The tiny African country of Djibouti is not well known outside of the Horn of Africa but its commanding position astride the Straits of Bab al Mandab which guards the entrance to the Red Sea and one of world’s busiest shipping lanes have attracted the Chinese government. China have constructed their first overseas military base in the country, in years to come this could be seen as the point at which China decisively moved away from its non-interference foreign policy stance to one of “creative involvement” and a sign it maybe prepared to flex its military might abroad.
The more obvious clues are closer to home, the triumphant 19th Communist Party Congress saw President Xi elevate his power giving him extensive leeway to exercise Chinese power overseas. Part of this process was placing the Belt and Road into the Party constitution and confirming it as China’s foreign policy cornerstone.
The Belt and Road Initative (BRI) is a well-conceived long term plan and unmistakeably Chinese. Grandiose, ambitious, but above all deliberately vague thus allowing a great deal of flexibility in its interpretation. The BRI promises enormous generosity to recipient countries while quietly supporting Chinese construction and energy firms who are keen to spread their wings, go global and conquer foreign markets.
The achievements of the Belt and Road will be unprecedented, scores of new rail lines and roads, power stations and export zones, entire countries like Pakistan will be transformed and re-energised with injections of Chinese capital. Many commentators have identified the BRI’s potential to be a tool of imperialism, but compared it to the energy that the US has squandered in Afghanistan and Iraq and China’s foreign policy strategy seems far more benign. That said China will surely create a Eurasian size sphere of influence with only Russia, India and the EU fully able to resist its pulling power.
Up until recently the risks inherent in the Belt and Road project have been poorly perceived, but that is changing. Venezuelan debt to China is USD 40 billion and rising rapidly which should be a warning that over extending credit to a country with a poor track record of repayment is not always a wise decision.
In a similar vein unnecessary projects in heavily indebted countries will become more apparent. The new airport in Hambantota, a pet project of the ex Sri Lankan Prime Minister lies largely empty right next to an equally empty new seaport, but Sri Lanka still owes over US$ 1.3 billion to China, which will inevitably play on the Colombo’s government’s mind when there is a geopolitical calculation to be made. White elephants are always going feature in an initiative on the scale of the Belt and Road, but if a host of smaller countries end up becoming debt colonies then Beijing will feel a diplomatic backlash.
Part of China’s rise is tied up with the USA’s perceived retreat from global affairs, while its military remains unsurpassed, the new cry of America First is alienating many allies. Trump’s brusque manner attracts the strong men and dictators of the world but democratic countries are less impressed. The biggest diplomatic casualty so far has been the Paris Accord. With the US pulling out, global climate leadership could pass to Beijing.
The contradictions of this idea are clear as China is by far and away the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. But like an addict getting clean the government has found a new found zeal for providing its citizen with an “ecological civilisation” and tackling China’s pollution problem.
This drive has already extended overseas as China has pushed the price of solar panels to an extremely low level and has started expanding their production abroad. The coming wave of Chinese climate finance investment to be witnessed both domestically and across the world could be the spark which truly ignites a global renewables revolution.
Although currently new clean energy investment capacity has overtaken fossil fuel investment the gap is so far overall that renewables have to completely outpace fossil fuels to become dominant. The Belt and Road could well become the main conduit of Chinese overseas finance and comes as the world is embracing renewable energy but the US government is turning its back on such ideas (local government in the US and the private sector think very differently). The Belt and Road could become known as the project that greened Eurasia in the same way the Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe.
The Chinese government has been trying to improve its soft power, but its image of a successful but highly authoritarian state unsympathetic to human rights and democracy is a tough sell in many parts of the world who remain suspicious of Chinese motives and actions. China is increasingly openly aspiring to global leadership and will use its economic might to bend countries to its will, the promise of investment and a shared distain for democracy has already pushed Cambodia and The Philippines closer to China giving Beijing more heft in the the Scarborough Shoal dispute and South East Asian politics. Now other countries like Malaysia and Iran have moved further into China’s orbit either through commercial necessity or political manoeuvring.
China has been trying to project its soft power overseas through Confucius Institutes, television stations like CCTV and through its commercial and aid projects which act as a shop window to the economic success story that is China and its ability to build and get things done. But as China takes a more assertive role it is also inevitable that the country will make enemies in both public opinion and national governments. So expect propaganda to be ramped up and increasing use of social media to control the Chinese government’s message overseas.
These techniques have been honed and tested domestically where an army of so called “50 Cent warriors” online posters (so called as they earn 50 cents a post) who are paid to push government taking points online and attack dissenting voices at home. It would be easy to see these tools used overseas to push Chinese points of view or as least drown out other voices. Russia’s use of social media to distort US politics could well be a precursor to China attempting the same but with much greater resources at its disposal and many more nations it has an interest in trying to influence.
Chinese companies around the world are either state owned or if privately controlled are still expected to toe the Party line, this gives the Chinese state a huge network of information gathering and potential levers of economic and social power.
The military base in Djibouti could be the first of many, there are often whispers that China is planning naval bases in Walvis Bay Namibia, Sri Lanka or Gwadar in Pakistan and the investment extended to these countries is softening them up for future expansion. It would take a long time until China caught up with US in terms of military bases but we can expect to see more military installations in the near future.
Chinese interventions overseas have been largely defensive protecting its trading relationship with the US and isolating Taiwan, now I expect this to move up a gear. China will make further efforts to peel off South East Asian states from the US, the lure of investment and the fear of upsetting a powerful neighbour will test their ties with the USA.
India could be isolated by offering inducements to neighbours and building military bases surrounding the sub-continent, but this will only be partly successful as India is such a powerful nation in its own right and will be difficult to coerce. Now India increasingly has its own economic success story, plus strong ties with other regional powers like Japan, Australia and Russia means that Beijing will have to tread carefully.
Above all Chinese companies will continue to make investments into Eurasia, South America and Africa reinforcing commercial ties, while the government will become ever more assertive in its dealings with other nations, all helping to create a perception that it is an unstoppable rising power and that all diplomatic roads now lead to Beijing.