China muscles into a new Great Game in Red Sea

China is steadily encroaching into the Middle East and Africa militarily.
Sunday 11/03/2018
The Chinese Navy’s guided missile destroyer Chang Chun with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia in the background is docked at Sarayburnu pier in Istanbul. (Reuters)
New routes. The Chinese Navy’s guided missile destroyer Chang Chun with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia in the background is docked at Sarayburnu pier in Istanbul. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - China is steadily encroaching into the Middle East and Africa militarily and economically and President Xi Jinping’s apparent drive to make himself president for life is a startling development that could affect the troubled region as it struggles with a cauldron of conflicts.

Xi may step up China’s effort to establish a bridgehead in the Middle East as the United States disengages after a half-century of dominating the region and as Russia seeks to fill the geopolitical vacuum by re-establishing Moscow’s influence there.

The Middle East, gripped by interlocking wars and teetering on the cusp of new ones, such as Israel hitting Iranian advances in Syria or the smouldering confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, could well be affected by China’s westward military expansion.

“Globalisation has created a Chinese monster,” the Washington-based online journal Foreign Policy warned.

The announcement on China’s official news agency Xinhua that the Communist Party’s Central Committee recommended scrapping a two-term limit on the presidency and the prime minister’s postmarked a sharp turn for China after it had seemed to be opening up after decades of tight communist control.

That means Xi would be able to run for a third 5-year term in 2022, with the odds that he would win. Observers said this was a throwback to the iron rule of Mao Zedong and feared that gains China has made since that time were in jeopardy.

“A bombshell,” commented Susan Shirk, a leading China specialist in the United States. “I wasn’t anticipating such an open declaration of the new regime… I thought that maybe he’d stop short of this.”

The party sought to dismiss reports Xi was effectively taking power. The party-run tabloid, the Global Times, claimed in an English-language editorial: “The change doesn’t mean that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure.”

Shirk, however, cautioned: “This was the one formal rule that could have blocked him from staying on and being leader for life. So eliminating it really brings the intention out in the open and I think it eliminates any ambiguity about what’s going on here.”

The move came as China inaugurated a new military base on the tiny Horn of Africa state of Djibouti, straddling the important shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and some 4,000km of coastline.

Beijing also recently acquired the deepwater port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka under a 99-year, $1.1 billion lease.

India, which has long dominated the vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, is engaged in a contest with China to acquire naval facilities between the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which links the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, and the Strait of Malacca, the chokepoint between Malaysia and Indonesia that joins the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea.

As China steps up projecting its power westward, including the recent visit by its submarines at Sri Lankan ports, countries in the Middle East are growing alarmed about the potential shift in the balance of power.

“India is concerned about the large deployment of Chinese submarines, warships and tankers in the Indian Ocean,” observed Indian defence analyst Probal Ghosh, a retired Indian Navy captain.

“The Horn risks increased tension and violent conflict in what has become a high-stakes chess game for both Middle Eastern and African adversaries,” wrote James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, in the Huffington Post.

“It’s a game China inevitably will have to play a hand in, despite the risk of being sucked into the region’s expanding battles.”

The anxieties being expressed about China’s intentions follow two years of intense propaganda by Beijing lauding Xi’s success in transforming China into a leading economic giant.

This has given added weight to concerns that Xi is seeking to abandon the collective leadership introduced in the 1980s to avoid repeating the calamitous cult of Mao and one-man rule.

These anxieties have some validity. Observers say that Xi, 64, has been chipping away at the Chinese constitution since he was elected president in 2012 and has overseen a draconian roundup of those who fear a takeover.

China’s military announced that it “fully agrees” with the ruling party’s controversial measures that would allow Xi to remain president for life and will “resolutely support the constitutional amendment proposal.”

The fall-out from this could heavily affect the Middle East just as China’s ambitious plan to build a multitracked modern Silk Road trade route to the rest of Asia, Europe and the Middle East moves forward.

Gulf oil supplies are crucial for China, so it will not want to jeopardise that flow — pegged at 51% of China’s imports in 2014 by the US Energy Information Administration.

So it may find itself drawn ever deeper into the region’s conflicts, especially the Sunni-Shia rift between Riyadh and Tehran, both of which have a dialogue with Beijing.

Bear in mind that China was one of the six world powers with which the United States shaped the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.

China has deployed troops to its first foreign military base on Djibouti, where its facilities are cheek by jowl with a strategic US facility, which includes a major air base that coordinates much of the US war against terrorism in the region.

On the face of it, China seeks not only to create new partnerships in the Middle East and East Africa with trade, energy and infrastructure deals. It is looking at the stormy geopolitics of the region and the political perils they generate.

Xi made his first visit to the region in January 2016. He was one of the first world leaders to visit Tehran after the 2015 agreement was signed. During his regional swing, he articulated a new “Arab policy.”

An intensified push by Xi could unbalance the turbulent Red Sea zone, already suffering setbacks from the Yemen war involving Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council partner, the United Arab Emirates, as well as anti-terror operations by the United States and its allies.

Nearby Somalia, which has been a violence-ridden basket case since the collapse of the last national government of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, is being torn apart by a brutal, decades-long conflict between a weak and corrupt Western-backed government and the jihadists of al-Shabab, who regularly unleash elaborate suicide bombings in the war-scarred capital, Mogadishu.

That insurgency has become a key target for US President Donald Trump’s war on terror that of late has spilt over into neighbouring Kenya.

There’s little enough for China in Somalia but the bloodletting there increasingly threatens to underline that neighbouring Kenya and other East African countries, such as gas-rich Mozambique and Tanzania, are having to battle jihadists.

That gives China a potentially unsettling opening to battle the jihadists on someone else’s turf.

Impoverished Sudan, which lies at the north-west corner of the Red Sea, stands to gain immensely from the proposed Chinese expansion but its endless internal wars mean it is too risky for economic investment right now.

However, if China has its way, these countries, long mismanaged and reliant on economic handouts, would provide Indian Ocean ports for oil exports and other minerals that Beijing needs for its ever-burgeoning economy with swift delivery across the Indian Ocean, where China is steadily expanding its military clout to control the shipping lanes.

At a more prosaic level, the US-based security firm Stratfor cautioned that China is the Americans’ next big foreign policy headache.

“The United States is in fact already in the middle of its next great war — even if it’s only just starting to realise it,” it cautioned.

“In the latest National Security Strategy, the White House highlighted China’s growing technological prowess as a threat to US economic and military might.

“As hard as it may be for Washington to admit, China is catching up in the tech race. The question now is whether tech firms in the United States… will be able to keep up with their Chinese counterparts’ breakthroughs.”

China’s efforts to expand its military influence across the oil-rich South China Sea and the Malacca Strait suggest that it is prepared to use its growing military muscle to keep open such strategic channels in any future conflict with the United States or India, which fought a war against China in the 1960s and is increasingly spooked by its military incursions.

Hambantota port “gives them not only a strategic access point into India’s sphere of influence through which China can deploy its naval forces but it also gives China an advantageous position to export its goods into India’s economic sphere,” Australian security analyst Malcolm Davis told CNN in February. “So it’s achieved a number of strategic aims in that regard.”

Meantime, Beijing continues to build up its military forces, particularly its navy. Under Xi, it has one home-built aircraft at sea and another is under construction, along with an advanced class of destroyers that will operate from the “string of pearls” military bases Beijing has acquired.

It will take years, possibly decades, before China’s naval build-up will be powerful enough to wage a war against a foe such as the United States, with 20 carrier battle groups, or even India, but the will appears to be there.

China’s air force is also being revamped and built up and its indigenous jet fighter, the J-20, is viewed by Western experts to be a match for the Americans’ much-vaunted but untested in combat F-35 stealth fighter.

A Chinese Navy admiral displayed on television in 2017 what he claimed was a component of a new propulsion system that allows China’s nuclear submarines to move silently, making them extremely hard to detect.

There have been reports, but no verification, that the Chinese Navy has developed the first warship-mounted rail gun, an electromagnetic weapon that the Americans have been struggling to develop.

India is scrambling to keep up with China’s military expansion and is eyeing the purchase of at least 100 state-of-the-art, fifth-generation fighter jets worth an estimated $15 billion, possibly the US F-35 or even the new MiG-35 from Russia.

Meantime, like the Middle East, the Indian Ocean region simmers. Political unrest is brewing in the Maldives, which, like Sri Lanka, has long been considered to be within India’s embrace.

There is political turbulence, too, in Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, Eritrea and Ethiopia, which bodes ill for the Red Sea region, as the confrontation between India and China gathers momentum amid long-running regional rivalries.

While on the face of it, Xi’s “Arab policy” is designed to leverage China’s trade, energy and infrastructure investment, some analysts believe it will eventually drag China “into the geopolitics and cleavages of the region.”

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