Islamic Party leader Abdulheq Damolla praising the perpetrators of a knife and bomb attack on the Urumqi South Railway Station in a video released by TIP on May 11, 2014.

Furthermore, China continues to differ in how to best defeat certain terrorist organizations. Daesh became a regional threat in the Middle East and is a contributing factor to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the larger Levant. United States policy is committed to defeating Daesh and has created the international coalition to Counter ISIL to assist in that goal, but it and its allies maintain that defeating Daesh does not mean supporting the Assad regime, which initiated the humanitarian crisis in Syria that in turn provided space for Daesh to gain power while the regime continues to commit human rights abuses. China is less concerned with the human rights abuses of the Assad regime and argues that stability in Syria is of paramount importance. The only person inside Syria that has any possibility to create stability is Assad, at least according to Beijing.

Beyond specific objections relating to United States CT approaches, China has also been consistently apprehensive about joining multilateral security efforts, with the exception of those operating under a United Nations banner or those created and largely controlled by Beijing. Beijing has signaled that joining multilateral security efforts will provide China little leverage over decision making inside these organizations. China’s longstanding foreign policy principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty continue to matter when it comes to foreign policy, even if only as talking points. When they are abandoned for national interest, Beijing prefers to engage countries on a bilateral level, especially when security issues are at stake so as to optimally manage perceptions of interference. China’s concerns over Pakistan-based violent extremism, for instance, are largely encapsulated within the bilateral relationship it has with Islamabad. Finally, arguments are regularly put forward stating that China is not yet capable of sending military units far from its borders for long-term military action and doing so would put too great a burden on its security forces. Such concerns have not kept China from engaging in long-term UNPKO or from maintaining a consistent People’s Liberation Army Navy presence near the Horn of Africa since 2008 as part of a counter piracy and commercial escort mission, however.  

Given China’s hesitations regarding security-based cooperative action and its different reading of how to address threats, it should come as no surprise the United States is increasingly skeptical of cooperation. The United States neither expects nor would necessarily welcome Chinese military units to engage in existing CT operations. Both the United States Department of Defense and the Department of State are quite familiar with China’s hesitation with the United States’ preferred approach of multilateralism. When the offer of cooperation has been extended by China, the United States has most often responded with an affirmative response followed by a request of how China wishes to specifically cooperate. When nothing specific is mentioned, which is a common occurrence, there have been attempts to offer China a role that seeks to address concerns from the Chinese side while also being of value to larger CT efforts. China has in the past run effective training programs for police officers and first responders, along with possessing a modern and sophisticated supply chain within its security organs. Each of these and more has been floated as possible avenues by which China can become involved in CVE initiatives. Such efforts are not directly tied to CT operations, but provide a support function that could be of great help. No real traction has come from any of these ideas.

When specificity is offered by China it is often conditional and will conflict with a tenant of existing United States policy. For instance, the United States should accept China’s view of Assad’s future in Syria before progress can be made on cooperating over Daesh. This is not an easy option for the United States given how it sees Assad’s crimes against his own people. Another commonality is for the United States and China to build a shared framework for approaching CT that can either be a part of the larger bilateral relationship or be the basis for a new multilateral effort. Beyond being unproductive given existing multilateral efforts, China has consistently used engagements on specific issues to get the United States to affirm its “new type of great power relations” concept. The United States refuses such a concept because it could undermine existing institutions that constitute the existing international system.

Consistent conversation on the issue of CT has led to no tangible avenue for cooperation. This failure does not mean that the United States and China cannot cooperate on a host of other issues internationally, nor does it mean that China is not serious about countering terrorist organizations. What past discussions have revealed is that what sounds like a good idea theoretically is impeded by other elements of each country’s respective national interests. For the United States, CT cooperation with China is not viable in the current environment and attention should be directed to other actors in the Asia-Pacific.

Do More with Existing Partners in Asia

United States CT operations are concentrated in certain regions: the Levant, the Gulf, North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia. For our partners in the Asia-Pacific, they too face threats from terrorist organizations. The United States can leverage its relationships in the Asia-Pacific to expand CT efforts.  

To start with, the United States can and should do more with regional allies. Existing CT cooperation exists with all of the allies in the Asia Pacific, but given the depth of ties with these states, more could be developed and more could be asked. Australia, already experienced with both CT and CVE efforts, has progressively shown greater strategic interest in areas beyond the Asia-Pacific. Intensified CT joint training, particularly given the United States Marine barracks in Darwin provides logistical ease, is a prime opportunity. Australia is a participatory member of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIL and that model could be a source point for intensified conversations about other CT concerns, such as the dangers posed by al-Nusra, illicit networks operating in the Horn of Africa, and other similar threats. The recent visit by Secretary Mattis had an emphasis on CT cooperation. Momentum on intensified CT cooperation should not be wasted by the current U.S. administration.

South Korea and Japan have both invested in CT capability and both are also members of the current anti-ISIL coalition. Seoul and Tokyo are also increasingly interested in regions beyond the Asia-Pacific and gaining expertise about the regional dynamics of Africa, the Middle East, and other regions where the United States conducts CT operations. In short, our allies in Northeast Asia are casting their eyes beyond their neighborhood and are doing so within existing international structures – both of which are welcomed by Washington. Northeast Asia is without a doubt a complicated neighborhood right now given China’s regional ambitions and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, but such complications should not erase an opportunity for deepening regional partnership while also enhancing regional capacity on CT. Japan’s capabilities to establish CT-focused training programs have been routinely discussed by Prime Minister Abe’s government and the United States, as part of its alliance with Japan, could bolster political will around such efforts. South Korea-United States bilateral dialogues on CT are an established component of the relationship and represent a pathway for further cooperative action.  

The Philippines is not only a longtime ally, but is the focus of one of the United States military’s oldest CT operations. United States Special Forces have worked alongside the Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP) in training exercises, capacity building programs, and operations intended to degrade the capabilities of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and other extremist groups located in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. While this cooperation continues, the Duterte administration has made the military relationship with the United States a contentious political issue. Yet, intensified government-to-government contact, including high-level visits by the U.S. administration could do much to ease any existing tensions. Massaging the relationship with the Philippines could open additional doors for cooperative action, such as providing further assistance to AFP operations relating to Davao City and working with the Philippines government to expand the scope of cooperation beyond the Philippines border.

Allies offer the most immediate opportunities for CT cooperation, but other regional actors should not be ignored. Repaired relations with New Zealand could include a focus on CT assistance in Southeast Asia, a region where New Zealand has ample experience through its record of peacekeeping. Indonesia, a rising regional economic powerhouse, not only continues to confront its own violent extremist threat, but also is connected with both its Southeast Asian neighbors and with other Muslim-majority societies in the MENA region that face extremist threats. Thus far, the bilateral relationship between Jakarta and Washington on security matters has been slow to develop, but as with the Philippines leaps could be achieved by simply investing direct government-to-government attention. Many hesitations about cooperating with the United States can be countered merely by key leaders showing up.

Conclusion

It is past time to recognize that CT cooperation is a remote possibility for the United States and China. Such a realization does not undermine the prospects of cooperation in other areas, nor ignore the threats violent extremists pose to China and its citizens. Discussions of CT simply exist too near the orbit of complex issues in the bilateral relationship that neither party is willing to jettison. The United States’ interest in confronting violent extremism around the globe will continue to be viewed as vital to national security. The United States would find rewards if instead it intensified efforts with regional allies and invested the legwork needed to map out new partnerships.  

Jeffrey Payne is the Manager of Academic Affairs at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: Chinese Armed Police soldiers shake hands with their Belarus peers at the opening ceremony of the United Shield-2017 joint anti-terrorism drill on July 11, 2017. The United Shield-2017 joint anti-terrorism drill, which was jointly held for the first time by the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (APF) and the Internal Troops of the Belarusian Interior Ministry, started in the suburb of Minsk, capital of Belarus, on July 11, 2017. (81.cn/Xie Xinbo)

China Looks Seaward to Become a Global Power

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Theodore Bazinis

Introduction

President Xi Jinping in his opening speech before the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China stated that “It’s time for our nation to transform into a mighty force that could lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues.” In other parts of his speech he stated that “No country alone can address the challenges facing mankind,’’ and that “China is going to be a responsible global power.” These statements reveal an expansive strategic ambition for China’s rise as a global leader.

But it’s not only about statements, the building of a mighty naval force and the emergence of China as a first-class maritime power can be identified as a fundamental indication of her attempts to implement such ambitions. A mighty naval force (a blue water navy) that can provide homeland security, ensure sovereign rights, contest national claims, and secure Chinese interests worldwide (including safeguarding the interests of her allies) constitutes a necessary condition for a world leader.

The first thing that comes to mind when considering that only until now a historically continental power like China is now emerging as a leading naval power is the fallacious approach that asserted the maritime character of the U.S. and the continental character of China would combine to result in the establishment of a new balance between them. But now since China has broken with its continental strategic tradition, the next thought that comes to mind is a saying of the greatest naval theorist Mahan who proffered, “Now that we created a powerful navy what are we going to do with it?’’ In other words, what is China’s vision that motivates her decision to be transformed into a global sea power? Furthermore, how will this potential be used?

What Maritime Superiority Entails

There are two possible strategies that first-class naval power enables. The first would be to challenge the hegemony of the U.S., either at the regional (Southeast Asia and West Pacific) or/and global levels. In such case a global rivalry would be imminent (including the extreme contingency of a hegemonic war). The second would be to participate in the international system as a responsible leading stakeholder that simultaneously secures one’s own interests while actively contributing to collective security challenges. But pursuing either strategy involves numerous prerequisites in order to turn maritime power into strategic options of global import.

Considering the globalized character of the contemporary world, the capability and ability to control neighboring littorals and the global commons constitutes a fundamental prerequisite for a state with the ambition to become leading power. Maritime supremacy includes the key missions of commanding neighboring littoral seas, controlling regional SLOCs or SLOCs of vital interest, promoting security in the global commons, establishing trade networks via maritime routes, and projecting power from the sea to apply force and gain access. All are seen as valuable capabilities in developing the potential to achieve greater strategic objectives.

In this vein, Chinese actions to solidify maritime dominance are occurring along multiple lines of effort and work within a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach. These actions include expressing extensive claims (Nine-Dash Line), attempting to establish an ADIZ, building artificial islands, installing defense facilities on these islands, elevating Sansha to a province-level city with jurisdiction over disputed maritime features, developing high-end warfighting capabilities, maintaining regular coast guard law enforcement presence, and sustaining paramilitary activity. These can all be assessed as elements of China’s multifaceted plan to dominate the South and East China Seas and establish maritime superiority in its immediate locale.

A comprehensive effort is also taking place on a global scale. China’s strategy includes efforts to control critical SLOCs by establishing distant naval bases (Hambantota-Sri Lanka, Gwadar-Pakistan, and Djibouti), implementing the One Belt One Road Initiative to include planning to reduce dependence on SLOCs, exercising in distant maritime zones such as the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas, and safeguarding the global commons such as by participating in counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

All of the above are signs of extensive intentions, but is it safe to interpret this as a harbinger of a new hegemonic rivalry? Recall the fundamentals of U.S. maritime strategy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which implemented principles based on the Monroe doctrine and on Mahan’s theory about sea power and its role in obtaining global hegemony. Earning initial American maritime superiority included establishing regional dominance in the Caribbean Sea and reducing European influence in the region to prevent European states from becoming geopolitical players in the North American locale, such as accomplished in part by the Spanish-American War. The U.S. acquired control over the Panama Canal to promote security for chokepoints that were vital for her trade networks. The U.S. also occupied distant island colonies and established naval bases (Cuba, Hawaii, Philippines, Midway, Guam, Haiti, Samoa, etc.). The Great White Fleet sailed the world to announce blue water capability and exemplify American geopolitical preeminence.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) transits through the Panama Canal in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even if the similarities between the two strategies are noteworthy, other facts have to be taken into account. Many states rose to become global powers throughout history, and in many cases hegemony or great power status in international affairs was accomplished with maritime superiority. Remember the historic paradigms of Athens, the Roman Empire, East Roman Empire, Venice and Genoa, Netherlands, Great Britain, and the U.S. However, the contemporary global system is unique when compared with preceding periods. This is primarily due to globalization which has been readily facilitated by the world’s oceans and been manifested in ever-rising volumes of international seaborne trade. Interdependency has grown between states and this shapes relations and rivalries. Today a conventional war between great powers is equivalent with the MAD (mutually assured destruction) of the Cold War. This time instead of nuclear weapons the deterrent/stabilizing factor is economic interdependency (MED – Mutual Economic Destruction), especially when the vast majority of trade is seaborne and where high-end naval warfare in one region alone could disrupt global supply chains.

Conclusion

China’s activity in the maritime domain reveals extensive strategic ambition. Furthermore, her seaward turn after millennia of continental focus and the building of a first-class global navy within a single generation is just a necessary stepping stone in her attempt to acquire a leading world role. Although offensive approaches, extensive claims, and limited (in space and duration) tensions between China and other states can’t be excluded, the elements of Chinese strategic culture would rather shape strategy characterized by patience and a well-estimated approach.

Theodore Bazinis has an MA in International Relations and Strategic Studies and is a Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Athens, in the Maritime Strategy and Security Department.

Featured Image: CSCL Star (Wikimedia Commons)

China’s Base in Djibouti: Lessons from Germany’s Asian Colonialism

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Pawel Behrendt

The opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti on August 1st is a landmark event; China finally has its first overseas military outpost. The parallel of similar activities undertaken by the Germans in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is noteworthy for offering lessons on the relationship between force structure, maritime strategy, and overseas basing.

Djibouti is strategically located on the African shore of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, making it proximate to one of the most important sea routes linking China with Europe. For years this small country has hosted military bases of foreign powers such as France, the United States, and Japan. Over the past decade, the existing facilities have offered crucial support to forces fighting Somali pirates. China takes part in this mission, too. However, with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative Djibouti has started to play a vital role on the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century. Since about the year 2000 China has striven to build and secure its own presence in the Indian Ocean basin. After successfully establishing footholds in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), the next logical step of the Belt and Road Initiative was at the doorstep of the Suez Canal – Djibouti.

Nevertheless, the news of the intention to build a Chinese base came as a surprise in mid-2015. Negotiations proceeded quickly, an agreement was signed in January 2016. The $600 million project was launched the following year. Works on the main body of the facility have already finished, but other parts are still under construction. In reality nobody knows how complex the base is going to be. The first convoy carrying troops to Djibouti departed on July 12 from the port city of Zhanjiang. The base was officially opened on August 1, a very symbolic date – the 90th anniversary of PLA. Beijing is reluctant to use the term ‘military base’ and instead refers to it as a “support facility” that will provide logistical support to forces taking part in UN missions in Africa and the anti-pirate operation. The existing agreement allows the PRC to station 6,000-10,000 troops (sources vary) until 2026. An additional bonus to Djibouti is a $14 billion infrastructure project.

The meaning of the first Chinese overseas base, however, goes far beyond the Silk Road and commerce. China has gained the ability, however limited it may be, to project power in the still unstable Middle East while also strengthening its position against India. Additionally, there are issues of prestige: the PRC has joined the small group of powers that maintain overseas bases. This is very important for a nation that is increasingly self-confident and aims to become a leading power. What most likely accelerated the decision to acquire overseas bases was the Arab Spring of 2011. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was unable to evacuate Chinese citizens from revolution-torn Yemen and Libya and was forced to ask the U.S. and France for help. Both the Chinese leadership and many ordinary citizens regarded this as humiliation. Thus the buildup of the PLAN initiated in the early 21st century gained wider support and was indicated as one of the key objectives of the modernization and reorganization of the Chinese military. What’s more, a strong navy is seen as a mark of the status of a great power and as a crucial factor in securing crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs). It must be pointed out that around 80 percent of Chinese oil imports come via the Strait of Malacca. The numbers are even more impressive when it comes to trade: despite extensive land infrastructure programs, around 99 percent of trade exchange with Europe is seaborne.

Historical Parallels with Germany’s Asian Colonialism

It is worth asking whether China really needs an overseas base and what are the chances of sustaining it in the event of a full-scale conflict. Very interesting conclusions come from the history of German colonial presence in Asia. The topic of obtaining an overseas base in Asia was brought up for the first time during the German Revolutions of 1848/49. The colonial idea found many advocates at the National Assembly in Frankfurt. This was connected with the brutal opening of the states of Asia to the world. The Far East was at that time a “Promised Land” where one could sell any amount of cheap European products and in exchange buy valuable tea, silk, and porcelain. However, for exactly half a century since the issue had been raised, Germany had done nothing to get an overseas base, even though the topic kept coming back like a boomerang. The reason was that the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck saw core German interests in Europe and was strongly against any “colonial adventures” that could antagonize Great Britain.

The situation changed in the late 19th century. Germany was an emerging power striving for a “place under the sun.” The young emperor Wilhelm II was determined to turn Germany into a global power and initiated the “Weltpolitik” (world politics), challenging Great Britain and France. The Kaiser was also influenced by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He had several copies of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, and the margins of one of them were densely covered with notes and commentaries. Thus Wilhelm II had a scientific leverage for his passions: a strong navy and colonies. He found a big ally in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This politically talented officer was a supporter of the ideas of a naval buildup and obtaining an overseas base in China. What’s more, he was able to convince the Reichstag (parliament) to allocate huge sums of money for this purpose.

The dream of a foothold in the Far East came true in 1898. That is when China and Germany signed a treaty which leased the small fishing village of Qingdao (then Tsingtau or Tsingtao) to the Germans for 99 years. Within 16 years Qingdao evolved into one of the biggest ports of China. There was also a fierce discussion what to do with the overseas base. In official documents the term “Gibraltar of the Far East” began to appear. The German Admiralty wanted to create a mighty fortress and naval base. However, Admiral Tirpitz had different ideas. He was well aware that a globally meaningful Navy had yet to be built, and in the event of war the chances of coming to the rescue of the fortress were negligible. He thought holding Qingdao rested on good relations with Japan. Vice Admiral Friedrich von Ingenhol agreed; he bluntly said that in a full-scale war the base would be useless. Thus Tirpitz decided to create an equivalent of Hong Kong, an important trade port and a center promoting German culture. In this field the Germans managed to achieve quite a lot of success, creating—among other things—one of the first resorts in Asia.

1912 German map of Qingdao.

The admirals’ predictions came true, Japan decided that fighting alongside the Entente was more beneficial than remaining neutral or siding with Germany. So Qingdao played virtually no role in World War I and fell in November 1914 after a two month siege by joint Japanese and British forces. Similarly, the huge fleet of battleships built with a tremendous effort and use of resources, a fleet second only to the Royal Navy, stayed in its bases for most of the war. Tirpitz himself said, after he learned about the outbreak of war, that the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) would be useless. The main reason was geography. To rule the waves (and support distant basing) any navy needs unobstructed access to the ocean. Meanwhile, the North Sea and thus the main ports of Germany are separated from the Atlantic by the British Isles and Shetland Islands. This allowed the British to establish the effective distant blockade of Germany in 1914 and—save for the battle of Jutland (in German: Skagerrakschlacht)—avoid a major confrontation. The German Navy failed to find a counter for this strategy and as early as 1915 the naval war was ceded to the light forces and submarines. Neither the powerful shipbuilding industry nor the strong merchant fleet, nor the rich maritime traditions of northern Germany, were able to overcome the shortcomings of geography. The same scenario was repeated during World War II even despite the occupation of ports in France and Norway. Germany had remained a land power, and Britain, by virtue of being the dominant sea power, could maintain a network of meaningful military infrastructure across the globe.

China’s Present Challenge and Geographical Constraints

Despite being located on the opposite end of Eurasia, China faces the same problem as Germany due to the crucial role of geography separating the mainland from the Pacific Ocean. The first island chain comprises the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the western shore of Borneo. The area thus inscribed includes waters directly adjacent to the Chinese coast. Despite the enormous resources invested in the fleet, the PLAN is only now starting to operate outside this border. More southwards China is separated from the Indian Ocean by the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia. There are also three “bottlenecks” determining maritime traffic between East Asia and Indian Ocean and Europe: the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok.

Most of these strategic points on the map are controlled by the United States or its allies. For this reason, China has decided to create A2/AD (anti access / area deny) zones in the East and South China Sea that are to limit the space for adversary maneuver. Moreover, an intensive naval buildup is supposed to make any confrontation too risky by introducing a capability to project power beyond A2/AD zones adjacent to the mainland. In numbers the PLAN is now second only to the U.S. Navy. This resembles similar actions undertaken by Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. response is also considering surprisingly similar to the countermeasures used by the British. Scenarios of military exercises conducted in the western Pacific by the United States and its allies do not imply a strike against the Chinese Navy and coast per se, but rather impose a distant naval blockade based on the first island chain.

There are also differences. Tirpitz was an advocate of the fleet-in-being doctrine, wherein the fleet by its existence alone puts pressure on the enemy. Such a theory resulted in building battleships which were not useless but rather not used. The Chinese leadership, among whom Mahan’s theories are gaining popularity like they once did in the German Empire, have learned this lesson. The buildup of the PLAN, besides including impressive programs like aircraft carriers and SSBNs, concentrates on SSKs, SSNs, and surface combatant escorts. The latter are related to the pursuit of strategic security on the maritime routes leading to and from China. Chinese admirals also do not claim to be interested in the fleet-in-being concept. The naval development plan has been described as being divided into stages corresponding to obtaining the ability to conduct operations beyond the subsequent island chains. Currently the stage of going beyond the “first chain” is underway.

The question is whether in the case of a hypothetical war against the U.S. and its allies the PLAN would be able to go beyond the safe haven of A2/AD zones and break through the blockade. Such an operation is feasible, but it would involve significant losses. In addition, the blockade is rarely carried out by the main force. Thus after the “defenders” break out into the open the fresh main force of “attackers” is already waiting for them.

The base in Djibouti is very unlikely to provide any sufficient relief. This is the case not only in the event of a confrontation with the United States, but also a confrontation with India whose prime location would allow it to freshly contest the PLAN if were to succeed in breaking through Asia’s maritime chokepoints.

Conclusion

China is geographically and historically a land power. As has been the case with Germany and Russia, a blue water navy can be an expensive sign of prestige and great power status rather than a real weapon of war. Power projection for a high seas fleet in a benign, peacetime environment is a different matter entirely. Germany’s historical experience with maintaining distant naval infrastructure reveals that such basing is often irrelevant in full-scale war and virtually impossible to sustain or defend against assault. China’s navy will need to grow significant capacity and capability if China wishes to continue establishing distant military bases for the purpose of projecting power while hoping to retain them in conflict. Alternatively, China could moderate its overseas ambitions by accepting that such bases are indefensible and whose loss should be affordable so long as China’s naval power projection can be checked by potential adversaries in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Pawel Behrendt is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna, an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center, and Deputy Chief Editor of Konflikty.

Featured Image: Chinese troops stage a live-fire drill in Djibouti. (Handout)

Chinese Maritime Strategy for the Indian Ocean

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Week

By David Scott

Chinese maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean reflects a couple of simple inter-related planks; espousal of a “two ocean” navy and espousal of the Maritime Silk Road. 2017 has witnessed important consolidation of each maritime plank. Each plank can be looked at in turn.

“Two Ocean” Navy

In expanding naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, China is pursuing a “two-ocean” (战略, liang ge haiyang) strategy. This is the manifestation of China’s new strategy of “far-seas operations” (远海作战, yuanhai zuozhan) endorsed since the mid-2000s, to be achieved through deployment and berthing facilities across the Indo-Pacific, in part to meet energy security imperatives and thereby achieve “far seas protection” (远海护卫, yuanhai huwei) and power projection by the Chinese Navy. This shift from “near sea” to “far sea” is the decisive transformation in Chinese maritime thinking; “China’s naval force posturing stems from a doctrinal shift to ocean-centric strategic thinking and is indicative of the larger game plan of having a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean.”1 This naval force posture has brought Chinese naval operations into the eastern and then western quadrants of the Indian Ocean on an unprecedented scale in 2017.

In the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean, February 2017 witnessed the Chinese cruise missile destroyers Haikou and Changsha conducting live-fire anti-piracy and combat drills to test combat readiness. Rising numbers of Chinese surface ship and submarine sightings in the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean were particularly picked up in India during summer, a sensitive period of land confrontation at Doklam – e.g. Times of India, ‘Amid Border stand-off, Chinese ships on the prowl in Indian Ocean,’ July 4; Hindustan Times, ‘From submarines to warships: How Chinese navy is expanding its footprint in Indian Ocean’, July 5. This Chinese presence included Chinese surveillance vessels dispatched to monitor the trilateral Malabar exercise being carried out in the Bay of Bengal between the Indian, U.S., and Japanese navies, which represents a degree of tacit maritime balancing against China. Chinese rationale was expressed earlier in August by the Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s South Sea Fleet, Capt. Liang Tianjun, who said that “China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” but that China would also not “be obstructed by other countries.” India is increasingly sensitive to this presence (Times of India, ‘Chinese navy eyes Indian Ocean as part of PLAs plan to extend its reach,’ 11 August) in what India considers to be its own strategic backyard and to a degree India’s ocean for it to be accorded pre-eminence. In contrast, China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean lends maritime encirclement to match land encirclement of India.

In the western quadrant of the Indian Ocean, another first for Chinese deployment capability was in August when a Chinese naval formation consisting of the destroyer Changchun, guided-missile frigate Jingzhou, and the supply vessel Chaohu conducted a live-fire drill in the waters of the western Indian Ocean. The reason given for the unprecedented live fire drill was to test carrying out strikes against “enemy” (Xinhua, August 25) surface ships. The “enemy” was not specified, but the obvious rival in sight was the Indian Navy, which was why the South China Morning Post (August 26) suggested the drill as “a warning shot to India.” Elsewhere in the Chinese state media, Indian concerns were brushed off (Global Times, ‘India should get used to China’s military drills,’ August 27). Finally in a further development of Chinese power projection, in September a “logistics facility” (a de facto naval base) for China was opened up at Djibouti in September, complete with military exercises carried out by Chinese marines.

The Maritime Silk Road

At the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, the Congress formally wrote into the Party Constitution the need to “pursue the Belt and Road Initiative.” The “Road” refers to the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative pushed by China since 2013, with the “Belt” referring to the overland land route across Eurasia. The MSR is a maritime project of the first order, involving geo-economic and geopolitical outcomes in which Chinese maritime interests and power considerations are significant. May 2017 saw the high-level Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing, focusing on the maritime and overland Silk Road projects. A swath of 11 Indian Ocean countries participating in the MSR were officially represented, including Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia (President), Iran, Kenya (President), Malaysia (Prime Minister), the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan (Prime Minister), Singapore, and Sri Lanka (Prime Minister).

Major nodes and hubs of China’s One Belt, One Road project. (ChinaUSfocus.com)

On 20 June 2017, China unveiled a White Paper entitled Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. This vision document was prepared by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). It was classic win-win “pragmatic cooperation” involving “shelving differences and building consensus. We call for efforts to uphold the existing international ocean order.” This ignored China’s refusal to allow UNCLOS tribunal adjudication over its claims in the South China Sea.

The MSR presents a vision of interlinked ports and nodal points going across the Indian Ocean. The significance of the MSR is that China can expect to be involved in a three-fold fashion. Firstly in infrastructure projects involved in building up the nodal points along these waters that was alluded to in the Vision document by its open aim to “promote the participation of Chinese enterprises in such endeavors” and which could “involve mutual assistance in law enforcement.” Secondly, Chinese merchant shipping is growing greater in numbers, and thirdly, deploying naval power to underpin these commercial interests and shipping.

This pinpointing of ports across the Indian Ocean reproduces the geographical pattern of the so-called String of Pearls framework earlier mooted in 2005 by U.S. analysts as Chinese strategy to establish bases and facilities across the Indian Ocean – a chain going from Sittwe, Chittagong, Hambantota, and Gwadar. China of course consistently denied such a policy, but its drive during the last decade has been to establish a series of port use agreements across the Indian Ocean, now including infrastructure and facilities agreements at Mombassa and Djibouti.

Chinese penetration of ports around the Indian Ocean rim gathered pace during 2017. September saw Myanmar agreeing to a 70 percent stake for the China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) in running the deep water port of Kyauk Pyu. The port is the entry point for the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline. CITIC is a state-owned company, and so represents deliberate central government strategy by China. In July Sri Lanka agreed to a similar 70 percent stake for the China Merchant Port Holdings (CMPH) in the Chinese-built port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease. CMPH is another state-owned company, and so again represents deliberate central government strategy by China.

Gwadar, nestled on the Pakistan coast facing the Arabian Sea, has been a particularly useful “pearl” for China. Built with Chinese finance, it was significant that its management was taken over by the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) for a 40 year period in April 2017. This is deliberate strategy on the part of the Chinese government, given that COPHC is another state-run entity. The Chinese Navy has started using Gwadar as a regular berthing facility, in effect a naval base established for the next 40 years. Gwadar is also strategically significant for China given its role as the link between maritime trade (i.e. energy supplies from the Middle East) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is set to improve infrastructure links between Pakistan and China.

From a strategic point of view, China’s use (and control?) of Gwadar and Kyauk Pyu will enable China to address its present vulnerability, the so-called Malacca Dilemma, whereby Chinese energy imports coming across the eastern Indian Ocean into the Strait of Malacca, could be cut either by the U.S. Navy or the Indian Navy.

It is significant that although India has been invited to join the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, India has avoided participation. Its absence at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in May 2017 was conspicuous. The official explanation for this Indian boycott was China’s linking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (which goes through Kashmir, a province in dispute between India and Pakistan) to the MSR initiative. In practice, India is extremely wary of the whole MSR initiative. Geographically, the MSR initiative surrounds India, and geopolitically Indian perception tends to be that it is but another Chinese way to encircle India. China of course denies any such encirclement strategy, but then it would deny such a policy anyhow.

The geo-economics of the Maritime Silk Road present China with interests to gain, maintain, and defend if need be. How can China defend such interests? Ultimately, through the Chinese Navy.

A More Powerful Navy

Chinese maritime strategy (a “two ocean” navy) is not likely to change, what will change is China’s ability to deploy more powerful assets into the Indian Ocean. This was evident at the 19th Party Congress. The formal Resolution approving Xi Jinping’s Report of the 18th Central Committee included his call to “build a powerful and modernized […] navy.” 2017 has seen Chinese naval capabilities accelerating in various first-time events.

One indicator of capability advancement was the unveiling in June at Shanghai of the Type 055 destroyer, the Chinese Navy’s first 10,000-ton domestically designed and domestically-built surface combatant. The Chinese official state media (Xinhua, June 28) considered this “a milestone in improving the nation’s Navy armament system and building a strong and modern Navy.” The Type 055 is the first of China’s new generation destroyers. It is equipped with China’s latest mission systems and a dual-band radar system

Chinese Navy’s new destroyer, a 10,000-ton domestically designed and produced vessel, is launched at Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) in east China’s Shanghai Municipality, June 28, 2017. (Xinhua/Wang Donghai)

So far aircraft carrier power has not been deployed by China into the Indian Ocean. China has converted one ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag and inducted it into the navy in 2012 as the Liaoning. But China is already deploying “toward” the Indian Ocean where in January 2017 the Liaoning led a warship flotilla into the South China Sea, including drills with advanced J-15 aircraft. This was the first Chinese aircraft carrier deployment into the South China Sea, and constituted a clear policy to project maritime power. This projection was partly in terms of demonstrating clear superiority over local rival claimants in the South China Sea, and partly to begin matching U.S. aircraft carrier deployments into waters that China claims as its own, but which the U.S. claims as international waters in which it could undertake Freedom of Navigation Exercises.

A crucial development for China’s aircraft carrier power projection capability is the acceleration during 2017 of China’s own indigenous construction of aircraft carriers. This will deliver modern large aircraft carrier capability, and enable ongoing deployment into the Indian Ocean. China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier Type 001A, probably to be named the Shandong, was launched in April 2017 at Shanghai, with mooring exercises carried out in October at Dalian. Consequently, this new aircraft carrier is likely to join the Chinese Navy by late 2018, up to two years earlier than initially expected, and is expected to feature an electromagnetic launch system. It is expected to be stationed with the South China Sea Fleet, thereby earmarked for regular deployment into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. This marks a key acceleration of China’s effort to build up a blue-water navy to secure the country’s key maritime trade routes and to challenge the U.S.’s dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea as well as India’s position in the Indian Ocean.

Countervailing Responses

The very success of China’s Indian Ocean strategy has created countervailing moves. In reaction to China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative, India has pushed its own Mausam and Cotton Route projects for Indian Ocean cooperation, neither of which involve China; and alongside Japan has also started espousing the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor (AAGC), which again does not involve China. U.S. espousal of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (IPEC) connecting South Asia to Southeast Asia is also being linked up to the Indian and Japanese proposals. With regard to China’s “two-ocean” naval strategy, the more it has deployed into the Indian Ocean, the more India has moved towards trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan. Australia beckons as well in this regional reaction to China, as witnessed in the revival of “Quad” discussions between Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. officials in 12 November 2017. This countervailing security development includes trilateral MALABAR exercises between the Indian, Japanese, and U.S. navies, in which their exercises in the Bay of Bengal in July 2017 showed a move of venues (and focus of concern about China) from the Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, and with Australia likely to join the MALABAR format within this “Quad” development. China has become a victim of its own maritime success in the Indian Ocean, thereby illustrating the axiom that “To every action there is an equal and opposed reaction” – which points to tacit balancing in other words.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

References

1. Kupakar, “China’s naval base(s) in the Indian Ocean—signs of a maritime Grand Strategy?,” Journal of Strategic Anaysis, 41.3, 2017

Featured Image: Pakistan’s Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Zakaullah visits Chinese ship on visit to Pakistan for participating in Multinational Exercise AMAN-17 in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 12, 2017. (China.org.cn)