In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jingping announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. This initiative, together with the New Maritime Silk Road, which also made her debut from the hands of President Jingping in October of that same year, are known together as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, and has become the great commercial bet of the Chinese government for the XXI Century. China has made it clear that this is a commercial initiative only, with no hidden geostrategic purposes lurking in the backround, and wide open to all those who are willing to establish, maintain and strengthen commercial ties with China. And it´s well on its way to destabilizing the Balance of Power in the region. And the world.
Shy of 90% of world trade uses the maritime sea lines of communication, both in volumen and weight. And, as it could be no other way, China meets this percentage despite of her vastly extensive road and rail network. Even though her economy has slowed down only just in the last few years from a whooping 7% growth to a 6.5% in 2016, she remains comfortably as the second world economy and the second oil importer.
But, as it so happens, virtually all her main comercial routes go through the straits of Hormuz and Malacca for access to the Indian Ocean, and through several small chains of isles to the Pacific Ocean- I´ll come back to this in a moment- which is ample proof that China has a great dependence on her access to the maritime lines of communications for her commerce and economy to flourish by way of her merchant navy, currently striking third place in the list of largest merchant navies in the world by tonnage.
Naturally, this enormous economic effort requires a navy that can guarantee the undisturbed operation of this huge merchant navy. But a navy is not only a means of security to a nation´s interests; it also contributes to the prestige and will of the nation from a geostrategic standpoint, something that China is well aware of.
Designing and building up a navy requires a profound understanding of the true nature of its purpose . During the 70´s and 80´s, the USSR created a massive military navy which ended up being completely unaffordable in terms or versatility and maintenance costs. As a matter of fact, this navy seems to have been created on the basis of being a strategic deterrent rather than a tool aimed at the security of its merchant navy worldwide, a mistake they eventually acknowledged. Today, the Russian Federation enjoys a navy much more versatile, expiditious and cheap, whilst not losing their place as a formidable fighting force.
China, on the other hand, has its priorities well set, and is following the Russian Federation in its steps to creating a navy on which its economic success can rely on to keep it safe and functional.
With OBAR China seeks a global agreement including, but not limited to, those nations which depend on the Sea of China and the Sea of Japan for their economies to flourish. Chinese president Xi Jingping made it very clear that this was in no way to be considered a geopolotical tool, but rather a commercial one. And even though the initiative was initially well received, there are certain facts which call for careful scrutiny. For one thing, several neighbouring countries like Vietnam and India, have voiced their concern as they do not appreciate China using their EEZ as its particular playground. To make matters straight, China has indeed strengthen its presence in the Malacca Straight as in Indonesia, Singapour and Malaysia. Additionally, its port facilities currently under construction in Djibouti leave no doubt as to their interest in that region and, to top it all up, its long arm has even reached the Pireo, right in the heart of the Mediterranean, with another port facility under construction. Australia is also a potential point of conflict, as China´s investment in that country has been subject to much discussion as Australia happily facilitates Chinese merchant shipping to make free use of its waters and airspace for commercial purposes, whereas China seems reluctant to reciprocate in the same terms.
The Chinese government feels comfortable requesting that the spirit and priciples of the United Nations Conference of the Law of the Sea III ( UNCLOS III) be applied there where her interests lie. But ironically her interest in reciprocating lies elsewhere, and that places OBOR and its true purpose and nature in a difficult spot.
The United States never cosigned UNCLOS III, a fact which many have promptly pointed out as a circumstance which debilitates her position. But the fact that Ronald Reagan announced in Congress as early as 1980 that the United States would defend and guarantee the safe use of the maritime sea lines of communication as well as the airspace above the EEZ, terms which would eventually be adopted by UNCLOS III itself, is a clear indication as to the true intents of the United States and their commitment to safe and efficient commercial links worldwide. This same compromise was reinforced with Barack Obama in 2012, when he stated his compromise to continue along this same path of commitment. The United States may not be a cosignatory, but its position can in no way be questioned.
But this very complex scenario OBOR has placed the balance of power in the Asian región had a turn for the worse with the construction of three artificial islands in the vecinity of the Spratly´s. China is only one of the countries involved in several disputes regarding the Spartly´s, Senkaku, Shoal, Scarborough and Parcel Islands, and feels very uneasy at the idea of not having a positive control over them, as these pasages represent a gateway to the Pacific. On top of this, China is currently building three artifical islands with a complete suite of facilities, including an air strip.
The idea of an artificial island is an old one. In 1893 Charles Russel put forward a definition for these creations in his Fur Seal Arbitration, in which he suggests that light houses built on specifically constructed patches of land generate territorial waters. Naturally, this did not suit well with a great deal of nations who astutely ponted out that this argument would also satisfy the same prerogatives of that of a moored ship.
Defining artificial island is no easy feat and not much agreement has been reached. However, there is agreement on several issues conerning them: whatever the dificinition or legal status, port constructions are not to be considered as such (Art 7 UNCLOS III); their jurisdiction will fall within the legal tutelage of the closest nation if withing its EEZ (Art 56 UNCLOS III) and, despite not generating territorial waters, only a nation can authorize its construction if within its EEZ (Art 60 UNCLOS III). In addition to this, UNCLOS II also sates that outside any EEZ, any nation is entitled to the construction of artificial islands (Art 87 UNCLOS III). In a first stance, an artificial island must be capable of sustaining life in order to enjoy this condition. Such prerogative was eventually eliminated by the Subcommittee Number 2 of the Codification Hague Conference in 1930.
Going back to China´s case, her artificial islands are near the Spratly´s over which the Phillipines claim sovereignty. The Phillipines protested this construction and the Internations Court of Justice fell on the Phillipines side, condeming China´s construction. China has not reconsidered their position and president Duterte has not made a bigger deal of of it insofar as China agrees not to carry out any underwater excavations if the Benham Rise area, another area in dispute. This apparent change of view seems to indicate a diplomatic move aimed at stepping down from their already meagre relations with the United States since president Duterte took office, whilst strengthening their diplomatic ties with China.
Today, China enjoys a Navy (PLAN) of a little over 250 man´o´war. As a comparative data, the United States Navy currently has 273 ships and subs on commission. The US Congress, however, has stated their intent to increase the number to 308 in the short run, although there have been talks to the effect of making 355 the final number, as announced by former Secreatary of the Navy Ray Mabus, in order to meet the demands of an increasing Chinese and Russian navy. I would even add, not only increasing but also more versatile, cheap and efficient than what could be expected.
For the moment, this ought not be a concern, for despite the impresive numbers the PLAN enjoys in terms of ships, subs and other assets, there still remains a significant technological difference in the realm of 30 years. But the deployment of these assets across their area of interest is a permanent reminder of their compromise with a clear policy which involves territorial expansion, with the means to tilt the balance of power in their favor. Balance which, incidently, has three main actors: United States, Europe and China, all of which add up to 68% of world GB combined.
Despite a slight reduction of China´s growth rate, the country continues on an upward path and seems unstoppable. And wrongly sees this growth in serious compromise on account of the different sea lines of communication which are not under their jurisdiction. This has embedded a false sense of weakness in the minds of its leader and has therefor seen in OBAR the tool to overcome this feeling, together with a territorial expansion policy to complement it.
OBAR has been well received by some, and met with deep scepticism by others, as there seems to be enough indicators which suggest that this a geopolitical tool rather than a comercial one. Otherwise, it´s hardly possible to justify a territorial expansion policy in this moment and time when the balance of power is in such a delicate moment. On top of it all, the Phillipines seem to have adopted a position of bandwagoning in China´s favor, with potential disastrous consequences,
China has reinforced her will and commitment to continue on a steady slope of comercial growth and is well on her way. Furthermore, she is capable to a degree of providing her merchant navy with the protection necessary to continue operating with complete freedom, as it should, despite not allowing others the same privileges, as she shouldn´t. And this requires a large, efficient and versatile navy; there is no interest in a few large ships with massive fire power and with limited presence, but rather permanent presence anywhere, anytime.
It seems as if China has learnt the true purpose and value of a navy. And how to make good use of it. How about us?…..