China on the rise once more across the East
If any more evidence of China’s steady ascent towards Asian regional dominance was needed, the climax of Sri Lanka’s war has provided the proof.
By David Blair, Diplomatic Editor
An ally of Beijing has fought a bitterly controversial conflict to a final victory, while shrugging off international protests along the way. India, the other Asian giant, is only 50 miles from Sri Lanka across the waters of the Palk Straits, yet it has been shown to have far less influence on its neighbour than China.
Through a combination of strategic investments in seaports and pipelines, along with direct financial and military support for friendly governments, China is building a web of influence across South Asia. Many of Beijing’s immensely ambitious projects are years away from fruition, yet the repercussions of these ventures are already being felt.
The official line is that Hambantota is only a “commercial” trading venture and the facility will handle civilian shipping and nothing else. “Any attempt to distort the facts would be invalid,” said Ma Zhaoxu, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
But the appearance of a new Chinese port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast would allow Beijing the option of using the facility as a naval base in the future. Other projects under way at strategic points across the Indian Ocean raise the same possibility.
China is building another port at Gwadar on the Pakistani coast and at Kyauk Phyu on Burma’s island of Ramree. Taken together, these and other facilities may allow China to extend its growing naval strength well beyond its traditional coastal waters and into the Indian Ocean. It would mark a crucial stage in the country’s rise to become Asia’s hegemonic power.
“China is marching towards regional dominance and that brings it into conflict with India on one flank and Japan on the other,” said Kerry Brown, a senior fellow at the Asian programme of the Chatham House think tank. “It will at some point become much more active as a military power in the region.”
China’s ambitions are of deep concern to its Asian rivals, especially India which shares a 2,100-mile disputed border with its neighbour. Countries as far away as Australia have also shown they are worried. Kevin Rudd’s government in Canberra is hugely expanding the Australian navy with the unspoken aim of balancing China’s growing strength.
These fears may, however, be exaggerated. China is bidding to become Asia’s foremost power, but not a global behemoth to rival the United States. Moreover, all the evidence suggests that its prime aim is securing its economic growth and domestic stability.
“The Chinese are not seeking conflict. They are seeking a stable international environment within which they can continue their economic development,” said Mr Brown. “The key imperative is to preserve internal security within China.”
There is no sign of China becoming an overtly threatening, expansionist power. Far from having designs on other countries’ territory, China has resolved all border disputes with 12 of its 14 neighbours. In the case of Russia, where the People’s Liberation Army fought bloody frontier skirmishes in the 1960s, and Vietnam, where Chinese forces waged a full scale border war in 1979, Beijing chose to make big concessions and give away large areas it had previously claimed.
If a future Chinese government decides to use the string of new ports as naval bases, this does not necessarily mean Beijing is out to intimidate its neighbours and overawe the region.
Instead, China’s economy is largely dependent on energy supplies brought from the Middle East and Africa along vital Indian Ocean shipping lanes. Guaranteeing the safety of these arteries is an understandable aim and does not, of itself, show an aggressive intention.
In particular, China imports about 80 per cent of its oil through the Strait of Malacca, where the Indian Ocean joins the Pacific. President Hu Jintao has called this dependence the “Malacca Dilemma” and China’s naval planning seems geared towards ensuring this passage remains open, while developing alternative routes where possible.
Whatever the motives behind the inexorable extension of China’s influence in Asia, however, the balance of global power has already changed dramatically.