- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2018

China is using its $1 trillion-plus investment initiative in infrastructure projects as a way to expand its military footprint, projecting power and influence around the globe from the Horn of Africa into the Middle East and South Asia, says a report released this week.

Speculation over Chinese military expansion tied to the country’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative, which effectively seeks to mimic China’s old Silk Road trade routes and reshape the global marketplace more to Beijing’s liking, has dogged China’s claims that the program is driven purely by economic factors.

But the vast buildup of naval and ground forces, which Chinese leaders say is necessary to provide security for the large number of state-sponsored infrastructure projects under the initiative, “appear to generate political influence, stealthily expand China’s military presence, and create an advantageous strategic environment” where the projects are located, analysts at the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), wrote in a report.

The U.S. and its allies in the region have watched warily as increasingly powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping has pressed the One Belt One Road plan, fearful that countries and officials who accept China’s largesse in developing their economies and infrastructure will find themselves beholden to Beijing in other ways as well.

Reviewing 15 Chinese-financed infrastructure programs, C4ADS analysts found that Beijing’s focus on building up ports, roads, railroads and pipelines will bolster China’s financial prowess through these spheres of economic influence. But the infrastructure network created through development projects under the initiative also lays down the logistical backbone for China’s military, the report found.

“Building up dual-use infrastructure and industrial capacity, such as for metallurgical and shipbuilding industries, around key ports would augment the logistical utility of commercial ports in the event of a military operation,” analysts wrote.

Through the One Belt, One Road initiative, “Beijing is molding the Indo-Pacific to ensure its national security interests are adequately protected through the development of commercial ports that can facilitate long-range military patrols and investments that can generate political goodwill or — when necessary — coercive power,” analysts said.

China’s “real” purpose in pursuing the massive infrastructure program has sparked a fierce debate among academics and policymakers.

“The Belt and Road Initiative is a largely bogus concept, dressing up raw Chinese expansionism in a superficially more acceptable guise,” Richard Jerram, chief economist of the Bank of Singapore, wrote in a recent symposium on the concept in The International Economy magazine. “It is best seen as a foreign policy tool, positioned imprecisely between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.”

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, argued in the same issue that China’s economic and political model of state capitalism has proved surprisingly resilient as the country grows into an economic superpower.

“Put another way, it’s safer to bet on the China dream than not.”

Establishment of Chinese-owned access points across the world’s sea lanes and land shipping routes — either through economic investment programs or contested territorial claims — has been a linchpin in Beijing’s larger national security strategy. China’s efforts in constructing a chain of man-made islands to house naval seaports and air bases within the South China Sea have rankled Washington and its allies in the region.

Familiar model

While Beijing’s efforts to militarize the South China Sea is seen as a direct challenge to American influence in Asia, the potential military aspects of development under the One Belt One Road initiative are far less obvious and confrontational in challenging U.S. hegemony worldwide, analysts say.

The initiative, in and of itself, is not a new tool for regional powers to expand their influence, analysts say. America’s Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany and other devastated European countries after World War II is a clear model for using economic and infrastructure aid in the service of larger geopolitical goals.

Along with China, Japan and South Korea are pursuing economic investments in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

But the sheer size and scope of Beijing’s global infrastructure investment blitz, coupled with its outright denials that the effort could have military implications, are raising alarm within the international community, the report states.

China has single-handedly outspent the World Bank in providing loans to developing countries,” the report concluded.

Of the 15 projects reviewed, the development in Djibouti of the communist regime’s first overseas military post is the only publicly acknowledged project with an armed services aspect.

The other links are less obvious.

China has created a 150,000-troop Special Security Division to be rotated in and out of Pakistan, ostensibly to provide security for the Gwadar Port project and others across the country being built largely with Chinese money and expertise. In addition to the Gwadar Port development, China is reportedly developing “a permanent air force and naval base” in the neighboring Pakistani coastal city of Jiwani, in the volatile Balochistan province.

The sheer breadth of China’s various development programs under its massive global infrastructure investment initiative, coupled with its persistent refusal to acknowledge any military impact of these programs, “has foreign analysts wondering if the benign intentions China claims to hold are genuine, or whether Beijing is using its investments to reshape global geopolitics in its favor,” the report says.

Chinese officials reject such speculation, saying the projects are meant to sustain the country’s economic growth and to expand internationally, just as any other nation on the world stage would want to do.

“I am tired of answering those questions,” Zhang Baozhong, chairman of the state-sponsored China Overseas Port Holding Co. Ltd., said in an interview in Pakistan.

Mr. Baozhong, whose company is the sole foreign investor in the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, vehemently denied that China considered the strategically located port as a potential military asset.

He said Washington and its allies were floating false claims to undermine China’s cooperative efforts in Pakistan.

“Our brothers’ blood went into this port, and we did nothing with it,” said Mr. Baozhong, referring to several Chinese workers who died during the port’s construction beginning in 2002. “It is our duty … to make this port work.”

But top general officers within the People’s Liberation Army have argued in speeches and newspaper editorials that China’s infrastructure initiatives are “imperative for escaping alleged U.S.-led containment” of Beijing’s military, political and economic goals in South Asia and elsewhere, the report states.

“Such analyses argue that economic cooperation … particularly at Gwadar in Pakistan and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, are the first of “two chess moves” to break out of U.S.-led strategic containment and “once again enter a phase of toppling and reorganizing the international political and economic order” currently dominated by the U.S. and its allies.

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