It is no secret that Beijing has been actively building a global network of economic and military infrastructure, building influence and its presence as part of its march to become a true global superpower. Despite a slowdown during COVID-19, these efforts are gathering pace once again.
To continue reading the rest of this article, please log in.
Create free account to get unlimited news articles and more!
Like every ascendant economic, political, and strategic power, China has used its period of rapid industrialisation and economic expansion to begin establishing its position within the broader global context.
Fuelled by a long memory of a “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western imperialism, finally ending with the successful Communist Revolution in 1949, China and its political leaders have dedicated the nation to establishing a new era of Chinese global primacy.
As China’s position within the global order has evolved and its ambitions towards the Indo-Pacific, in particular, have become increasingly apparent, the Chinese government, driven by an extremely ambitious leader, President Xi Jinping, has identified a number of factors of both “internal” and “external” concern for the rising superpower’s status.
Beijing’s concerns and ambitions, while “typically” confined to the “traditional” areas of Chinese focus, as outlined in the Mandate of Heaven, namely central Asia, Tibet, parts of Siberia, Taiwan and its increasing antagonism in the South China Sea, present significant challenges to the US-led post Second World War order in the Indo-Pacific.
These ambitions have run into a roadblock in the form of a somewhat reinvigorated United States-led push back, drawing the ire of the Chinese government, which repeatedly cites a “Cold War” mentality being pushed by the United States and reinforced by nations like Australia, the United Kingdom, and other close US allies.
In fairness, this renewed period of great power competition has been identified and acknowledged by both sides, with this competition set to enter the next, high stakes phase as a result of the relative decline of the US-led world order, when compared to the seemingly youthful, invigorated Chinese-led order, culminating in multilateral organisations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic, political and strategic bloc, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
At the core of Beijing’s growing web of influence is a rapidly developing network of infrastructure and economic investments throughout the developing world, mainly throughout the South Pacific, Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa as the Middle Kingdom seeks to establish the 21st century equivalent of “all roads lead to Rome”.
To this end, a number of open source and closed source intelligence organisations and aid organisations have paid close attention to Beijing’s growing web of economic, political, and strategic infrastructure across the globe built through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and “debt trap” diplomatic means to expand China’s influence and power projection capacity.
Specifically highlighting this, is a report collated by Alexander Wooley, Sheng Zhang, Rory Fedorochko, and Sarina Patterson for AidData, titled, Harboring Global Ambitions: China’s Ports Footprint and Implications for Future Overseas Naval Bases, which highlights Beijing’s growing web of influence throughout the developing world and its implications in this renewed era of great power competition.
Students of history and expanding influence
The Chinese people have long prided themselves as being students of history, quietly watching and learning from the success of the Western world throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries, culminating in the overt expansion of Chinese strategic capability and high-end military capability, particularly power projection forces.
But even the most capable power projection capabilities require a complex web of infrastructure and basing arrangements to fully leverage their capability and maximise the strategic influence delivered. Just ask the United States with their own global network of basing infrastructure developed throughout the Cold War.
Beijing is no different, however, where the United States has typically focused solely on military infrastructure or direct foreign aid, Beijing’s investment strategy has focused on “dual use” infrastructure and facilities, with critical economic infrastructure, namely ports delivering “tangible” economic outcomes for the host nation.
Highlighting this, the AidData report details, “Our dataset, China’s Official Seaport Finance Dataset, 2000-2021, includes 123 seaport projects worth US$29.9 billion that have funded the construction or expansion by China of 78 ports in 46 countries. While our data is neither exhaustive nor definitive, we suggest a list of port locations – where China has invested significant resources and maintains relationships with local elites – that maybe favorable for future naval bases.
“The establishment of overseas naval bases is a logical next step in China’s expanding global interests, exemplified by initiatives like the BRI. Naval bases are also key to safeguarding shipping routes and promoting trade and diplomacy. Currently, China has just one official overseas naval base – a facility in Djibouti – that is adjacent to a commercial port funded, constructed, and operated by China,” the report highlights.
China’s influence-building operations has seen the rising superpower establish a growing network of trade relationships, reinforced by the BRICS multilateral economic and political bloc designed, in essence, to counter what Beijing and many of the BRICS members see as an opportunistic and declining post-Second World War order and US dollar-dominated economic system.
This positioning has reinforced the emergence of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy as the world’s largest naval force, backed by an increased emphasis on power projection capabilities, namely expeditionary-focused naval forces, including aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare vessels and their supporting battlegroups as part of securing their economic and strategic interests.
AidData’s report reinforces this, stating, “China has emerged as a dominant maritime nation, with significant commercial and military influence across the world’s seas. It builds most of the world’s commercial shore side infrastructure; is in the top three builders of merchant ships globally; owns the second-largest merchant fleet and a massive fishing fleet; and builds or operates extensive terminal assets in numerous ports worldwide.
“The Chinese government’s control over its maritime assets during times of conflict remains uncertain, but it is likely that its vast merchant and fishing fleets would be requisitioned for military purposes. China’s navy, the PLAN, has evolved from a coastal force to a blue-water navy, signifying its ambition for global power projection. The PLAN’s growth has also included the construction of aircraft carriers, indicating long-term ambitions for sustained overseas maritime operations,” the report explains.
Major implications for the American-led world order
While much of the emphasis and analysis in recent years has been on the rise of China’s own economic, political, and strategic ambitions and capabilities and rightfully so, the emphasis on the relative decline of the United States and its global partners namely, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and others has often been overlooked to our own detriment.
Often caught up in the hype surrounding the way in which the West responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the analysis overlooks the broader implications of Beijing’s ambitions and moves on the global order, something AidData highlights, stating, “China’s potential plans for establishing overseas naval bases present profound implications and options for both itself and the West. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, increased coordination between the Kremlin and Beijing have put the prospect of Chinese naval bases under intense scrutiny from the US and its allies. China may have fewer options to consider, before the West would strenuously push back via economic and diplomatic corridors.
“On its part, the West is now playing catch-up on aid, trade, and diplomacy, stirred by China’s impressive gains and in response to Beijing’s increased global muscle-flexing. The US and allies must be vigilant and allocate resources wisely, fostering alliances and partnerships with countries considering moving toward China. But Western coalitions should not overreact to news or rumors of China establishing a base here or there. A head long rush by a Western country or alliance to establish new bases overseas as a means of counter balancing might provide exactly the justification or cover China needs to site a naval base of its own,” AidData details.
This is particularly relevant for Australia given Beijing’s growing interest in parts of the South Pacific, traditionally seen as our backyard and concerns about China’s investment in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and the national security implications a prospective “dual purpose”, read naval base, would have on the region and Australia more broadly.
Whether for ill or good, China’s ambitions and actions will shape the prospects of peace, prosperity, and stability in the Indo-Pacific more completely than any other nation, however, we in the developed world can’t be held to ransom by authoritarian and ethnic supremacist nations as Xi’s China has increasingly become.
Helping China is mutually beneficial for nations like Australia, but it can’t come at the expense of our values and principles. Nations like Australia and the United States, by virtue of their position within the post-Second World War international order can go a long way to helping where possible and guiding where necessary.
There is a growing realisation that both the United States and allies like Australia will need to get the balance of its military and national capabilities just right, not just to support the US as part of a larger joint task force, but to ensure that the Australian Defence Force can continue to operate independently and complete its core mission reliably and responsively.
Comments powered by CComment