It is often said that global maritime influence is an essential ingredient of a state to become a superpower or a great power. History has it all. Ascent of European powers such as Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Britain, and now the United States of America is testimony to this reality. While continental, economic, and military power has had great influence worldwide but posts WW II the continental power of two blocks, i.e, NATO & Warsaw Pact had a sense of balance, though each one was suspicious of the other’s progress.
Once the power balance became uneven, the superior sea power of the US became economically and militarily more influential in the world. In addition, some other factors too led to the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the US as the sole superpower. We are now in a situation wherein the economic leadership of the US is under threat from China, which is also taking giant steps to becoming militarily & technologically as powerful and influential.
China perceived supremacy in the maritime domain as more significant than continental power for its march to the top of the world hierarchy. Possibly Alfred Mahan had been translated into Mandarin!
A famous quote from Mahan’s ‘The influence of Sea Power’ – “whoever rules the waves rules the world” has proven right many times over.Alfred Mahan
Historically, control of the seas necessitated the acquisition of naval bases for coaling stations (since coal was the driver of ship’s engines). So profound was Mahan’s quote that Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm had copies of Mahan’s books placed on every ship in the German High Seas Fleet and the Japanese government put translations of the document in its imperial bureaus.
China’s Military Strategy Paper of 26 May 2015, seems to have drawn its text from Mahan’s maritime epic where it says:- “The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.
It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security of strategic SLOCS and overseas interests and participate in international maritime cooperation so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.” Hence the PLAN has moved to ‘open seas protection’ and is tasked to “protect the security of strategic SLOCS and overseas interest.” It is in this context that the Chinese footprint in the vast global maritime arena is expanding rapidly.
It begins with trade, commerce, and economy leading to gradual economic coercion, debt trap, and briefcase diplomacy resulting in a swap of bases for equity. As is known ‘Flag follows trade’, very true in China’s case. China has increased its investment in ports and berths worldwide, totaling 42 ports in 34 countries.
Beginning with IOR, which China considers as an opening to the West, China has majority stakes leading up to ownership (on lease basis) in Chittagong, Hambantota, Colombo South, Kyaupkyu, and Gwadar ports. It has also invested in the second phase of the container terminal of Port Khalifa in Abu Dhabi which will give China 90% operational rights.
Xi Dugang of International Engineering University in Zhengzhou and Liu Jiangheng of Research Institute for Smart Cities of Zhengzhou University (A PLA Unit) have been quoted as saying “China needs to avoid causing concern as with the advancement of BRI, China’s influence in the Indian Ocean is bound to increase. Therefore, China should actively participate in existing cooperation dialogue mechanisms in the IOR while also strengthen cooperation with the US and India for instance in the fields of counterterrorism, anti-piracy, or disaster relief.” In the South Pacific, China has been building influence over the last two decades.
Now its growing economic and geopolitical clout has become as large as its assertive behavior. Just 14 small sovereign nations and 7 territories expand 15% of the globe and are home to under 13 million people. However, the Melanesian sub-region separates only 6 km from Australia & PNG. Australia and Vanuatu are 2000 km apart, whereas Palau is under 1300 km from Guam. Till WW II, control over this region was critical for logistical supply lines for military force projection. However, ever since it has had benign geopolitical significance. It seems to have now changed with the growing presence of China. It has donated USD 1.5 billion to these islands making it 8% of all aids to islands.
The proposed Chinese-built dual-use facility In Vanuatu was sacked because the news leaked out and the US/Australia quickly jumped into PNG to rehabilitate a naval facility in Manus island and kept China out. Though there is talk of leasing of Tulagi Is in the Solomon Islands. Essentially, it gives rise to a risk of China leveraging diplomacy, debt, trade, or elite capture to establish a naval base in the South Pacific. This has drawn the attention of the West to this region now, but the risk of China and Chinese businesses capturing the elite by corruption and undermining institutions of governance remains. It may push these islands towards state failure.
Post Covid-19 downturn in the economy by 10%, China has become a strategic competitor from being a responsible stakeholder. Assessing China’s growing role in the world, the Southern shores of the Mediterranean have become the most significant sites of great power competition as the US, till recently, was taking a backseat in global affairs.
Disengaged the US and weakened EU left a vacuum and created space for China and Russia to expand their influence. In Europe, Chinese investment in the maritime sector has been very significant. China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) has taken the Greek port of Piraeus on lease up to the year 2052. Combined with China Merchants Ports Holding Company it has acquired stakes in 13 ports in Europe.
These include Rotterdam(Netherlands), Bruges, Zeebrugge and Antwerp (Belgium), Dunkirk, Le Havre, Nantes, Marseille (France), Bilbao and Valencia (Spain), Genoa (Italy), Istanbul (Turkey), Tangier, Casablanca (Moroccos) & Marsaxlokk(Malta). Stakes vary from 20% to 58%. There are 16 terminals in 13 different ports which Chinese companies control. It handles 11 million standard containers annually.
In Australia, Port Darwin is on a 99-year lease to China for a value of A$ 586 million. China also has investments in the ports of Los Angeles and Seattle in the US. In Latin America, China has begun investments with a 90% stake in Brazil’s TCP Participacoes (second largest port), in Peru, it is building a new port from scratch.
China will control interconnected ports leading to the Pacific and Atlantic through the Amazon river. The African continent is virtually in Chinese hands. It has acquired ports in Nigeria, Togo, and Djibouti. Three ports on Build Operate and Transfer(BOT) arrangement in Algeria, Cameron, and Mozambique, three ports on Engineering Procurement Construction basis, seven ports on EPC +Finance and Invest arrangement, and four on Public-Private Partnership.
In a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Defence in the US, Commander AFRICOM, Gen Stephen Townsend testified that due to China’s desire to be an equal stakeholder in world affairs, it has built a large number of warships, submarines, and aircraft; it is a certainty that China will make its presence felt in the Atlantic.
With Djibouti on the mouth of one of the busiest shipping routes particularly through the Suez and the Red Sea, it is now looking for a port on the west coast of Africa between Mauritania in the north and Namibia in the south. It is already watching over all choke points in the IOR, Straits of Gibraltar, Straits of Sicily, Red Sea, Bab-al-Mandab, and the Mozambique Channel.
It is now eyeing Terceira island, one of the Azores; Portuguese Island Lajes Field (presently being operated jointly by USAF and Portuguese AF from an airfield 10,865 ft long) from where it could patrol northern and central Atlantic and cut off traffic between the US and Europe or deny access to the Mediterranean.
It is a matter of time that Chinese vessels in the Atlantic could siphon some US naval forces from the Western Pacific easing pressure on China in the East Sea, the South China Sea, and Taiwan Straits, distract the US, and stretch them for benefit of China. China could also get access to a base 90 miles from east of Palm Beach on Grand Bahamas Island where a Hong Kong-based business is investing USD 3billion on a deepwater container facility at Freeport Container Port.
Thus, it could become another Hambantota and China’s militarisation in the Bahamas. There is already a Chinese-funded port on Abaco island in the Bahamas. China thus could have two ports close to Florida much to dislike of the US. Is the new world order starting at China ruling the waves?