China Goes West

By Andrej Mrevlje |

It’s been some years now since China has been engaging the world’s attention with it’s deep expansion into the South China Sea. There, hundreds of miles away from its land, China runs the huge naval operations of land reclamation-creating small artificial islands. As the islands grow, Beijing builds airport runways and other military installations on them. China as the future superpower pretends to project its influence deep into the oceans, but lacks modern aircraft carriers. Soon those small islands will be compensating for the shortcomings of the Chinese navy. As those new standstill aircraft carriers are getting ready to receive the planes and perhaps even missiles as Reuters has reported, the new administration in Washington is getting agitated and as a result is sending one of its most powerful nuclear aircrafts into the area. 

Compared to Obama’s administration Trump’s chief of the Pentagon, General James Mattis, obviously wants to show more muscle than his predecessor. But is it for real or is it  just a pointless show as National Interest Blog is suggesting? They are comparing the American South China Sea surveillance operation to the controlling of New York’s Times Square during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s time. As the South China Sea is getting more and more crowded and as President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is instigating the war between the superpowers, China looks ahead.

For someone who follows the situation in Central Asia with the interest of an enthused reader of the Great Game and all  other Peter Hopkirk’s books, I was surprised by a news story that I read few months ago. “China Lays New Brick in Silk Road With First Afghan Rail Freight”, as Bloomberg reported last September:

For centuries, Chinese products have wended their way thousands of kilometers across mountains and deserts to the heart of central Asia, Afghanistan. Now, for the first time, the trade is carried by rail.

With the first train last week pulling in to Hairatan, northern Afghanistan, China marked another advance in President Xi Jinping’s Silk Road project to deepen his nation’s influence along old trade routes. For Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the new link also marks a small step toward a dream of turning his landlocked country into a transit hub of Asia.

Already the top investor in the war-torn country to its west, China is aiming to boost its commercial standing, as the no. 5 trading partner currently. Deepening those ties would help Afghanistan pare back the influence of Pakistan, the southern neighbor with which ties have sometimes been strained over outbreaks of violence and closures in border crossings.

My surprise was not about the fact that the Chinese built an infrastructure in exchange to access to natural resources, which in the case of Afghanistan represents a huge copper deposit. This is the usual business model China is implementing in all of the developing world, and was first tested in Tibet and Xinjiang. Besides their investment in exploitation of Afghani natural resources which Kabul estimates is as much as three trillion dollars worth,the railroad represents part of the Silk Road project where China intends to deepen its influence along old trade routes. With this project and probably many more, China has managed something that British colonial rule hasn’t. The Soviet invasion and the American intervention forces has failed to do this as well. The Chinese aren’t smooth operators but they are strategic. The Chinese have a long tradition of dealing and taming barbarians. The barbarians being those that do not belong to what was called the Middle Kingdom or the original Chinese empire. This is why the high Taliban delegation was spotted meeting with the Chinese in Beijing, and other places for the last couple of years.  Recently some observers have noticed the presence of Chinese security forces in Afghanistan.

As observed by Dirk van der Kley for East Asia Forum  “Beijing has a broad interest in Afghan stability. The Turkistan Islamic Party, a separatist organisation that Beijing has linked to terror attacks in Xinjiang, is believed to be active in Afghanistan. Instability in Afghanistan could also derail Belt and Road Initiative activities in neighbouring Pakistan and Central Asia”.

After the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, China is focusing on the broad issue of Afghan stability. Military aid has increased from a low base and intelligence sharing has tightened. Part of these efforts seem to be continuous talks with the Taliban that the U.S. has announced  as plans time and time again, but has never accomplished. The Chinese persist.

What I found curious is that in the long and extremely interesting profile of Ashraf Ghani by George Packer,  the Afghanistan president does not mention Chinese presence in his country. At all. Not even when extremely cultured President Ghani discussed the geopolitical options of his country.

This is something an Indian like General P.C. Katoch, coming from the country that is an arch rival of China, will never forget to mention. Discussing the future of Pakistan, the e retired Indian general mentions further expansion of China, illustrating the hypothesis of the new regional order:

Pakistan’s non-stop bamboozle will continue, egged on by China. Working on a 75-kilometre road linking China with Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor, Chinese troops are already patrolling deep inside eastern Afghanistan. A US aircraft carrier task forces may have commenced patrolling the South China Sea (SCS) but China’s intent is to create a SCS-type situation in the Arabian Sea in not too distant future, fully assisted by Pakistan. That certainly will be the case with Chinese proliferation in Indo-Pacific, including SSBNs based at Gwadar, Omari and Karachi in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Going by news reports, the US has seen through China’s game of recommending talks with North Korea. What the US Congressmen and the US administration needs to examine is the China-Pakistan-North Korea axis and what it means for the future of the world.

The above is possible or even credible. China has been  living in peace  for more than four decades now. Without involvement in international conflicts and without major domestic disturbances, China had time to grow from an underdeveloped country into a superpower. With all the peace and money of this world, the Chinese did not have to do anything else but to strategize while moving  their pieces on the chessboard, deeper into the adversary’s side-playing the game against the rest of the world. But in reality they are playing this game on their own, while the rest of the world-in search for instant gratification-has long lost interest. This is why the Chinese are winning.

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