One of the significant metaphors among national security experts is the use of color to explain naval capability. Brown water describes nations that can only operate in their own river ways and estuaries; green water is those navies that can operate near and around their coastal waters and, finally, blue water, which projects power internationally, militarily, economically and within the political realm.
It is important to note that blue water capability is not just the ability for a warship to cross oceans but to knit together and stabilize a nation’s overseas economic and trade interests. It creates a synergy between economics, diplomacy and military needs and wants.
The last time China was willing and able to do this was the 15th century during Admiral Zheng He’s “Ming treasure fleet voyages.” From 1405 to 1433, the fleet projected Chinese power into South Asia, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It combined military combat, diplomacy and trade to establish dominance. China established military bases, trade routes and a tribute system. It ended by choice because of China’s internal political and diplomatic shift in priorities.
Why is this important today? This 15th-century template that China uses to project power in the 21st century in the third world will be its template for its ambitions beyond earth.
The One Belt One Road initiative is well known. What is not as well known is how far afield Chinese ambitions are taking it. I have written about Chinese expansion into the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in articles past. Unfortunately, an evolution of this policy is now with us. This is illustrated by Chinese actions in the West African country of Equatorial Guinea.
The story here mirrors events already played out in South Asia where Chinese predatory loans, diplomatic pressure and the shadow of military coercion combine with corrupt regimes to make these nations semi-vassals of Chinese ambition.
For example, Equatorial Guinea is ranked the fourth most corrupt government by Transparency International, and her debt to China surpasses 49% of GDP. Thus, it is of great concern to American interests that the Chinese constructed Port of Bata will be used as a Chinese military base where her warships can repair, rearm and refit.
In addition, Bata can be used as a staging ground for operations in and around Africa. American intelligence has reported to Congress that China is considering base-building with Kenya, Seychelles, Angola and Tanzania.
One of China’s more advanced expansion methods is diplomatic and economic institution building. An excellent example of this is the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, created in 2000. This is an attempt to create a pan-Africa system of economic and military dependence on Beijing under the guise of development and security. But, unfortunately, its use of predatory loans to create debt enslavement is already in place in many nations worldwide. We can see this alive and well in Africa in Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, Zambia and Cameroon.
China trains and equips the national police and is highly interested in its oil reserves. Thus, China is well on its way to a naval base in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, we see similar behavior in the Caribbean Basin on the other side of the Atlantic. As Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament, stated, “Beijing had actively sought to undermine London’s historical status as a key partner with Caribbean nations.” China is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and establishing military-to-military relations.
China’s predatory acts, illustrating the naked ambition to gain world hegemony, are a precursor of further destabilizing behavior and an attack on American vital and national interest, Western civilization and democratic values. Its actions in the Caribbean blatantly violate the Monroe Doctrine, which the United States has effectively enforced when it has chosen to do so since 1823. This doctrine declared that the Western hemisphere was a forbidden zone to America’s enemies and a pivotal pillar of American foreign policy.
We have successfully protected American interests when we have chosen to enforce it and have suffered greatly, along with the Americas as a whole when we have not. We are now at that point again. We cannot allow 15th-century Chinese maritime strategy ghosts to reappear on a grander scale. We again are at a crossroads of decision-making. A choice of weakness will result in generational disaster.
• Dr. Lamont Colucci has experience as a diplomat with the U.S. Dept. of State and is a full professor of political science at Concordia University.