On 7 September 2013, President Xi Jinping called for the construction of a Silk Road Economic Belt during a speech at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. However, this belt has always been more than just a means for China to hitch up its economic pants.
Behind Xi’s plans are strategic and military factors that underpin and explain the huge amount of investment that Beijing is directing towards this initiative. However, China has been less than forthright about these ‘dark’ foundations to the whole scheme.
This concept, as unveiled in 2013, included plans for regional cooperation, planning and construction of the belt, the promotion of trade and investment, the use of regional currencies to reduce financial risk and enhance global competitiveness, and to build a strategic route that connects China, Central Asia and Europe – from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea.
According to reports from China, the Silk Road Economic Belt was an initiative based on four principles: openness and cooperation; harmony and inclusiveness; market operations; and mutual benefit.
The Silk Road Economic Belt will complement a Maritime Silk Road – a so-called ‘string of pearls’ from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean to trading posts in the Middle East, Africa and eventually Europe – as part of a new strategic policy by Beijing.
Commonly referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or One Belt, One Road (OBOR), its broad agenda ranges from economic development to security enhancements and military defence expansion.
'Commonly referred to as the...One Belt, One Road (OBOR), its broad agenda ranges from economic development to security enhancements and military defence expansion.'
— The Geobukseon
Before looking at some military and strategic implications to Xi’s blue-ribbon plan, let us quickly summarise the BRI, which consists of four major components combined with many smaller projects that will enhance China’s trade, expand its defence posture and stabilise its neighbours:
1. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): A $46 (or $62?) billion infrastructure investment in Pakistan that will build new roads, railroads, telecommunications infrastructure, airports, ports and energy pipelines from Gwadar port in southwest Balochistan across the entire nation of Pakistan to the border with China at Khunjerab and onward to Kashgar – the junction of the original northern and southern silk road routes in Xinjiang Province.
2. Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIM): There have been a number of discussions over the past five years regarding construction of the BCIM Corridor, which is designed to connect Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar to expand trade and connectivity in South Asia. The BCIM is envisioned to run from Kolkata, India, through Dhaka, into Burma and up into China with a terminus at Kunming.
Details on the BCIM Corridor are limited, but it is expected to provide a range of road, rail, port, power and energy transmission components that will expand trade across one of the most populated areas in the world and capitalise on the development of industrial parks, special export processing zones and business hubs.
The BCIM Corridor project will be a significant boost for the developing economies of Myanmar and Bangladesh as it will allow better access to China’s large economy, along with the potential to expand trade with India as that nation streamlines its bureaucracy and expands economic development.
This corridor project also includes oil and natural gas pipelines across Myanmar to China’s Yunnan Province. These two pipelines, along with related shipping infrastructure and oil storage facilities that the Chinese built at the deep-water port of Maday Island near Kyaukphyu, will allow China to diversify the importation of hydrocarbons from the Middle East and Africa and avoid pirates and adversarial navies in the Straits of Malacca, a narrow chokepoint that could easily be closed during a conflict or embargo.
The pipelines, combined with related naval and defence-related logistics infrastructure, represent one of the major key components of the Silk Road initiatives. Additional investment in industrial parks of the special economic zone of Kyaukphyu is expected in the near future.
3. Central Asia Overland Route: One of the main overland trade routes out of China runs via rail from Xinjiang Province, crossing the border at the Dzungarian Gate (10km wide at its narrowest point), across the Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan into Russia, Belarus, Poland and then ending outside of Hamburg, Germany.
This rail route is facilitated by one of only two major passes in western China – Dzungarian in the north, and the southern pass at Tarim Basin that opens into the Fergana Valley of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and which eventually winds its way to Iran. The northern route allows manufactured goods to move out of eastern and central China on a faster route across land and into consumer regions of Europe (two weeks versus five weeks via the Suez Canal).
The overland route is approximately 25% more expensive than ocean shipping, but it will allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to move forces at a rapid pace across China for future training exercises, defensive needs and possible kinetic operations against external enemies and internal targets.
4. Southeast Asia (Indochina): China intends to build a massive high-speed rail network from Kunming, south through Laos across Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore. This is a very expensive and difficult project to build and it is targeted for completion by 2021, if it is ever built.
The Laotian portion alone will consist of 154 bridges and 76 tunnels on about 415km of line from the Chinese border to the capital Vientiane.
There are also rumours of plans to build a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand. If this project is ever approved, funded and built, it will allow Chinese commercial shipping and the PLA Navy (PLAN) to avoid the heavily congested Straits of Malacca in transit between the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
A canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand: 'If this project is ever approved, funded and built, it will allow Chinese commercial shipping and the PLA Navy to avoid the heavily congested Straits of Malacca in transit between the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.'
— The Geobukseon
Throughout history, the Silk Road has always been a concept, not a single physical route or trail, from China, across Central Asia, to Europe – a route that carried commodities in both directions. It also served as a conduit for invading armies, also in both directions.
Now, the Chinese intend to make it a formal, concrete route of roads, hydrocarbon pipelines, railroads, ports, power transmission lines and telecommunication fibre networks. China’s Silk Road development and expansion plans are driven by the following factors:
- Diversify trade routes for crude oil and natural gas imports away from its busy East China Sea ports. China is a new energy importer and these resources supply its large economy and its growing military, especially the PLAN.
- Solve the Malacca dilemma by developing new routes and expanding existing trade routes with China’s historical trading partners and, at the same time, allowing the PLA more efficient and expanded cross-country transit routes and for future military engagement with its neighbours.
- Develop and expand goodwill with its neighbours. According to Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun, ‘As we Chinese say, ‘A close neighbour is better than a distant relative’.’
- Stabilise Xinjiang through increased economic development in the province and in volatile Central Asian nations.
- BRI will strengthen supply lines and internal lines of communication for both the PLA and other Chinese law enforcement agencies.
The BRI has a number of strategic purposes for the PLA that have not been widely discussed in public. Gwadar and the related CPEC infrastructure will block Indian access to Central Asia and its tremendous hydrocarbon resources, for example.
There was a recent news story that discussed the building of infrastructure at the port that would even support nuclear-submarine basing there. Furthermore, the initiative will allow the PLAN to expand its operational footprint from the First Island Chain and South China Sea to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Gwadar and onward to the Arabian and Red Seas via Djibouti and beyond.
In conclusion, the Belt and Road Initiative appears on the surface to be a range of economic trade routes for China to expand and enhance its export machine. However, there is a significant amount of dual-purpose or multipurpose features that will facilitate PLA operations, strengthen China’s defences and allow for the rapid movement of troops and materiel to future fronts.
There is more to OBOR than meets the eye, and certainly Beijing is downplaying its strategic intent with this project.