China's 'One Belt One Road' Is a Big Deal. So What Is the Role for Beijing's Military?

Chinese tanker soldiers with the People's Liberation Army. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

And how will Trump respond?

President-elect Donald Trump is set to make his mark on U.S. foreign policy. As a sign of the great anxiety that has taken hold across the Asia-Pacific, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has scurried across the Pacific to be the very first foreign leader to meet the president-elect.

On the other “flank,” all signs point to genuine and even brave conviction in Trump’s determination to turn relations between Washington and Moscow onto a more constructive path. Such a novel approach, which is much needed, will in and of itself have important reverberations across the Asia-Pacific. But what of Trump’s policy toward China? Will it be similarly enlightened and restrained as the new president seeks to focus American energies on energizing economic growth and restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? Or will Trump be seduced by Washington’s multitudes of Asia hardliners who are intent on confronting Beijing at every turn and seem quite prepared to precipitate a military conflict over rocks and reefs?

An argument frequently made by the Beltway’s many hawks on China concerns Beijing’s long-term intentions. For those most skeptical of Beijing’s intentions, the South China Sea is just an appetizer presaging the feast. Chinese leaders, so the argument goes, trample rights at home and are determined to do so in other countries too that might have the misfortune to fall prey to the dragon’s predations. In this conception, which melds ideas from both neoconservatives on the right and neoliberals on the left, China’s “One Belt, One Road” Initiative is a major threat to world order and Western-style governance in the twenty-first century. This edition of Dragon Eye will probe some recent Chinese military writings about the “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR) to help evaluate the relationship between this grand vision and China’s future global military posture.

It must be stated clearly at the outset that such writings are rather rare. While trade, finance and international-relations journals are thick with writings about the “Maritime Silk Road,” Chinese military publications have been much more reticent to comment, preferring to stay with safe and relatively straightforward strategic issues, such as the maritime disputes. That, of course, makes the few writings on the subject that have appeared in military fora all the more important, for example, a full-page editorial published in the military newspaper China Defense News (中国国防报) from May 19, 2015. In an executive summary of the lengthy editorial, the authors state that the purpose of China’s MSR is to “open freedom of navigation, [promote] cooperative security . . . and [build] a new structure of joint development of marine resources.” But the summary explains that the MSR faces numerous challenges, including “increasing great power rivalries, maritime disputes, governance problems and non-traditional security threats.”

On the importance of the MSR strategy for China, the authors observe that 90 percent of China’s external trade passes along maritime shipping lanes. The so-called “Malacca Dilemma” (马六甲困境) arises early in this discussion and the analysis explains that “Despite the building of [various overland] pipelines, that can reduce dependence on the . . . Malacca Strait, there is still no way to replace maritime energy supply.” Shortly thereafter, the authors broach the issue of the United States and its disposition toward MSR: “The United States . . . has long sought to contain China with the ‘island chains strategy.’ As China becomes a maritime great power and energetically pursues the maritime silk road, it will be difficult to avoid an American backlash and even countermeasures.” The assessment continues, “The U.S. ‘rebalance’ strategy and its ‘Indo-Pacific conception’ have objectively strengthened deployments along the Maritime Silk Road.” In the discussion regarding the South China Sea, there is a hint of moderation when the authors conclude that “China could be trapped in a ‘support sovereignty’ or ‘support stability’ dilemma.”

Notably, most of this piece is not about external threats to the MSR, but rather dwells on problems within the related countries themselves. For example, the point is made that countries, such as Myanmar, Pakistan and Thailand really need land-linking infrastructure rather more urgently than they need MSR-related port infrastructure. In the end, the article explains that, "China should and can help certain other countries to realize their own successful development.” The article concludes, “Historically, rivalries surrounding the rise of great powers were accompanied by geopolitical expansion. . . . [But] in the age of globalization, peaceful development and joint development . . . correspond better to historical trends.”

An article in a fall 2015 special issue of Military Digest (军事文摘) devoted to the Belt and Road initiative proved quite a bit more edgy. True, this magazine is not China’s most prestigious military journal, but the author Captain Li Jie (李杰) of the PLA’s Naval Research Institute (NRI) in Beijing is known as a significant player in Chinese naval strategy development, so the article may actually represent a relatively candid glimpse into the Chinese Navy’s view of the MSR.

The Chinese Navy captain comes right to the point in the second paragraph of the essay, pulling no punches, when he asserts: “Externally, [the strategy] responds to the imperative to break the American blockade chokehold [打破美国封锁扼控的需要].” He continues in a similar manner, “The United States is continuously compressing China’s strategic space on the maritime flank, so that the East Sea passages are at great risk.” Likewise, Li points to India as a potential threat to China’s maritime trading routes.