What could and should the United States do if the Belt and Road Initiative collapses?
By Tuan Pham and Grant Newsham
More and more China Watchers, to include these two observers in Japan, are having increasing doubts about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s trillion-dollar wide-ranging infrastructure enterprise that spans across Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas to elevate Chinese global economic and political standing. The grandiose national plan seeks to make a lot of money, acquire more resources, gain additional power, and expand influence to advance Beijing’s strategic ambitions of national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream) and ultimately global preeminence – or even better, dominance. So what if these pundits are correct and the possibly over-leveraged BRI continues to underperform and not deliver the promised returns, receive increasing political backlash (buyer’s remorse over crushing debt burdens), and eventually collapses? What are then the ensuing opportunities and challenges for America?
This two-part series is a thought exercise to engender strategic thought, dialogue, and planning on this possibility. Part one starts with making a case for a BRI bubble that may burst. In part two, each author individually offers his perspective on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof.
A BRI Bubble
There are growing concerns of a BRI bubble that may burst, and that China’s hurried and reckless BRI investments through the years are beginning to drag down its already slowing domestic economy. Beijing reportedly is applying the brakes. Chinese officials are now expressing qualms that Chinese corporations need to be cautious on how much they lend under the flagship project, but interestingly are not mentioning how much state funding is being expended on the BRI.
Nonetheless, Beijing reportedly has begun a comprehensive accounting of how many deals have already been done, on what financial terms, and with which countries. Beijing has also tightened capital and exchange controls to better manage BRI investments out of concerns over China’s domestic financial conditions. Altogether, the moves are intended to rein in the “wild west” investing environment, hedge against an uncertain Chinese economic outlook, and curtail the worrying capital flows outside the country. Since last year, Beijing appears to be trying to bolster an apparent lagging enthusiasm for the BRI.
However, to fully understand the nature, scope, and extent of the problem, it is best to start at the beginning. In the early 2000s, Beijing implemented the “Go Out” policy, which incentivized Chinese corporations to seek business ventures abroad by providing easy credit, cheap loans, and attractive financial guarantees from China’s national banks. Ten years later, stimulated by the government-sponsored BRI and fueled by relaxed financing, Chinese firms undertook even more speculative investments based on the flawed assumptions that the BRI was too big to fail and the central government will simply bail them out if they do fail. Not surprisingly, many of these risky BRI projects have underperformed and incurred massive debts and the impacts for the Chinese banks, and through them the Chinese economy, are now becoming evident. That is why Beijing has been assertively (and some might say desperately) cajoling (pressing) other countries and international organizations to invest in the BRI – and take on some, or most, of the risk.
China’s Economic Stagnation
Many observers have long worried that the BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and geo-political implications) represents an economic and political power play by Beijing, buttressed by its vast monetary reserves and driven by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) preoccupation with realizing its long-term goal of achieving global influence and ultimately global preeminence. But even with its immense economic power (second only to the United States), China still has its limits. Its economy is showing signs of slowing, and it is in a nascent trade war with the United States. At the same time, Beijing is struggling to tame its own mounting debt problems – problems that international lending and domestic spending sprees haven’t helped – and may even be letting up on its campaign to arrest debt growth as it faces a weakening economy at home and escalating trade tensions abroad.
Weeks before the onset of the trade war, a government-affiliated Chinese think tank, the National Institute for Finance Development, warned of impending financial panic potentially leading to financial crisis. It pointed to this year’s cascade of bond defaults, tightened liquidity, declining stock markets, and weakening Yuan. The report added that U.S. interest rate hikes and a looming trade war suggest that “the Chinese people are very likely to experience a financial panic very soon,” and that Beijing had best come up with a crisis management plan to deal with the panic.
The Chinese stock market lost two trillion dollars in value in the last six months, a worrisome economic indicator for Beijing, particularly in the midst of a destabilizing trade war that is beginning to increasingly impact the Chinese economy. The CCP’s claim to unopposed rule explicitly and implicitly depends on economic performance (prosperity), and an underperforming market is a poor reflection of its governing competence and by extension its political legitimacy. A bearish Chinese stock market is also a psychological reflection of how the Chinese people think of their current and future economic prospects. If so, once public doubt builds and takes hold, the wave of pessimism could intensify and spread, and if left unchecked become pervasive fear and panic.
Trade War Wildcard
The ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war is proving to be a propaganda quagmirefor Chinese President Xi Jinping and the CCP, both on the domestic and international fronts. Regarding the former, they lose “face” if they say nothing or too little and they face public anger and political risk if they say too much and cannot deliver on their promises. As for the latter, Xi may have realized that jingoistic rhetoric may not be helpful and may even be counterproductive to ending the trade war on favorable terms and instead undermines Beijing’s carefully crafted international image as a defender of global trade.
The official CCP response to the trade war has aimed at depicting China and the Chinese economy as being strong enough to cope with a trade war. Yet, Beijing’s statistics bureau has reportedly published inaccurate economic data to bolster the arguably false impressionthat the Chinese economy is handling U.S. trade pressures well. Indeed, the CCP might be in more distress at this point if the world realizes that it has been exaggerating (bluffing) about its economic strengths and capacities to withstand a trade war, as evident by its continued “optimistic and suspect” gross domestic product (GDP) outlook despite lack of corroborating economic data and growing skepticism of Beijing’s statistical methodology.
All in all, the trade war has cornered Xi and the CCP as is evident by the changing and inconsistent public messaging and media censorship to control domestic narratives. If they cannot cope with the trade war and lose control of the aforesaid narratives, then their control over Chinese society might diminish while undermining Xi and the Party’s power and authority. If so, expect even fewer civil liberties, greater censorship, and more draconian crackdowns in the coming months to restore the CCP’s grip on public order and confidence in Xi’s leadership. The latter apparently showing some political vulnerabilities in the form of a surprising rebuke at home and telling personal affirmation of the need for resolute leadership. In recent weeks, Beijing’s government, intellectual, and media have been rife with “rumors” over leadership discontent with Xi – particularly over his bold power consolidation and brazen rollback of collective leadership norms, mismanagement of the all-important bilateral relations with Washington, and poor handling of the ongoing trade conflict with the United States.
Beijing has also embarked on an aggressive media campaign to influence foreign audiences (sharp power). The latest being a short satirical videoby the China Global Television Network (international offshoot of state-owned broadcaster China’s Central Television), mocking President Trump and highlighting many of China’s concerns (grievances) in the ongoing trade dispute; and an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, pushing the narrative that “the American people need to hear the truth about U.S.-China trade, instead of Trump’s charges of bad faith…despite what the president says, trade is free and fair, and these 10 points explain why.” They are:
(1) Although China, as a developing country, has higher tariffs on U.S. goods than the United States does on Chinese goods, its tariffs are still lower than those of many other developing countries.
(2) As for goods coming into the United States, inexpensive Chinese imports have helped the U.S. middle class.
(3) It isn’t Chinese barriers but U.S. export controls that limit our economic exchange.
(4) Trade deficit numbers can be deceiving.
(5) When American protectionists talk about the trade deficit with China, they deliberately ignore the U.S. surplus in “service trade.”
(6) Another thing protectionists deliberately ignore is that the sales of U.S. companies in China have surpassed $500 billion.
(7) In 2017, China’s external payment of intellectual property fees reached $28.6 billion, 15 times more than when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. U.S. intellectual property owners are the biggest beneficiaries.
(8) No laws or regulations compel technology transfers; joint ventures are based on deal-by-deal negotiations and some U.S. companies are willing to transfer technology for Chinese market access.
(9) President Trump wants to stop “Made in China 2025,” the state-subsidized plan to modernize Chinese industries, and he charges China with “state capitalism.” However, Chinese subsidies are not out of line with WTO regulations, and they are available to foreign-funded enterprises too.
(10) China’s trade practices are generally in compliance with WTO rules.
This is of course better characterized as Chinese “advocacy” rife with half-truths and questionable assertions rather than a fair-minded assessment. Hopefully it is not taken at face value.
This concludes a short discourse on why the BRI bubble may burst. The dialogue sets the conditions for further discussion in part two on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof.
Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. The personal views expressed therein are their own.
Featured Image: A Chinese flag flies over Tashkurgan, a small town at the front line of the $62bn China-Pakistan economic corridor (Cpec). (Tom Phillips for the Guardian)
Since his rise to power six years ago, thousands of analysts and policymakers across the globe have attempted to understand the intentions of, and the mechanisms employed toward, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping’s seemingly expansionist vision for China. That vision, dubbed “The Chinese Dream” by Xi in 2012, solidified his plan for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Although arguably vaguely defined, “The Chinese Dream” has been viewed by some as Xi’s call for rising Chinese influence on the international stage – economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, and militarily, i.e., China’s “grand strategy.”
In support of this vision, Xi has embarked on a multitude of political and military reforms and now, backed by one of the world’s most technologically-advanced militaries, Xi is ready to thrust his revitalized China further onto the world stage. During his opening speech to nearly 2,300 party delegates and dignitaries at the October 2017 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi publicly described the extraordinary complexity of China’s domestic and foreign policy challenges and opportunities: “Currently, conditions domestically and abroad are undergoing deep and complicated changes. Our country is in an important period of strategic opportunity in its development. The outlook is extremely bright; the challenges are also extremely grim.”1
In his new book, Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Andreas Rupprecht, author of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, attempts to break out of his comfort zone and succinctly capture the complexities of Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitical environment of the Asia-Pacific Region. The content of Flashpoint China is predominantly focused on Chinese regional security issues; however, in his introductory paragraph, Rupprecht states the goal of Flashpoint China is to “draw upon” Modern Chinese Warplanes and “offer an overview of potential military conflicts along the borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”2 This is a laudable goal, for even attempting to synopsize the complexity of Chinese military history and foreign relations in a mere eighty pages would challenge the most knowledgeable defense and foreign relations expert. Yet for the most part, Rupprecht succeeds. There are some content areas however that could benefit from further research and development.
Following the introduction, Rupprecht utilizes Chapters Two through Five to succinctly introduce the various foreign policy concerns for China in each of its five Theater Commands. Each chapter opens with a succinct description of the nuanced histories behind each foreign policy concern, provides an overview of PLAAF and PLANAF capabilities available to each Theater Command, and closes with well-structured charts of each Theater Command’s PLAAF and PLANAF order of battle. It is through this structured approach that Rupprecht meets his goal of drawing upon Modern Chinese Warplanes and answering the following question: If conflict were to occur at any of the flashpoints, what People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) units and platforms are likely to be involved?
Over the last two to three decades China’s entire military force has undergone a rapid and unprecedented military modernization campaign designed to transform it into a regionally-dominant and globally-significant force. To further tie his two books together however, Rupprecht would be remiss to not include an update of what has transpired within and across the PLA between the books’ publication dates (2012 and 2016, respectively) in the introductory section of Flashpoint China, specifically how PLA reforms and the subsequent establishment of the five Theater Commands have affected the PLAAF and PLANAF. Additionally, Rupprecht briefly describes concepts such as China’s “active defense strategy” and “anti-access /aerial denial (A2/AD)” (what the Chinese refer to as “counter-intervention”) capabilities. Counter-intervention represents how China plans to “deny the U.S. [or other foreign] military the ability to operate in China’s littoral waters in case of a crisis.”3 Collectively, these organizational, doctrinal, and operational changes should weigh heavily in a book of this nature yet Rupprecht does not fully incorporate their significance in his work. To do this, the author would need to answer the following question: How would PLAAF and PLANAF platforms and capabilities likely be employed to prevent U.S. or other regional forces from intervening in a conflict at any of the flashpoints?
Some of these geographical areas and issues carry a higher military priority for China. According to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in its 2017 Annual Report to Congress, “Taiwan remains the PLA’s main “strategic direction,” one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance [and represents a “core interest” of China]. Other focus areas include the East China Sea [ECS], the South China Sea [SCS], and China’s borders with India and North Korea.”4 And as the strategic importance of a geographical area increases for China so does its allocation of PLA assets.
For example, the richness and variety of the geopolitical concerns involving the countries presented in Chapter Two of Flashpoint China (Japan, Russia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and South Korea), provide significant examples of historical, current, and potential military conflict for China; however, in Chapter Two Rupprecht doesn’t reflect on the order of strategic priority and therefore the military significance of the Northern and Central Theater Commands. Instead, Chapter Two opens with a very brief paragraph regarding Mongolia, thereby dampening the impact of the chapter’s “flashpoint” narrative.
Additionally, the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the ECS dominates the military significance of China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Japan; however, Rupprecht merely allocates a single sentence to the situation: “The dispute over the Senkaku Islands – known as the Diaoyu Islands in China – is meanwhile a matter of heated rhetoric and near-open hostility.”5 Since the historical dispute took a dramatic leap forward in April 2012 following the Japanese purchase of three of the eight islets from their private owner, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command has assumed primary responsibility for this flashpoint area. Unfortunately, Chapter Two mistakenly assigns PLA responsibility for China’s ongoing dilemma with Japan in the ECS to the Northern and Central Theater Commands: “The PLA subordinates responsibility for Japan and the Korean peninsula to the Northern Theater Command and to the Central Theater Command.”6 When the purchase was made public, the PLA immediately began regularly deploying maritime and airborne patrols from Eastern Theater Command bases into the ECS to assert jurisdiction and sovereignty over the islands. Additionally, as Rupprecht alludes to on page 25, in November 2013, China declared the establishment of its first air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the ECS which included the area over the disputed islands. Subsequently, both the PLAAF and PLANAF established routine airborne patrol patterns and the use of ECS airspace and the straits of the Ryukyu Islands to conduct long-range, integrated strike training with PLA Navy (PLAN) assets in the western Philippine Sea.
Additionally in Chapter Two, Rupprecht aptly describes the history of Sino-Russian relations: “For years, relations between China and Russia have been described as a ‘tightrope walk’, and have frequently oscillated between close friendship and war.”7 However, the author fails to capture the significance of the military connection between Russia and China, especially as it relates to Rupprecht’s stated theme for this book, for China’s military modernization arguably started with mass acquisitions of Russian military technologies in the early 1990s. Over the ensuing decades, China embarked on a widespread effort to acquire Russian military technologies, reverse-engineer that technology, and then indigenously mass-produce similar technologies adapted to Chinese specifications. That period however may be rapidly coming to a close as many China analysts assess that China has now transitioned from a Russian technology-dependent force to a truly indigenous production force. In fact, China’s most recent procurement of Russia’s technologically-advanced Su-35 FLANKER S fighter aircraft and S-400 strategic-level surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, touched on by Rupprecht on page 18, may be the last significant items on China’s military hardware shopping list.
Another example is found in Chapter Three which Rupprecht opens by stating, “The issue of Taiwan is a very special one for the PRC, and certainly the top priority in regard to the PLA’s modernization drive. This is clearly indicated by the official order of protocol, which lists the responsible Eastern Theater Command first.”8 Although the Eastern Theater may have primary responsibility for the Taiwan issue, the extraordinary political, strategic, and economic significance of the Taiwan dispute represents a “core interest” of China. This fact cannot be overstated. The entire essence of Chinese military modernization efforts over the recent decades have been in direct support of the possible requirement to take back Taiwan by force should alternative means of reunification prove fruitless. As Chinese Communist Party legitimacy would ride on the success or failure of a PLA campaign to “liberate” Taiwan, an effort of this magnitude would involve PLAAF and PLANAF assets from multiple Theater Commands, something Rupprecht’s narrative and order-of-battle charts do not capture.
The geography, the respective sovereignty claims, and the strategic and operational scope of each Theater Command’s responsibilities matter greatly with respect to China and its ambitions. Each chapter ends with a wonderful map that provides a highly informative, geographical illustration of each respective theater. The geographical impact of each chapter’s flashpoints may be better served however by moving each chapter’s map to the beginning of the chapters rather than the end.
Rupprecht’s best work is reflected in Chapter Four. China’s sovereignty claims and the controversial Chinese land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) presented in Chapter Four are definitely the most contentious issues facing the Southern Theater Command. And here Rupprecht does not disappoint. The author allocates numerous pages to both describe and illustrate the significance of the SCS dispute to China, its regional neighbors, and the U.S. Just as in Modern Chinese Warplanes, Rupprecht has included spectacular, colored photographs of various Chinese aircraft into Flashpoint China. Various PLAAF and PLANAF fighters, reconnaissance and transport aircraft, along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are presented in wonderful detail throughout the book. Chapter Four however is especially unique for its inclusion of vivid photographs of China’s land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands.
How Chinese, U.S., and regional neighbors approach this issue politically, diplomatically, and militarily carries significant strategic, operational, and tactical implications. History has proven how a single tactical event in the region can carry immediate and substantial strategic implications. For example, the infamous EP-3 incident of 2001 provides just one example of how tactical miscommunication and miscalculation can have significant strategic implications.9 These type of airborne interactions continue on a regular basis as U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operate in international airspace over the SCS. Chinese fighter aircraft routinely intercept the U.S. aircraft, sometimes operating outside the assessed bounds of safe airmanship. Japanese fighters also come into regular contact with Chinese aircraft, regularly scrambling to check Chinese airspace incursions over the ECS and through the Ryukyu Straits. These tactical events often receive attention from the government and military leaders of the respective countries and occasionally result in public demarches.
In a book of this nature, each SCS claimant country deserves its own dedicated section as China’s rise has forced each country’s government to reassess their national security and military means with some countries making substantial increases in their military expenditures. For example, Vietnam is “in the process of addressing its limitations with respect to combating modern threat scenarios with its existing obsolete equipment, and has embarked on military modernization plans over the last few years.”10 Additionally, the 02 May – 15 August 2014 Hai Yeng Shi You 981 oil rig standoff (also referred to as the “CNOOC-981 incident”) provides a real-world event which not only illustrated the contentiousness of the SCS claims between China and Vietnam, but also revealed an operational reaction from the PLA, with specific operational responses from both the PLAAF and PLANAF.11
Finally, the most impactful flashpoint for China in the Western Theater, presented in Chapter Five, regards India. Typically the issue between the two countries revolves around unresolved border disputes; however, much to India’s chagrin, China also continues to advance its military-to-military relationship with India’s rival, Pakistan. This is especially relevant for Rupprecht’s efforts within Flashpoint China as Pakistan’s Air Force and China’s PLAAF conducted the sixth consecutive iteration of the annual “Shaheen” series of joint exercises in 2017. Since its inception in 2011, the Shaheen exercise series has consistently grown in complexity and scope, incorporating a wider variety of PLAAF aircraft and platforms such as multi-role fighters, fighter-bombers, airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, and surface-to-air missile crews and radar operators.
In Flashpoint China Andreas Rupprecht ambitiously attempts to couple the highly complex geopolitical environment surrounding modern day China with the PLAAF and PLANAF’s ever-evolving order of battle and force projection capabilities – an assignment with which even the most renowned scholars would struggle, especially within the allotment of so few pages. Via the well-structured narrative and fabulous photographs, Flashpoint China goes a long way in tackling the question of what PLAAF and PLANAF assets could China bring to the fight should a military conflict occur at any of the presented flashpoints. Readers however would have certainly enjoyed reading the author’s assessment of how might the PLA use its air power in support of Chinese military intervention into these contentious hotbeds. But this may have to wait for another day. Still, if brevity of space and time were the only options available to the author, then Flashpoint China can certainly prove useful as is. However, with even some minor content and structural improvements, the book could prove irreplaceable.
LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently serves as instructor with the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence. All statements of facts, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.
1. Buckley, Chris. “Xi Jinping Opens China’s Party Congress, His Hold Tighter Than Ever”; The New York Times; 17 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/asia/xi-jinping-communist-party-china.html
2. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 9.
3. Ibid. p. 15.
4. OSD. Annual Report to Congress: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” OSD, (Annual Report, OSD 2017)
5. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 21.
Featured Image: Two JH-7 fighter bombers attached to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Western Theater Command taxi abreast on the runway before takeoff for a sortie near the Tianshan Mountains in late March, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Wang Xiaofei)
Last month, CIMSEC published an article titled “A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Part 1” highlighting three troubling developments that oblige the United States to further encourage and also challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. The article noted Beijing trying to convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term of “near-arctic state”; to fulfill its nationalistic promise to the Chinese people and reclaim the disputed and contested South China Sea (SCS) from ancient times; and to expand its “sharp power” activities across the globe.
A month later, these undertakings continue to mature and advance apace. China considers legislation seemingly to protect the environment in Antarctica, but really to safeguard its growing interests in the southernmost continent. Beijing takes more active measures to reassert its sovereignty and preserve its territorial integrity in the SCS. China restructures its public diplomacy (and influence operations) apparatus to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad.
Left unchallenged and unhindered, Beijing may become even more emboldened and determined to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence. If so, Washington would be prudent to consider that it is much easier to slow or stop a large boulder rolling down a steep hill near the top than wait until it gains speed and momentum near the bottom.
A leading Chinese international maritime law expert recently called for exigent legislation to promote and safeguard China’s increasing activities and growing interests in Antarctica, particularly as they relate to scientific research, tourism, and environmental protection. China spends more than any other Antarctic state on infrastructure such as bases and icebreakers. Beijing maintains three bases (Great Wall, Zhongshan, and Kunlun) on the southernmost continent. Chinese polar research icebreakers make annual scientific research expeditions and periodic re-supply trips to those bases. And last year, the number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica grew to 5,300 from just 100 13 years ago. Altogether, the expanding presence, operations, and activities are embraced by Beijing as ways and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s evolving Antarctic resource and governance rights.
The legislative clarion call is not new. Beijing has been deliberately and incrementally paving the way for Antarctic legislation with government-sponsored studies dating back to the 1990s. A draft law has been listed on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ (NPC) legislative agenda since last year, while the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) – the principal governmental body overseeing Antarctic issues – has drafted departmental rules to regulate Chinese activities on the continent since 2007. The latest of these rules – Environmental Protection Regulation on Activities in Antarctica – was issued last February. Contained therein, Beijing benevolently asserts that “with these rules, the SOA has been organizing activities in the southernmost continent in strict accordance with the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty, which provides comprehensive protection for the Antarctic environment.” In other words, a law with specific criminal and civil liabilities is urgently needed to keep visitors from unlawful actions, which may damage the fragile Antarctic eco-system.
Beijing’s actions in Antarctica should be linked and taken in context with other actions in the Arctic. For years, China has pushed to be designated a member of the Arctic Council, whose membership is restricted to nations bordering the Arctic. In 2013, Beijing finally gained observer status, and continues to seek membership to the very exclusive and potentially lucrative club.
On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.”Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other natural resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism. Of note, there is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term.
On March 17, Beijing announced the building of its first polar expedition cruise ship, as China looks to extend the BRI into the Arctic through shipping lanes opened up by global warming. Beijing and Helsinki have agreed to build a double-acting polar research vessel equipped with icebreaking capabilities, usable while the vessel is moving forward and backward. The new vessel is expected to be built in the Shanghai Shipyard later this year.
Greenland is actively courting Chinese investors to help expand three extant airports, raising concerns in Copenhagen. Chinese interest in Greenland comes after Beijing in late January laid out its strategic plan to establish the Polar Silk Road by developing shipping lanes and promoting infrastructure in the Arctic.
Working with Moscow, Beijing is now exporting liquefied natural gas using the Northern Sea Route through Arctic waters and has stepped up monitoring of oceanographic conditions in the Far North from Svalbard, a Norwegian island that is open to international scientific research.
Reasserting Sovereignty in the South “China” Sea
On March 23, USS Mustin (DDG-89) purportedly conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it reportedly passed within 12nm of Mischief Reef – one of seven occupied geographic features in the Spratly archipelago that China has transformed into a large military outpost in a bid to dominate the contested surrounding waters. If so, this may have been the second U.S. FONOP of the year and the sixth U.S. naval operation in the last 10 months to challenge Beijing’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) responded the next day with mostly the same recycled talking points from past U.S. FONOPs, but with some noteworthy additions (bolded below) and in a noticeably more assertive and harsher tone:
“The United States has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, undermined peace, security, and order of the relevant waters, and put in jeopardy the facilities and personnel on the Chinese islands, and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation. China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) and its adjacent waters. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under international law, but firmly opposes any country or person undermining the sovereignty and security of littoral countries under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation and overflight. At present, the situation in the SCS has been improving thanks to the concerted efforts of China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. Under such circumstance, the United States, who deliberately stirs up troubles and creates tension in the SCS to disrupt peace and stability there, is running against the will of regional countries who aspire for stability, cooperation, and development, and thus unpopular at all. The Chinese side strongly urges the U.S. side to immediately stop provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security and faithfully respect the regional countries’ concerted efforts to uphold peace and stability in the SCS. The Chinese side will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security and safeguard peace and stability in the SCS.”
The notable extras were remarks characterizing the United States as an uninvited and destabilizing interloper to the region and ASEAN interests; and statements warning Washington that FONOPs and the increased naval presence in the SCS may no longer be tolerated as evidenced by assertive language more forceful than in the past – “take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security” vice the previous softer language of “take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty.” The new language and tone is in step with President Xi Jinping’s recent policy remarks on sovereignty and territorial integrity at the 13th NPC – “The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction: not one single inch of our land will be or can be seceded from China.”
The first add-on was intended for the other ASEAN members, shaping and influencing the ongoing negotiations of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. Beijing will undoubtedly try to insert favorable language into the CoC, like excluding non-ASEAN states from the SCS and regulating military activities in the SCS. The latter is consistent with Chinese comments made at the 54th Munich Security Conference – “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” The second add-on was meant for Washington, signaling Beijing’s intent to increasingly challenge greater American naval presence and operations in their perceived home waters.
Chinese media largely echoed the MFA’s rhetoric, and further asserted that Washington had deliberately timed the FONOP to challenge Beijing on the same day China decided to hit back at America’s punitive tariffs. The destabilizing FONOP was a calculated gesture and part of a U.S. combined economic and military pressure campaign against China.
In a press conference “five days after” the MFA press conference, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) curiously did not adopt the MFA’s more assertive rhetoric and instead kept to its previous talking points on U.S. FONOPs. The relatively subdued narrative and tone suggest a possible change of tack from Beijing’s initial public diplomacy approach, but the coming months will tell if that is truly the case:
“The spokesperson of the MND has released a statement lately to emphasize China’s principles and positions in response to the U.S. Navy ship’s entering the neighboring waters of relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands). China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant islands and their adjacent waters in the SCS. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under International Law, but firmly opposes any act of showing-off forces, aggravating regional tensions, threatening and undermining other countries’ sovereignty and security interests. The Chinese military will strengthen its defense capability according to the degree of the threat to its sovereignty and security, firmly safeguard national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and firmly safeguard regional peace and stability.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)
Following the FONOP, China announced and carried out combat exercises in the disputed waters to include a large-scale show-of-forcedemonstration; and then stated that it may conduct similar monthly combat drills in the future. Beijing characterized these combat drills as routine, part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) annual training plan to hone combat capability, and not aimed at any specific country or target (interestingly mimicking U.S. talking points):
“The live-force naval exercise conducted by the PLAN in the SCS is the measure to implement the important instruction of President Xi at the opening ceremony of the new year training session of the PLA and encourage the combat-oriented training of the PLA naval troops. It is a routine arrangement in accordance with the annual training program of the PLAN. The purpose of the training is to test and enhance the training level of the PLAN, and promote the capabilities of the troops to win wars. It is not targeted at any specific country or target.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)
On April 2, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an article expounding various motives for the naval maneuvers. The cited reasons were more expansive and somewhat inconsistent with those provided at the Chinese Defense Ministry’s press conference three days before:
“First, China needs to safeguard its national interests in the region and the routine exercises are in line with China’s defensive military policy. Second, they are related to the changing international situation as some countries have made moves that strategically target China. The guided missile destroyer USS Mustin recently entered the waters around China’s islands and reefs in the SCS. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India are promoting cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; and the United Kingdom was reportedly considering sending a warship to conduct FONOPs in the SCS in 2018. And it is also partly because of the changing Taiwan situation as the U.S. President Trump has recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law, allowing senior-level official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. This goes against the one-China policy. These shifts are vital and relevant to China’s security. Beijing needs to make some practical preparations to confront the changes in the international situation. Third, with China’s military strength growing, we need more large drills to test and improve military combat ability. This is the normal action of any country that wants to develop its military power.”
On April 12, Xi personally attended a naval review in the SCS, one of the largest of its kind in China since its founding in 1949. He viewed 48 vessels, 76 aircraft, and more than 10,000 service personnel to include the aircraft carrier Liaoning. Xi made a speech after the review, reaffirming Beijing’s aspiration to have a strong navy and pledging to speed up PLAN modernization…“A mighty navy is an important pillar of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” On April 17, the PLA Daily elaborated on Xi’s statements five days before. Xi has resolutely set Beijing on an unyielding course for achieving the Chinese Dream, thus making it imperative for China to have a strong and modern navy. This is because having a capable navy doesn’t simply protect one’s shores, but also to protect one’s interests beyond those shores. 90 percent of the world’s trade is still carried through the maritime domain, and it is, by far, the most cost-effective way to transport goods and raw materials around the globe. This is why Xi reviewed the PLAN in the SCS on April 12.
It will be interesting to see how Beijing further responds in the next few months, a period with the most favorable weather conditions for reclamation and infrastructure building operations in the SCS. Besides the naval maneuvers, China claims to have deploy additional troops and set up territorial defense equipment; and justifies the opportunistic deployment as Beijing having every right to deploy necessary military equipment on its military outposts in the Spratly archipelago:
“The Nansha Islands are China’s territory. It is the natural right of a sovereign state for China to station troops and deploy necessary territory defense facilities on the relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands. It is conducive to safeguarding the state’s sovereignty and security, ensuring the freedom and security of navigation channels in the SCS, and maintaining regional peace and stability. It is not directed against any country. China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature and a military strategy of active defense.”
It will also be telling to see how Beijing reacts to other related regional developments – French Navy frigate Vendémiaire “allegedly” conducted a FONOP in the SCS (some would say that it was not a FONOP, but just a transit); Hanoi welcomed a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier for a port visit; Jakarta lobbies other Southeast Asian countries to carry out maritime patrols in the disputed waters; Canberra increases its maritime presence and considers conducting FONOPs in the strategic waterway; Manila plans to include again Japan and Australia into its annual bilateral exercise with the United States (Balikatan); SCS claimant states continue to buy more naval arms (Kuala Lumpur will equip its new littoral combat ships with advanced naval strike missiles from Norway and Jakarta will buy three modern submarines from South Korea); and Tokyo tries to link the Mekong and ASEAN into a broader Indo-Pacific Strategy, allied with India, United States, and Australia. When China does decide to react, it will do so bilaterally and quietly like it dealt with Vietnam (intimidatedHanoi to halt its oil drilling project off its southeast coast and called Hanoi to settle maritime disputes through talks and to jointly exploit the contested waters), Philippines (encouraged Manila to jointly explore for oil and gas in the disputed waters), and Brunei (brokered an unspoken arrangement whereby Bandar Seri Begawan remains silent on the SCS issue in order to secure Chinese investment); and surreptitiously like when Chinese cyberspace hackers supposedly attacked corporate firms linked to the SCS.
The wildcard will be Singapore, who assumed the ASEAN chairmanship last January. Singapore’s fair and balanced approach and predisposition toward global rules and norms may moderate (and possibly even check) Beijing within ASEAN in 2018. Chinese leaders may have anticipated this unwelcome prospect and are taking proactive steps to mitigate. On March 8, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that China will work with ASEAN: “China is willing to bring benefits to surrounding countries through its own development and build a community of both shared interest and shared destiny with countries in the ASEAN countries.” On April 12, Beijing launched a joint laboratory program with ASEAN to promote and enhance technological innovation, as part of the greater BRI’s efforts to build a community with a shared future for China and ASEAN. The joint program was organized by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the ASEAN Secretariat.
Coming Sharp Power Offensive
China recently restructured its state media to better control domestic content and create a bigger public diplomacy (propaganda) machine to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad. Both objectives align with Xi’s goals of ensuring that the domestic and international audiences hear the messages that he wants them to hear, see the images that he wants them to see, and believe the narratives that he wants them to believe. In his eyes, all messages are political and thus subject to state and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control.
In mid-March, Beijing announced the Beijing announced the merger of three national radio and television entities – China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio – to create a single Voice of China (VoC) to “guide hot social issues, strengthen and improve public opinion, push multimedia integration, strengthen international communication, and tell good China stories.” The VoC will employ 15,000 employees across dozens of bureaus around the globe, producing media programs in more than 60 languages to provide a reassuring and benevolent image of China, one that blunts any concern about Beijing’s growing power and influence in the world.
The VoC will complement similar “sharp power” activities by the Confucian Institutes and United Front (UF). The former is a network of more than 1500 teaching centers established in over 140 countries that provides Chinese language and culture lessons to more than 1.5 million students from around the world. The latter is a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party’s objectives, advance the party’s political agenda, counter political foes, and help realize broader geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI. The UF will reportedly take over the functions of the State Council Overseas Office, National Ethnic Affairs Commission, and State Administration for Religious Affairs to exercise tighter control over religion and ethnic issues and to further carry out its efforts on exercising influence overseas. Altogether, these influence organs are intended to promote the Chinese political agenda and explain Chinese ideas and values, and in a way that wins the country supporters abroad.
On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, and underscored that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…it is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The new influence campaign has apparently begun in earnest with a March 22Xinhua article titled “Overseas Chinese Confident China’s new Leadership Will Lead to National Rejuvenation.” The following is a sampling of endorsements of newly re-elected Xi (President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission) from the worldwide Chinese diaspora:
“The new leadership will lead China to greater prosperity and called on Chinese in Canada to work as a bridge in bilateral non-governmental exchanges.” (Wang Dianqi, Head of the Joint Committee of Chinese Associations in Canada)
“Chinese in France will help boost China-France exchanges, contributing to the implementation of the BRI proposed by Xi and the notion of building a community with a shared future for mankind.” (Wu Wuhua, Honorary Chair of the Chaozhou Guild Hall in France)
“Urge the Chinese in Peru to help boost exchanges and mutual trust between their host country and China.” (Liang Shun, Head of the Central Association of Chinese in Peru).
“Xi would be able to lead the Chinese to national rejuvenation, and bring overseas Chinese more benefits and pride.” (Zhou Ying, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Cyprus)
“For overseas Chinese, the development of China, most importantly, makes them more respected, and second, brings them new business opportunities.” (Fang Tianxing, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Malaysia)
The United States made progress last year calling out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior, pushing back on Chinese unilateralism and assertiveness, strengthening regional alliances and partnerships, increasing regional presence, reasserting regional influence, and most importantly, incrementally reversing years of ill-advised accommodation. But there is much more Washington can and should do. If not, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy, reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power, and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (Chinese Dream). Hence, the new strategy, calling for America to embrace the strategic great power competition with China and plan and act accordingly, is a step in the right direction, for decline is a deliberate choice, not an imposed reality.
Tuan Pham serves on the executive committee of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. (Wikimedia Commons)
More Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism are coming. In January, this author’s article in a separate publication assessed strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018; and forecasted that China will likely further expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Recently, three worrying developments have emerged that oblige the United States to further challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy; reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power; and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream).
On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the BRI” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.” Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism.
Beijing rationalizes and justifies this expansive political, economic, and legal stance as “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry, and other sectors.” In other words, China stakes its tenuous Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty”, they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities. And while vaguely underscoring that it will respect and comply with international law like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a “lawful and rational matter”, Beijing was quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper that it will use Arctic resources to “pursue its own national interests.”
There is no legal or international definitionof “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term. Furthermore, as noted by Grant Newsham, the phrase itself is a representative exemplification of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions. Consider the following evolution that is typical of how key elements of China’s strategic lexicon come to the fore like “near-Artic state and the South China Sea (SCS) has been part of China since ancient times”:
Step 1 – Term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal Step 2 – Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper Step 3 – Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar Step 4 – Term is used in Chinese authoritative media Step 5 – Term is used at international conferences and academic exchanges held in China Step 6 – China frequently refers to the term in foreign media and at international conferences Step 7 – China issues a policy white paper stating its positions, implied rights, and an implied threat to defend those rights Step 8 – China maintains that this has always been Beijing’s policy
Beijing’s official policy positions on Antarctica are less clear and coherent, and appear to be still evolving. The closest sort of policy statement was made last year by China’s State Oceanic Administration when it issued a report (pseudo white paper) entitled “China’s Antarctic Activities (Antarctic Business in China).” The report detailed many of Beijing’s scientific activities in the southernmost continent, and vaguely outlined China’s Antarctic strategy and agenda with few specifics. All in all, Beijing doesn’t have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims), but nonetheless, China has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years. The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. The expanding presence in Antarctica is embraced by Beijing as a way and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s Antarctic resource and governance rights.
South “China” Sea
On February 5, released imagery of the Spratly archipelago suggests that China has almost completely transformed their seven occupied reefs – disputed by the other claimants – into substantial Chinese military outposts, in a bid to dominate the contested waters and despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS. At the same time, Beijing has softened the provocative edges of its aggressive militarization with generous pledges of investments to the other claimants and promising talks of an ASEAN framework for negotiating a code of conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is determined to finish its militarization and then present the other claimants with a fait d’accompli before sitting down to negotiate the CoC.
The photographs show that Beijing has developed 72 acres in the SCS in 2017 and over 3200 acres in the past four years; and redirected its efforts from dredging and reclaiming land to building infrastructure (airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, control towers, hangars, etc.) necessary for future deployment of aircraft to project Chinese power across the shipping routes through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it recently sent advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to take part in a joint combat patrol over the SCS.
At the end of the day, these latest images will not change Beijing’s agenda and plans for the SCS. They do however provide a revealing glimpse of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future on these disputed and contested geographic features (rocks and reefs) – and it sure does not look benign and benevolent as China claims.
At the 54th Munich Security Conference from February 16-18, the Chinese delegation participated in an open panel discussion on the SCS and took the opportunity to publicly refute the prevailing conventional interpretation of international maritime law. They troublingly stated for the first known time in an international forum that “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” This may be that long-anticipated policy outgrowth from the brazen militarization of the SCS and the latest regression of the previous legal and diplomatic position that “all countries have unimpeded access to navigation and flight activities in the SCS.” Now that China has the supposed ways and means to secure the strategic lines of communication, Beijing may start incrementally restricting military ships and aircraft operating in its perceived backyard, and then slowly and quietly expand to commercial ships and aircraft transiting the strategic waterway. If so, this will be increasingly problematic as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines. China will then have no choice but to eventually address the legal and diplomatic inconsistency between policy and operations – and either pragmatically adjust its policy or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its claimed exclusive economic zones, in effect a policy of “do as I say, not do as I do.”
In the public diplomacy domain, Beijing is advancing the narrative that Washington no longer dominates the SCS, is to blame for Chinese militarization of the SCS, and is destabilizing the SCS with more provocative moves. On January 22, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an op-ed article cautioning American policymakers to not be too confident about the U.S. role in the SCS nor too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will support U.S. policy. Consider the following passage: “For ASEAN countries, it’s much more important to avoid conflicts with Beijing than obtain small favors from Washington. Times are gone when the United States played a predominant role in the SCS. China has exercised restraint against U.S. provocations in the SCS, but there are limits. If the U.S. doesn’t stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.” On February 25, the same state-owned mediaoutlet wrote that “China should install more military facilities, such as radar, aircraft, and more coastguard vessels in the SCS to cope with provocative moves by the United States”; and predicted that the “Sino-U.S. relations will see more disputes this year which will not be limited to SCS, as the United States tries to deal with a rising China.”
On January 17, USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it passed within 12nm of Scarborough Shoal. This was the fifth U.S. naval operation in the last six months to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The Chinese media largely portrayed the operation as the latest in a series of recent U.S. actions intended to signal a new policy shift consistent with the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy and reflective of growing U.S. misgivings over China’s rise. The Chinese media is also increasingly depicting Beijing as having the upper handin the SCS at the expense of rival Washington; and that U.S. FONOPs are now pointless since China has multiple options to effectively respond and there’s very little the United States can do about it.
Sharp Power (Influence Operations) Growing Sharper
In late-January, African Union (AU) officials accused Beijing of electronically bugging its Chinese-built headquarters building, hacking the computer systems, downloading confidential information, and sending the data back to servers in China. A claim that Beijing vehemently denies, calling the investigative report by the Le Monde “ridiculous, preposterous, and groundless…intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the African continent.” The fact that the alleged hack remained undisclosed for a year after discovery and the AU publicly refuted the allegation as Western propaganda speaks to China’s dominant relationships with the African states. During an official visit to Beijing shortly after the report’s release, the Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat stated “AU is an international political organization that doesn’t process secret defense dossiers…AU is an administration and I don’t see what interest there is to China to offer up a building of this type and then to spy.” Not surprisingly, Fakit received assurances from his Chinese counterpart afterwards on five key areas of future AU-China cooperation – capacity building, infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health and disease prevention, and tourism and aviation.
The suspected hack underscores the high risk that African nations take in allowing Chinese information technology companies such prominent roles in developing their nascent telecommunications backbones. The AU has since put new cybersecurity measures in place, and predictably declined Beijing’s offer to configure its new servers. Additionally, if the report is true, more than just the AU may have been compromised. Other government buildings were constructed by China throughout the African continent. Beijing signed lucrative contracts to build government buildings in Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.
On January 23, President Xi Jinping presided over a Chinese Communist Party (CCP)leading group meeting to discuss how better to deepen the overall reform of the central government. He emphasized that 2018 will be the first year to implement the spirit of last year’s 19th National Party Congress and the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the West and integration into the global economy. The meeting reviewed and approved several resolutions (policy documents) to include the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Reform and Development of Confucius Institute.” The new policy synchronized the promotion of reform and development of the Confucius Institute; and directed both to focus on the “building of a powerful socialist country with Chinese characteristics, serving Beijing’s major powers diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, deepening the reform and innovation, improving the institutional mechanisms, optimizing the distribution structure, strengthening the building efforts, and improving the quality of education” – so as to let the latter (Confucius Institute) become an important force of communication between China and foreign countries.
The seemingly benign and benevolent Confucius Institute is quite controversial, and is now receiving greater scrutiny within the various host countries for covertly influencing public opinions in advancement of Chinese national interests. In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on February 23 that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding the Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers allegedly teach a whitewashed version of China, and serve as outposts of Beijing’s overseas intelligence network.
On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, as part of the greater efforts and activities of the United Front – a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. He stressed that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…It is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Ultimately, he hopes these overseas Chinese will collectively cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP, advance the party’s political agenda, and help realize broader Chinese geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI.
The aforementioned troubling and destabilizing developments egregiously challenge the rules-based global order and U.S. global influence. Like China’s illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and Beijing’s blatant disregard for the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they further erode the trust and confidence in the international rule of law (and norms) and undermine America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. If the international community and the United States do not push back now, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence unchallenged and unhindered.
Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)