There is a renewed interest among scholars and strategists on the matter of Chinese overseas basing diplomacy, i.e. protection of sea lanes, control of chokepoints, access to forward staging areas for possible interventions related to resource requirements, access to markets, raw material sources, and/or investments, bases and facilities (including technical installations), aircraft over-flight rights, port visit privileges, and use of offshore anchorages within sovereign maritime limits.
China is taking decisive steps to improve its overall geopolitical position by securing natural resources and developing extensive transport networks, developing roads, railways, ports, and energy corridors in its neighbourhood and beyond. China is also increasing its influence through a series of international investments. Developing nations appear to appreciate the contracts provided by Beijing, especially when China offers investments that, other than recognition of its “one China” policy, impose no conditions.
China is now a global actor of significance and growing importance and is influencing perceptions, relationships, and organisations all over the world. Thus, it becomes necessary to gain an understanding of Chinese thought concerning its basing diplomacy.
For the long-term security of a state, access to the sea is considered indispensable. Further, maritime access plays a significant role in the formation of strategic alliances and security ties. The China-Pakistan strategic relationship serves as a good example. The Karakoram Highway in the past, and Gwadar Port project more recently, are two points in case. Some of these facilities are closer to cities in central and western China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai, and so building road and rail links from these facilities into China will help spur the economies of China’s landlocked provinces.
Nevertheless, the port is the place of contact between land and maritime space. A port is a node where ocean and inland transport lines meet. Moreover, traffic means life and prosperity not only for the port but also for the country and region around it. Indeed, the control of the sea lanes and points of strategic egress has become increasingly pertinent to the global rivalry.
While demands for scarce natural resources including energy are accelerating, scarcities within a country may provoke competition and conflict with other countries over the access to alternate supplies of those resources. Resource scarcity is capable of generating a clash of interests and even of provoking conflict. If we consider the sheer size of China, a race for resources is bound to occur.
Many Chinese strategists view the development of overseas bases vital to “safeguard commercial interests and world peace”. In fact, support facilities are required not only to protect China’s growing global economic interests, but also to enable PLA participation in peacekeeping activities, ship escort deployments, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
First, an increase in the economic weight of China will intensify its gravitational pull and most certainly reconfigure the geopolitical space in the littoral of the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific.
Second, in the new grammar of globalization and trade, China is today more dependent on the seas than ever before in its history. Nearly 90 per cent of world trade in commodities and goods continues to flow by the seas. The scale and scope of Chinese interaction with the rest of the world is accelerating tremendously. The more integrated China become with the world economy, greater is its stakes at sea. In fact, oceans are the lifelines for the economic well-being of a country like China. Therefore, Beijing is bound to invest heavily – in diplomatic and military terms – in the management of the order in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Third, China’s growing interdependence with the rest of the world now demands more supple and complex military strategies to realize its transformed national interests. As the most versatile of the military instruments, the navies will become increasingly weighty in the strategic calculus of China. In fact, Beijing has begun to increase the share of resources devoted to its navies. This would mean a steady expansion of the size and quality of Chinese naval forces. Chinese Navy is expected to have 73 major warships and 78 submarines, 12 of them nuclear, by 2020.
It is also clear that Chinese basing diplomacy is aimed at building blue water navy. The economic prospects of China’s large population are dependent on access to vital natural resources and markets in distant lands. Powerful blue water navy, then, becomes inevitable to the rising China.
Further, it is imperative for China to create arrangements for friendly ports and turnaround facilities in other nations that will increase the range, flexibility and sustainability of Chinese maritime endeavours.
No great power has built a blue water navy capable of projecting force without physical access and political arrangements for ‘forward presence’. While China is trying to enhance its safety and security by basing diplomacy in its neighbourhood and beyond, regional countries are concerned of these developments and are apprehensive of Chinese intensions.
Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy heads the Foreign Policy Division at FICCI and has been selected as a Fellow at the 2013 Global Emerging Voices initiative. The views are personal.