Over the past several years, the preponderance of discussions regarding China has focused on its threat to Taiwan and its increased military capabilities.
As China has developed its military power at an almost exponential pace, it has also quietly established economic, political and military relationships with many countries around the globe. Virtually no regions have been overlooked. Qin Gang, China’s new foreign minister, recently said that “China’s diplomacy has pressed the accelerator button” as he discussed his country’s international efforts.
Has the U.S. watched these relationships develop, or have we slept through the alarms?
Yes. The string of high-altitude objects flying over North America in February, including the Chinese balloon that the U.S. shot down after it traveled over Canada and this country, should concern every American. It, too, should serve as a wake-up call for this country — but a wake-up call that should have been heeded several years ago.
In 2017 the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, reported China’s testing of high-altitude balloons 82,000 feet above Inner Mongolia. The testing reportedly included the release of small drones from the balloons. Swarms of unmanned aircraft being released over sovereign territory could clearly be problematic — a Trojan horse. It’s hoped our intelligence community was aware of this and all of China’s subsequent balloon testing.
Similarly, another recent wake-up call for the U.S. is China’s brokering the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals in the Middle East, a region where the U.S. has long wielded military, political and economic influence.
China’s ability to negotiate such an agreement signals China’s geopolitical power — and a clear lessening of American influence in the region. The Chinese action is a significant diplomatic achievement that legitimizes China. It also ensures a more stable environment economically for China — a necessary ingredient in the export of oil necessary to fuel China’s economic engine.
China’s brokering of the Saudi-Iran deal is just a foreshadowing of the challenges the U.S. faces near and long term. Its Belt Road initiative is the centerpiece of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy — a massive $1 trillion global infrastructure program undertaken 10 years ago by making investments in 150 countries.
What should concern every American and our leaders is how China has positioned itself globally. This, too, should set off alarm bells. Here is a mere sampling of China’s footprint that demonstrates a growing global influence.
- China is building a $3 billion deep-water container port near Lima in Chancay, Peru, complete with an industrial and logistics park — China’s first outpost in South America.
- China’s trade with Latin America and the Caribbean increased from $18 billion to $450 billion in 2022.
- China has been provided access to a deep-space monitoring station in Argentina near the Strait of Magellan.
- It has invested $4.5 billion in lithium production in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Lithium is critical for battery production.
- In the Western Hemisphere, 24 nations use Chinese firms such as Huawei in their IT networks.
- China has invested over $8 billion in six Caribbean countries in the tourism, transportation and agriculture sectors.
- Last December, President Xi met with 21 Arab League country leaders. China and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement worth tens of billions of dollars. The two countries agreed to a plan encompassing 182 cooperative measures involving trade, economy and investment.
- Several Chinese state-owned firms are building a presence near the Strait of Hormuz (Oman and the United Arab Emirates). Billions of dollars are being invested in oil pipelines and storage terminals along the Persian Gulf. Beijing can now influence this major oil chokepoint. China is the world’s top consumer of oil and depends on the Middle East for supply. It has now been provided a foundation for developing a military presence in the region. The potential for a military presence on the Strait of Hormuz should set off more alarm bells.
- China previously invested similarly near the mouth of the Red Sea that leads to the Suez Canal. Now both the east and west sides of the Arabian Peninsula have a Chinese footprint.
- China has exported over $300 billion worth of armaments to Middle Eastern and North African countries from 2005 through 2021.
- Africa is the largest regional component of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Forty-six African nations have signed on.
- China is well aware of Africa’s deep natural resources. Africa supports China’s need for raw materials to support its economy. Key activities include lending for infrastructure development engineered and constructed by Chinese companies and for resource extraction by Chinese mining and energy firms.
- China has developed a presence in almost every African country. Its influence has increased significantly while American influence in Africa has flatlined.
- China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner — $254 billion in 2021. This exceeds trade with the U.S. by a factor of four.
- China is the largest provider of foreign investment that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in Africa. China’s investment in Africa is double that of the U.S.
- China has developed a commercial port in Djibouti and used an agreement to establish a naval installation there.
- Rumors persist about China establishing a naval base on the Atlantic coast in Equatorial Guinea. China has already made significant improvements to port facilities at Bata. China has a large diplomatic mission in the country already and has made a significant investment in the country’s infrastructure. A naval base will provide an obvious presence in the region, along with access to the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and southern Europe. Its presence would put China at America’s front door.
- Afghanistan’s mineral resources are valued at $1 trillion and are necessary to maintain Chinese and American manufacturing capability — including copper, gold, oil and gas, rare earth minerals and lithium.
- Shortly after the U.S. departure from Afghanistan in 2021, the new Taliban regime looked to China for major investments. A source close to the Taliban told Nikkei Asia that China had been courting the Taliban since 2018 on possible projects in Afghanistan. The source said there were already verbal agreements between Beijing and the Taliban about investments.
- Reports appeared last March that China was negotiating with the Taliban to begin mining operations at one of the world’s largest copper mines.
- In January, the Taliban signed an agreement with a Chinese firm to drill for oil in north Afghanistan. This underscores China’s economic interest in the country.
The list of other Chinese global projects and initiatives is virtually endless, including ones in both the Arctic and Antarctica. What all the projects represent is a form of diplomacy. With a powerful and capable military, China can augment that military power with economic power and influence. When China’s foreign minister said his country has pressed the diplomacy accelerator button, he was not overstating his country’s goals.
Money can open doors, and this is what it has done for China. It gives China leverage to interject itself as it did to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together. The even more recent announcement that President Xi will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after Mr. Xi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week is another example of the U.S. being pushed aside as a global leader.
Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, the Navy’s top intelligence officer, perhaps said it best: “It’s disturbing how ill-informed and naive the average American is on China. … China is pretty good about flying under the radar on things that are frankly, very alerting.”
We have overslept and failed to hear and see the alarm bells. The question is whether we have time to get to work and address this issue. Our leadership, both at the executive and legislative levels, needs to grasp the situation and address it quickly. It may already be too late.
• Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral who served on active duty for 31 years. He is the author of “The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.” He is on the board of the Military Officers Association of America. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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