SINGAPORE (June 1, 2018) Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivers remarks during the first plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 June 2. The Shangri-La Dialogue, held annually by the independent think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is an inter-governmental security forum which is attended by defense ministers and delegates from more than 50 nations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released)
By: Xander Causwell, Columnist
The People’s Republic of China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) is Xi Jinping’s strategy for attaining regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, and the U.S. currently lacks an adequate strategic answer. This month’s Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, US Secretary of Defense General Mattis clearly stated his government’s position on the Indo-Pacific region: the U.S. will accept no dominant powers in the region, and US military presence in the region will remain steadfast.[i] The MSRI, however, is designed to render the US security guarantees to its regional partners irrelevant while China exercises other means of regional influence.
Through the growing number of port infrastructure projects around the region, the MSRI coordinates the ‘triple barrels’ of financial, economic, and naval power.[ii] This combination facilitates the rapid expansion and deepening of China’s potential coercive influence over Indo-Pacific countries. As that influence increases, interest in security cooperation with the US among its traditional partners in the region will wane. The US Navy’s forward presence will grow increasingly unwelcome in the Indo-Pacific, and China will achieve regional hegemony. Containing China’s ambitions to regional hegemony is critical but doing so requires that the U.S. revise its Indo-Pacific strategy.
China’s Pursuit of Regional Hegemony
Though China consistently maintains that MSRI projects foster mutually beneficial economic relationships with its regional neighbors, the evidence suggests that China’s port infrastructure developments around the Indo-Pacific are meant to foster economic, financial and security dependence from its regional neighbors paving the way to regional hegemony.[iii]
The strategic positioning of MSRI port projects at key trade chokepoints better position China to perform blockades while simultaneously making themselves resistant to that form of economic coercion. China considers the port projects around the Gulf of Aden, through the Malacca straights, and in Myanmar as crucial to securing their shipping against foreign hindrances, and reorganizing sea routes to their advantage.[iv] Investments in those ports also give China more financial leverage over developing countries. By initially financing Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port project, China ensnared the former in insurmountable debt, eventually compelling a transfer of port ownership to a Chinese state-owned enterprise. Yet, Sri Lanka’s Chinese debt bondage woes remain.[v]
Reports also note the dual-use capabilities of the MSRI ports for PLA Navy (PLAN) expansion. The port projects at Gwadar in Pakistan and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia are noted to be fully capable of supporting and supplying an extended PLAN presence, and the Indian government already views Gwadar port as a harbinger of PLAN deployments in the area.[vi] The China port under construction in Djibouti is already overtly a military logistics hub to support PLAN anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden, and PLA peacekeeping operations on the African continent. Reports also points to the many superfluous and unprofitable projects around the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, indicating that an increased China presence across the region is primary purpose of these projects generally.[vii] Moreover, statements from some CCP and PLA officials reinforce the theory that the MSRI is meant to undermine the US efforts to contain China’s ascension to hegemonic status by coercively cultivating ‘strategic support state’, creating an inhospitable environment for US forces in the region.[viii]
The Containment Imperative
China’s MSRI strategy for attaining regional hegemony will unacceptably position the country to threaten the current international order. MSRI projects around the Straits of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden strategically place hard-power resources at these key trade chokepoints, foreshadowing the eventual ability to throttle 50% of global trade flows.[ix] China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea already threaten to hinder freedom of navigation through that sub-region, and fear of the implicit threat to global trade has already prompted the US Navy to conduct Freedom of Navigation operations throughout the region.[x] Moreover, while the US forward presence in the Indo-Pacific is the most likely immediate conduit to a US-China clash, opportunities for conflict will abound with a regionally hegemonic China. As John Mearsheimer explains, regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific will endow China with the power to roam globally, leaving it confidently free to challenge US positions worldwide, and in multiple domains, in the contest of global hegemon. The ensuing conflict would undoubtedly enthrall the rest of the world.[xi]
Even in the absence of hegemonic war, however, China’s rise to global hegemony is undesirable. In a recent podcast, Kori Schake, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, highlighted that past hegemons tended remake other countries politically in their own image, referring to global promotion of liberal democracy by Great Britain and subsequently the US. She argued that a hegemonic China would affect international politics similarly, though she believes that internal dynamics in China will force it to become more liberal first.[xii] However, China scholars such as Oriana Mastro contend that China’s rise will not necessitate its liberalization.[xiii] Merely the risk of China exporting its political model around should concern adherents to the liberal international order.
Toward a Sustainable Containment Strategy
The current US-led strategy of deterring China’s regional ambitions grows increasingly ineffective, and thus requires a creative revision. The MSRI strategy is designed to circumvent and undermine the US forward presence in the Indo-Pacific while nullifying the conventional US military and economic deterrence. Instead the US and its partners should aggressively pursue a nuanced ‘off-shore balancing’ strategy supplemented by the threat of ‘distant blockades’. Though Mearsheimer and others posit that China may be too formidable to contain with a conventional off-shore balancing strategy because the region lacks a singular partner capable of balancing it, a strong coalition of Indo-Pacific partners could accomplish the task.[xiv] Since the success of the MSRI strategy hinges on China supporting the economic and security needs of its Indo-Pacific neighbors, a balancing coalition would have to be built on mutual security guarantees and deep economic relationships that generate enough value to rival China’s foreign direct investment offerings. Modi’s recent efforts to deepen India’s economic and security relationships with Indonesia signals a willingness of populous states in the region to balance China’s vie for hegemony.[xv]
Proposed plans for direct US involvement in Indo-Pacific infrastructure initiatives to counter the MSRI or for an increased US naval presence in the region will only undermine the incentives for its Indo-Pacific partners to build on relationships amongst themselves, and may prove financially unsustainable.[xvi] Rather, the US should actively promote bilateral cooperation among its regional partners, while gradually ramping down its naval presence. The US Navy can maintain a sufficient level of deterrence against Chinese aggression by positioning for ‘distant blockading’—disrupting China’s trade with countries outside Indo-Pacific region. China’s energy dependence on trading relationships in regions such as the African continent, for example, could be interrupted should a conflict arise in the Indo-Pacific.[xvii] Though the task of constructing an Indo-Pacific partnership strong enough to balance China will prove Bismarckian, the result will be a sustainable containment strategy.
[i] The International Institute for Strategic Studies. “James Mattis: US leadership and the challenges of Asia-Pacific security,” Filmed [June 2018], YouTube video, Posted [June 2018], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffQ_twen7Qg.
[ii] Martin N. Murphy, “Triple Barrels: The Economic, Financial and Maritime Warfare Nexus in the Twenty-First Century.” The RUSI Journal 160, no. 2, 2015, 12-18.
[iii] Jingxi Mo“Purpose of Belt and Road is a Win-Win for All,” China Daily, China Daily Online, November 17, 2017.
[iv] Devin Thorne and Ben Spevak, “Harbored Ambitions: How China’s Port Investments are Strategically Reshaping the Indo-Pacific,” Center for Advanced Defense Studies, 2018, 15-17
[v] Jonathan Hillman, “Game of Loans: How China Bought Hambantota,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018, https://amti.csis.org/game-of-loans-china-hambantota/.
[vi] Devin Thorne and Ben Spevak, “Harbored Ambitions: How China’s Port Investments are Strategically Reshaping the Indo-Pacific,” 21.
[vii] Ibid, 65.
[viii] Ibid, 20-21.
[ix] Alex N. Wong “Briefing on The Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Special Briefing, Washington DC, April 2, 2018, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/04/280134.htm
[x]Mark J. Valencia, “Are US FONOPs in the South China Sea Necessary?,” The Diplomat, October 28, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/are-us-fonops-in-the-south-china-sea-necessary/
[xi] John J. Mearsheimer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” The National Interest, 25, October 25, 2014, 23-37, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/can-china-rise-peacefully-10204
[xii] Mick Cook, interview with Kori Schake “On Hegemonic Power Transfer,” The Dead Prussian Podcast, Podcast Audio, Apr 8, 2018, http://thedeadprussian.libsyn.com/episode-59-on-hegemonic-power-transfer-the-dead-prussian-podcast.
[xiii] Oriana Skylar Mastro, “China’s End Run around the World Order,” China and the West: Is Conflict Ahead?, CATO Unbound, March 14, 2018, https://www.cato-unbound.org/2018/03/14/oriana-skylar-mastro/chinas-end-run-around-world-order.
[xiv] John J. Mearsheimer & Stephen M. Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior US Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, 95, 2016, 70.
[xv] Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “The Strategic Logic of Modi’s Indonesia Visit,” The Diplomat, June 06, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/the-strategic-logic-of-modis-indonesia-visit/.
[xvi] Raymond Vickery. “The United States and India Need a Maritime Initiative.” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018, https://amti.csis.org/u-s-india-need-maritime-initiative/.
[xvii] Ryan P. Conole, “Maritime Trade Warfare: A Challenge to the Chinese A2/AD System” Naval War College, Newport, RI, Joint Military Operations Department, 2014, http://www.dtic.mil/docs/citations/ADA609322