The Mitigation of China’s Naval Asymmetry via Control of Critical Maritime Chokepoints and the Centerpiece of its String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean

China and the United States are unlikely to ever have anything other than superficial diplomatic relations. Their competing interests and ideological disparities are extensive. The United States strives to maintain its dominance but China will challenge the status quo. China’s growing brashness and efforts to dominate the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean necessitates that the United States revise its strategy and resource allocations.

By 2020 a significant portion of US naval and air force assets will likely be deployed in the Asia Pacific. As America’s resources continue to dwindle and China’s continue to grow, the United States will have to increase personnel and hardware allocations to project long distance force. While diplomatic deterrence with China will continue, Beijing will discuss long term goals, friendship, and economic co-prosperity but still pursue its own interests. Ultimately, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines fall deeply within China’s perceived sphere of influence. America may be treaty bound to protect these islands but at what cost and for how long? Strategies of consolidation and denial will only accelerate China’s military expenditures and cause an expensive escalation far from the United States.

China is systematically acquiring or controlling key naval sea lanes that will hamper US speed of access to key maritime points of ingress and egress. The comparative military asymmetry between China and the United States is significant now but America may find underestimating China costly. What some US hawks may not realize is that while China establishes regional territorial sovereignty, only speculation and rhetoric support Beijing’s intent to use force against Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, or Vietnam. China’s current strategy plausibly relates to trade and resource exploitation and the protection of trade routes; whereas US regional intervention is a conflict posture to consolidate China’s influence and puts US “allies” at greater risk.

China has achieved rapid development via Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy and now sees itself as an equal among its developed peers. China may have sought validation from the West in the past, but now it wants respect. When China asserts, or tries to assert, its authority, the country is confident enough to rebuff disapprobation acting as if its standard or perspective is absolute. China claims it is not a hegemon while the United States claims not to be imperialist but disingenuously practices unimperial imperialism. Perhaps one day Chinese foreign policy will be characterized as non-interfering interference. Levity aside, China will continue its military expansion. While the United States currently outguns China, history is replete with examples where asymmetry was irrelevant in determining the outcome of conflict (such as the United States in Vietnam and the United Kingdom and USSR in Afghanistan).

Photo available for use under Chinese copyright law, section 22

Propaganda poster from the 1970’s from the PLA Navy Magazine. Photo available for use under Chinese copyright law, section 22

China is a cash-rich lender and a labor-rich builder, which means China’s military imbalance may be irrelevant unless there is war. The Soviets demonstrated that trying to outspend one’s opponent may not be the ideal way to win a war as we learned by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war in 1991. However, outsmarting one’s opponent is still likely the best path to victory. Paradoxically, as much as the United States borrows from China, the US seems to have unlimited funds for military spending as opposed to China’s more measured but persistent military growth. The United States is more technologically advanced than China, but history offers examples of war where the victors were technologically and quantitatively inferior such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. Moreover, Beijing need not be more technologically advanced to fight the United States; China merely needs the ability to defeat or undermine US technology, such as US satellites, which are used to manage remote assets. Beijing realizes that a successful military campaign requires logistics and if China can undermine US logistics, it has a strong tool in its arsenal. The United States needs naval and air support to contain China in the East and South China Seas but needs basic logistics to maintain those assets and China is focusing on its ability to control or undermine these resources in addition to pursuing non-logistics offensive and defensive assets of its own. China may need ten to twenty years to attain military technology parity with the United States but, consistent with its economic development, Beijing is focused first on developing an infrastructure to support its military expansion both at home and abroad. China is systematically establishing a presence from East Asia to Northeast Africa and strategically establishing footholds everywhere it can in between while simultaneously expanding its naval fleet to marshal these resources.

A critical area of China’s expansion is South Asia. China has been at odds with India for decades, particularly in relation to border disputes. However, China has cultivated a strong relationship with Sri Lanka, notably beginning in 1952 upon signing of the “Rubber-Rice Pact,” one of the first treaties the PRC signed after “liberation.” China was then unable to buy rubber due to the ban on rubber exports from Malaysia per a UN resolution. Presently, Sri Lanka is very strategic for China vis-à-vis India and together with its new naval base in Djibouti will offer China very effective coverage in the Indian Ocean. While it is quite isolated Sri Lanka is a strategic lynchpin for China in the Indian Ocean. China’s strategy to mitigate its asymmetry with the United States is not just about dominating the high seas in Asia but to control the ways and means of ingressing and egressing the world’s oceans primarily via maritime chokepoints, most notably canals. Below is a brief exposition of strategic maritime locales and their connection to China and its naval expansion.

Panama

In 1997 Hutchison Whampoa gained effective control of the Panama Canal via the ports it has operated at both ends since 2000 under a 25-year concession; thus China effectively controls the canal until 2025. China’s influence inside Panama has also grown per a 2007 bill submitted to the Panamanian legislature mandating that Mandarin be taught in all Panamanian public schools.

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, who controls CK Hutchison Holdings, the largest operator of container terminals in the world, has strong PRC ties and seems to comply with Beijing’s demands. It appears Li acted as a proxy for China and has made acquisitions on the nation’s behalf that have been rewarded by Beijing. As early as 1991, Li tried to acquire Subic Bay, a former US naval base in the Philippines. Additionally, only two years into a twenty-year lease on its prime flagship location in Beijing, McDonalds’ lease was inexplicably terminated. The whole area was razed and a huge development called Oriental Plaza was built by Li.

Nicaragua

China will break ground on the Nicaragua canal in 2016. -This canal will be significantly larger than the Panama Canal. It is to be built by HKND, a Hong Kong listed company run by Wang Jing, a PRC-born tycoon. China will likely fund (directly or indirectly) this US$50 billion, 278km long canal project. HKND will control the canal and the ports on both sides under a 100-year concession.

Egypt

In 2006, during the third Africa Summit in Beijing, President Hu Jintao greeted each African leader as they entered the Great Hall of the People for an average of twenty seconds. At the time, China’s appetite for natural resources was at an apex. Interestingly, President Hu greeted Hosni Mubarak for about one minute. Egypt has some natural resources but nothing like some other African nations have to offer. I strongly believe the Egyptian resource that most interests Beijing is the Suez Canal. This would complement China’s aspirations to control the East and South China Seas, Indian Ocean and a critical new canal in Thailand, which is likely to be constructed within the next five to ten years. Control over the Suez Canal together with the other naval aspirations I address herein would give China significant trade and military leverage on the world’s high seas that will soon begin to rival that of the United States.

Thailand

The idea of a canal through Thailand is not new and was considered by the Thai royal family as early as the late 1600s. Later, completions of the Panama, Suez, and Keil canals made the idea plausible.

Numerous studies were conducted on building a canal in the Kra Isthmus area by private enterprise as well as the Thai government. In 2007, the Thai Senate finally provisionally approved the Kra canal project but physical work never began. The project has detractors, such as Singapore, that could lose its place as South East Asia’s de facto shipping hub, and the US, probably due to its growing concerns over China’s regional overtures. Notwithstanding any dissent, the Kra canal project will likely be built when Beijing influences Bangkok accordingly. China has the technical know-how and money to make the canal an impressive reality.
The Kra Canal not only offers China control over a critical East Asian naval chokepoint but, together with its presence in Sri Lanka, completes a considerable defensive chain. It also offers Chinese vessels rapid ingress and egress, cutting significant distances, time and, fuel in circumventing the Malacca Strait chokepoint, which has historically been a bastion of pirates. The Kra Canal would create a strategically critical new sea lane under de facto PRC control, directly linking the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. I believe the cementing the final terms of a collaboration to build a multibillion dollar high speed railway project between Thailand and China militates strongly in favor of the Kra Isthmus canal being the next big Sino-Thai project.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka and the Kra Canal are interwoven. Aside from the new port and massive land reclamation projects in Colombo along with massive highway projects, Hambantota is a key to China’s South Asia strategy.

China has financed and built a multiphase deep water port with a significant oil bunkerage terminal and container capacity in Hambantota. Additionally, China has financed and built a second, barely used, international airport in Hambantota, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport which could easily be an artifice for use by a well-equipped air force. Why build a new airport in an area with little infrastructure? Sri Lanka is an island with a population of about 20 million. Exactly when construction will begin on the Kra canal is uncertain, but the infrastructural development backed by China in Hambantota and likely imminent agreement on the Chinese high speed rail project in Thailand suggests it may not be in the very distant future.

Many in China believe the ability of other states to block China’s trade routes threatens Chinese interests. As a net food importer, any significant blockage of such imports could have dire consequences in China (one senior Russian diplomat opined that China’s dependency on food imports will prevent it from becoming a superpower). Beijing realizes it needs a strong blue-water navy and overseas military bases to protect its trade routes and cut supply costs. “Far sea defense” is its naval strategy to project power in the Indian Ocean and Sri Lanka is very important to this strategy, but it is unclear if Chinese military vessels or aircraft will use, or be allowed to use, the deep-water port or Mattala Rajapksa International airport.

There has been quiet chatter about a land reclamation island the Chinese intend to build off the coast of Sri Lanka, approved by former President Rajapaksa. The island’s stated purpose is beach resorts and casinos. However, Sri Lanka is an island nation that already has casinos and abundant beaches. The proffered pretext for the island is unconvincing. The island will be in Sri Lanka waters but apparently will be considered Chinese territory and closed to anyone without a permit, including Sri Lankans. It remains to be seen if this island is a subterfuge supporting a hidden submarine base. The nearby Hambantota port would be close enough to support bunkerage and refueling capacity for the island. The island would certainly play a key role for Chinese vessels to promote regional security from the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Kra Isthmus Canal into the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the greater Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Such a reclamation project is not without precedent as the Chinese have already constructed numerous islands in the South China Sea and conducted other reclamation projects.
It is possible the island will house a modernized version of the “underground” submarine facility in Sanya, Hainan. This location would be ideal for sheltering Jin class submarines, making their deployment and movement almost impossible to detect, further securing China’s ability to monitor and be present at key Indian Ocean chokepoints; Bab El Mandeb, at the entrance of the Red Sea (Suez Canal); the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf; and the Kra Canal, when it is constructed.

China is still heavily reliant on its Sanya base to deploy submarines in the East and South China Seas and to key Indian Ocean chokepoints, as well as the Malacca Strait, which accounts for the passage of 80 percent of China-bound oil transits. The Kra Canal will mitigate China’s exposure to the Malacca Strait and offer it speedier regional passage through a chokepoint it will likely control . China’s eastern naval strategy, the “string of pearls,” closely traces the route of key oil shipping lanes to East Asia, and Sri Lanka, known as “the pearl of the Indian Ocean,” is a fundamental component of this stratagem.

Though former President Rajapaksa was very close to the Chinese, Sri Lanka’s current Foreign Minister Samaraweera indicated that Sri Lanka would not permit Chinese submarines to dock at its ports. Additionally, President Maithripala Sirisena made pre-election intimations of his desire to improve ties with India and distance himself from China. However, he continues to do significant business with China. It should be noted this island would not be a Sri Lankan port and therefore its use by Chinese submarines would not contradict the promise to disallow Chinese submarines from entering Sri Lankan ports. Interestingly, the island project is barely discussed and has not been raised by President Sirisena and his administration.

India

India is very wary of China’s increasing naval expansion in the Indian Ocean. As a dutiful client, the United States has “magnanimously” agreed to supply India with aircraft carrier technology to facilitate the launch of jets and drones, plus other hardware.

An India-US defense cooperation framework has been renewed for ten additional years. India and the United States also issued a joint statement on safeguarding maritime security in the South China Sea where neither has any territorial claims. China’s continuing expansion in the Indian Ocean and America’s continued coalition building to assert its presence in the East and South China Seas portends naval escalation in the eastern hemisphere.

India should be concerned about an expansionist China. The 4,000+ km border between India and China remains disputed, with no clearly defined line of control in the Himalayas. Recent rhetoric regarding Arunachal Pradesh, about which some in the Chinese leadership have begun calling “Southern Tibet,” points to conflict with India.

China has established ports in Pakistan and Bangladesh and new transportation links with Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, in addition to upgrades to military infrastructure in Tibet and a new naval base in Djibouti. China seems to be surrounding India. China is eroding India’s maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean and its terrestrial dominance over Indian land in addition to supporting India’s neighbors. China can rapidly invade India from numerous directions at once. Additionally, India derives one-third of its annual water supply from Tibet. India’s alliance with the United States has provoked China. India may possibly become another US client-state used as a proxy against China but it will prove to be merely another cog in America’s wheel of primacy, to be used and discarded as needed. The US may be setting up India for a fight it should be trying to avoid in order to circumvent direct US confrontation with China.

Conclusion

The Kra Canal shortens the trip around Singapore and through the Malacca Strait by 1,300km – saving substantial time and money for shippers. Ultimately the canal gives China a grip in a critical zone with major sea lanes and the Sri Lanka island project gives China a critical Indian Ocean spring-board together with its new naval base in Djibouti, which gives China two footholds in the Indian Ocean, the latter of which is also very close to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.
China must use its maritime strength to safeguard its regional spheres of influence, particularly in the Indian Ocean. It cannot effectively project regional power without basic logistics facilities there. While the distance from the nearest Chinese naval base is great, the Kra Canal significantly shortens the trip by three days.

Conflict between India and China is plausible due to the importance of these vast regional waters. Since 1945, American dominance in the region has never been challenged but this is changing and US dominance will likely diminish in this zero-sum game. The United States is unlikely to directly assist India in any overt engagement by China. Sri Lanka is a key to China’s dominance in the Indian Ocean and the expansion of its influence in the region. While the United States has sought to consolidate China’s expansion in the region, China seems intent on reciprocating.

About Author

Alexander May

Alexander May has been a corporate lawyer and advisor in China for almost two decades and is currently special counsel at Pamir Law Group in Shanghai. He takes an active interest in observing developments and patterns in multiple fields to best understand shifting geopolitical winds in Asia and appropriately advise his clients. Alexander believes foreign policy decisions are key leading indicators that drive economic outcomes and uses them as a component of devising effective, long term client strategies.