By David Wolfe*
Last week, China unveiled President Xi’s One Belt One Road Initiative at a summit in Beijing. China’s prowess on the economic and trade landscape is increasing at an accelerated rate, but not something raising considerable security concerns other than activities in the South China Sea. However, strategic moves the Chinese Government initiated following President Xi’s announcement in 2014 regarding One Belt One Road should have raised alarms of just how serious he was. It’s obvious that President Xi went to great lengths to ensure his strategic vision will have long-term success.
The security maneuvers over the past two years address potential risks in China’s ability to have unfettered maritime access to Africa, Europe and the Middle East. It’s obvious that during the Obama Administration, considerable stock was put into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to serve as a check to One Belt One Road in Southeast Asia. Now that TPP has gone by the wayside and weakened the US in the ASEAN region, another issue has become crystal clear. Either the US was over confident or they were asleep at the wheel as China gained a considerable foothold in two of the most strategic areas of the Arabian Sea. Regardless, the strategic maneuvers by the Chinese Government in establishing two new naval installations at serious choke points with little fanfare raises concerns.
Chinese Naval Gulf Base Goes Unnoticed For Two Years
In February, the New York Times reported that the Chinese Military opened a new naval base just a few miles from a US base on the African Coast. In that report, it was revealed that China had reached an agreement with the Government of Djibouti for a new Chinese Naval Base just below the Red Sea on the Gulf of Aden. According to the report, ‘China is constructing its first overseas military base here — just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, one of the Pentagon’s largest and most important foreign installations.’ However, this was the second port that the Chinese had established on the Arabian Sea in just two years. The revelation of the Djibouti port obviously caught the US by surprise particularly given such close proximity to Camp Lemonnier. Regardless, what should be more concerning is the lack of awareness by the US Military and policymakers concerning a Chinese Naval Port on the opposite side of the Arabian Sea, just south of the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
In 2014, Pakistan announced a 40-year lease was signed with the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), giving the Chinese a prime strategic foothold in the gulf region. The long-term lease granted China administrative construction and control of the new Gwadar Port in the Balochistan Province in Pakistan. This agreement was neither reported on in western media, nor did it garner any attention of United States officials or policymakers. The reason this is alarming is both the proximity to the Persian Gulf, as well as the location on the Pakistani coast. Additionally, the Gwadar Port gives the Chinese Navy a second deep-water port on the Pakistani Coast and much greater presence in the region.The Gwadar Port is located on the Arabian Sea just off the Straights of Hormuz, which leads into the Persian Gulf. When asking a senior defense official about the Gwadar port, the official indicated that policymakers were unaware of the Chinese presence in Gwadar and may not fully understand the long-term strategic impact given proximity to the Straits of Hormuz. When pressed if the US Military or policymakers were at least aware of the 40-year lease that was signed, the official stated, “frankly speaking this is the first time I’m seeing and hearing about Chinese control of Gwadar, and from a strategic point of view a bit unsettling.”
Given the Chinese just completed their first summit for its One Belt One Road Initiative, the establishment of these ports would indicate the Chinese are implementing a clear strategy with regards to supply chains, regional ports of access and a check of US maritime dominance in the region. Given the Chinese Military planners ability to gain access to two strategic choke points without the US taking notice until after the fact is rather troubling. One has to wonder if this is out of arrogance or is US intelligence asleep at the wheel and view China as just a regional power in Asia?
It is astonishing the US was not aware of the Gwadar Port particularly after the November 2016 announcement of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Yes, the US Presidential election had just occurred, which was obviously a major distraction. However, CPEC is a key component of the OBOR Initiative, and now the Chinese have two deep-water ports in Pakistan with the Gwadar port, and in the South in Karachi. Even a surprising election event doesn’t excuse not having awareness about Chinese activities for two years. China’s chief rival in the region, India, also did not protest as vociferously as it did with the establishment of a Chinese port in Karachi. The Karachi Port continues to rankle the Indian Government, as Chinese Naval destroyers and subs are known to frequent in and out of Karachi. With direct access to the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, the Chinese now have a key strategic maritime presence in South Asia, the Middle East and the Northeast African Coast. With all of the focus on Chinese activities in the South China Sea and the unveiling of Chinese aircraft carriers and destroyer class ships, why did these moves have the ability to fly under the radar?
What these moves show is the determination and speed in which China wants to solidify its presence as a global player. In just two years the Chinese have essentially bookended the Arabian Sea, continued construction of islands in the South China Sea and launched its bold One Belt One Road Initiative with a rail line running from China to Europe. With all of these moves on the global chess board, it’s obvious the Chinese are far more interested in firmly establishing itself as a serious challenger to the United States. And yet, the United States plodded forward with the status quo, and now must attempt to react to a new global China, while dealing with its own internal distractions.
The maritime disputes in the S. China Sea are very well known. It’s considered one of the most volatile flash points outside of the Persian Gulf. The S. China Sea is one of the busiest throughways to the Pacific and the Chinese Navy has routinely shown itself to be a nuisance to regional states and military vessels. This is why the US being caught flatfooted by these two new naval ports is causing even greater concern. One Belt One Road was obviously a coming out party as for President Xi’s desire to move China to a place of global prominence. The brilliant part now seems to be the way President Xi was able to strategically do so without drawing the attention of its greatest competitor.
*David Wolfe is a specialist on Asian Security, economics and political risk, particularly regarding trade, investment and human security. He has previously written for the Denmark based Riskline, the Foreign Policy Journal, The Journal of Political Risk and Tokyo based Ai-Eye Magazine.