On 20 April 2015, the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a common plan for developing an economic and energy corridor linking the two countries through the development of gigantic infrastructures worth 46 billion dollars (Katharine Houreld, “China and Pakistan launch economic corridor plan worth 46 billion dollars”, Reuters, April 20, 2015).
If this announcement is in itself very impressive, it is, in fact, only a part of China’s grand strategy, dubbed the “New Silk Road”. This strategy is defined through the concepts of “belt and road” (literally in Chinese Yídài yílù, 一带一路, one belt, one road) (“Belt and Road Nations account for 26 per cent of China’s trade”, The Beijing Review, April 29, 2015). Each “node” of the “belt and road” strategy aims to determine a sub-continental area important to China.
So, the “Belt” deploys itself around regions in South Asia, in the Asia-Pacific, in Central Asia, between Russia and China and starts unrolling towards Africa and Europe. It aims to develop and reinforce transport and other infrastructures between these areas and the “Middle Kingdom”.
In fact, this strategy is a way to both expand the influence of China and to attract the resources necessary to answer the huge needs and thus demand in commodities and products that emerge from a developing society and economy of one billion and four hundred million people, in an immense country with limited natural resources (Craig Simon, The Devouring Dragon, 2013). For example, China imports daily 7,4 million barrels of oil, thus more than the U.S., which imports 7,2 million barrels of oil a day (“Pétrole : la Chine importe plus que les USA”, Le Figaro avec Reuters, 11/05/2015).
In other terms, China needs as much attracting resources as making sure that the areas with which it has economic and energy relations are composed of countries that will be able to sustainably support the resource flows toward and through its frontiers. This strategy is devised in an era of growing international competitions for natural resources fraught be the new political and strategic tensions triggered by this competition.
Ensuring the future China in a (violent) multipolar world
The “New Silk Road” is a system of networks, infrastructures and development programs, which aim to connect China with South Asia, Central Asia, Russia and Europe. Each of these regions is defined as composing a “belt” with China, while road systems and infrastructures are the means chosen in order to link them with China’s regions (Deng Yaqing, “A shared path”, The Beijing Review, July 10, 2014). The “Belt and Road” initiative has a maritime dimension, which is central to this strategic project (Li Xin, “The Asian fusion, China’s two silk roads help forge closer cooperation among CICA members“, The Beijing Review, May 1, 2014).
This strategy reveals what is at the core of the thinking of the Chinese political authorities, that is to say the will of ensuring China’s historical continuity over the decades to come (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, 2011).
In effect, Beijing is quite aware of the numerous emerging factors of discontinuity, notably the new risks created by the current world resource competition (Michael Klare, The Race for what’s left, 2012 and Dambisa Moyo, Winner take all, China’s race for resources and what it means for us, 2012) and global warming, on the very singular living conditions of this giant and socially and ecologically sensitive and vulnerable country (Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2005).
In effect, the different ways and means China achieves sustainability – i.e. the adequate equilibrium between the organization of society and the production of resources necessary to answer its needs (John King Fairbanks, Merle Goldman, China, a New History, 2006) – is one perspective through which to read and understand the very ancient history of China.
We thus find a conjunction of social control, very careful agrarian, economic, rural and urban development, Confucian philosophy, strong political power, which rule is based on the recognition that what it does is good for or the country, and thus corresponds to what is good as well as “harmonious” (Etiemble, Confucius, 1986). During millennia, this form of legitimacy has been called the “Celestial mandate”. As we saw in “The Arctic, Russia and China’s energetic transition” (Valantin, The Red Team Analysis Society, February 2, 2015), “If the population discerns signs that the government has lost the Mandate, it ceases to see the government as legitimate and vast social and political unrest and extremely violent upheaval may follow (John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, ibid.).
In other terms, the Chinese political authorities need today to protect their population from the permanent pollution-related countrywide airborne chemical attack that it now suffers, because it may be perceived as a sign that the Mandate of Heaven is lost:
“Towards the close of each regime, for example, natural calamities, earthquakes, floods, comets, eclipses, and other heavenly portents become more numerous in the record, evidence that the improper conduct of the ruler was losing him the Mandate of Heaven” (Fairbank & Goldman, Ibid: 48).
Nowadays, the challenge for the Chinese political authorities is to preserve their legitimacy, without which they could be violently disavowed, and thus to ensure that the economic and social development of their country continues, as has been of paramount importance since Deng Xiaoping (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014). This national project necessitates for China to attract the resources it needs, despite the fact that a lot of other countries are competing with each other in order to attract those very same resources.
However, this strategic thinking on a continental scale is quite different from other types of strategies developed in Europe or in the U.S., such as, for example, the spread of the US military influence in the Middle East through the Iraqi war (Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing, 2007).
The current Chinese strategy is based on the idea that the different corridors of influence created by the different “nodes” of the “Belt” are primarily destined to attract resources towards China, while having Chinese workers going into these countries, notably to build the infrastructures, which are part of the deal. This allows China to support the countries that are part of the system, in a wide scale “win-win” game, by helping them becoming more sustainable (Juan Pablo Cardinal and Heriberto Araujo, China’s silent army, 2014).
This support is a way to turn these countries into parts of the system created to guarantee the long term of Chinese sustainability. In other words, China does not expand its influence to become a “classical” dominant or imperial power but, “simply”, in order to make sure that countries throughout Eurasia have an interest in participating in the sustainability of China (Dambisa Moyo, ibid).
Symmetrically, Beijing makes sure that its partners are themselves able to be sustainable, because they are involved in a system that could be destabilized by the unsustainability of some of its parts.
Thus, the “New Silk Road” strategy allows its promoters to express what we call the “Chinese power of need” (Valantin, “The Chinese shaping of the North”, The Red Team Analysis, 9 June 2014) throughout Eurasia, while displacing the idea of direct domination and conflict as notion of influence. Beijing prefers the vision of a systematic complementarity between the “Middle Kingdom”’s national interest and the different national interests of its partners. The latter is achieved by creating the “need for China”.
The Pakistani strategy
The agreement on the “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” is an excellent example of this philosophy and strategy. The deal comes with a 46 billion dollars package, which will be used to create transport infrastructures from the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, close to Iran border, to China’s western Xinjiang region (Saeed Shah and Jeremy Page, “China readies 46 billion dollars for Pakistan trade route”, The Wall Street journal, April 16, 2015). In other terms, the Pakistani part of the “Belt” is both land and sea based, which opens maritime perspective for the expansion of the Belt.
Furthermore, the package includes the development of coal, hydro, solar and wind power plants, destined to alleviate the Pakistani structural problem of electricity generation. The money will be lent by Chinese banks and maybe by the new Asian Infrastructure Investment bank to Chinese companies, which will develop projects with Pakistani companies and public services companies (Shah and Page, ibid).
So, from the Chinese point of view, this agreement allows the Chinese state and companies to link Chinese sea ports (“Gwadar port integral to China maritime expansion”, The Tribune, February 17, 2013), and thus the littoral economically developed regions with Pakistan by sea.
Also, the use of the Pakistani Gwadar port by Chinese ships (Valantin, “Pakistan and the long storm”, The Red Team Analysis Society, February 23, 2014) will help to integrate the much less developed Xinjiang interior region through the agreed upon roads to be built between the hinterland and the littoral.
Furthermore, it will facilitate the linking both of South East China and Xinjiang with south and southwest Asia, as well as with the Arabian-Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal, while escaping from the strategic bottleneck of the Malacca strait (Shah and Saeed, ibid).
Meanwhile, this 46 billion dollars project allows developing China to involve itself in the development of socially, politically, economically and strategically unstable Pakistan. There, the political, religious, social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities compose a national system of instability (Anatol Lieven, Pakistan, A Hard country, 2011), which endows Pakistan with a singular political capital: it is a very fragile country, with a 140 million people strong population, and a nuclear power. In other words, its neighbours cannot allow Pakistan to collapse (Valantin, ibid).
Thus, China builds upon this strategic reality and transforms it in an asset for its own needs, by helping the Pakistani public and private sectors, which, in turn, become a support for its own sustainability, through the “win-win” philosophy at the core of the “Belt and road “ strategy.
In this context, Beijing encourages Washington to keep on supporting Islamabad from a security perspective (Shah and Page, ibid), while remaining a staunch military ally of Pakistan, and also helping it to develop its energy capacities, in order to reinforce the social urban cohesion through a proper electricity system, without which modern life is very difficult, notably considering the current state of the Pakistani megapolis such as Karachi (e.g. Huma Yusuf, Tactical Cities: Negotiating Violence in Karachi, Pakistan, 2008).
Thus, Pakistan is starting to be integrated to the “belt” of the “New Silk Road”, through a land and sea “silk road” system, which, itself, is a support for other deployments of the “belt and road”.
The Pakistani case is a good demonstration of the way the “New Silk Road” is a new expression of the Chinese philosophical and strategic thought. This philosophy is installed in an understanding of the spatial dimension as something that has to be used in order to support and spread Chinese influence and power (Quynh Delaunay, ibid).
The profound intelligence of the “New Silk Road” strategy resides in the fact that it is elaborated through the idea that the Chinese national interest must be promoted through a strategy that is not primarily based on the use, or the threat, of armed, symbolic or economic violence. From the Chinese point of view, the strategy is built upon the creation of a system of mutually understood interests, and violence must “simply” be a possibility and a possible political mean, which accompanies the creation of the Belt, without being at its core (Giovanni Arrighi, ibid).
The “New Silk Road” is also elaborated and designed while the People’s Liberation Army is quickly developing its Navy. For example, it has nowadays more submarines than the US Navy (Jeremy Bender, “China’s submarines could create problems for US Navy”, Business insider, April 7, 2015). Meanwhile, it is building up its network of bases in Asia and Africa (Tyler Durden, “China to build military base in Africa next to critical oil choke transit”, Zero Hedge, 05/10/2015). In other words, Beijing gives itself the means to protect and secure the network of influence and resource attraction created through the “New Silk Road”.
However, it must now be seen how this strategy is implemented throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle east, and Africa, from Pakistan and India to the Arctic, and how it meets other ways to develop other types of strategies, in their spatial and military forms.
To be (soon) continued.
Jean-Michel Valantin, (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: “Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and Chinese President Xi Ping inaugurating projects through video link at Prime Minister’s office, Islamabad, April 20, 2015” from the photo album of the Facebook Page of Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office. Click here to access to the photo.