While the soon-to-be Biden administration hones its policies towards allies, frenemies, and enemies, China continues to demonstrate the impact of its enduring long-term Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by proceeding with its vision, regardless of who occupies the White House. While China’s expansion in its neighborhood has long troubled Washington policy makers, its moves into the Red Sea and Mediterranean ought to be even more disturbing to those responsible for defining and defending U.S. interests in those regions.
It began as a forward BRI initiative to anchor secure ports along the Indian Ocean, usually commercial infrastructure that includes industrial parks, import and export commercial centers, and logistics support for Chinese workers. Projects include the Koh Kong Nee Port in Cambodia; a commercial shipping center in Hambantota, Sri Lanka; and a Chinese-controlled deep-water port near the mouth of the Persian Gulf in Gwadar, Pakistan, which supports China’s massive US$62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor project.
Next on the agenda is Duqm Port in Oman, just outside the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman, opening directly into the Arabia Sea, Indian Ocean, and the major trade routes between the West and Asia. Given its accessibility to East Africa, where, indeed, Oman has deep historic ties, it is China’s first base in the Gulf. China is now the largest trading partner of Oman, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, and is among the largest partners of Israel as well, making regional security a very high priority for the Chinese government
To participate in anti-pirating patrols off East Africa, China set up its first overseas military installation in the southern Red Sea in Djibouti and will add a commercial port further north in Port Sudan. The Red Sea is a critical waterway for international trade. Having facilities there gives China a base from which to monitor commercial, security, and military activities of its competitors. France and the U.S. already have military installations in Djibouti, as do Japan and Italy; and Ethiopia uses the tiny country as its outlet to the sea.
China is expanding its commercial footprint rapidly. The Israeli government is using a Chinese company to develop the ports of Haifa and Ashdod.
Further north, into the Mediterranean Sea, China is expanding its commercial footprint rapidly. The Israeli government is using a Chinese company to develop the ports of Haifa and Ashdod, which is the transit center for 60 percent of Israel’s imports. It has shown an active interest in rebuilding Beirut Port and already has an interest in the Port of Tripoli, which currently handles the bulk of Lebanon’s imports. In Egypt, Chinese companies are found in Port Said at the exit of the Suez Canal, and have contracts with Bilbao, Genoa, Istanbul, Valencia, Marseille, and Marsaxlokk in Malta. Discussions are ongoing elsewhere as well. The attraction is the low-cost financing or simply the scope of investments made by the Chinese companies in the facilities that have a direct benefit to the host countries.
The port of Piraeus, in Greece, is a case in point. Container traffic has grown steadily since the Chinese took over and the Chinese managers are looking to make it the largest container port on the Mediterranean. Further west, Chinese companies are involved in the construction of Cherchell port in Algeria; have a presence in Tanger-Med, in Northern Morocco; and are also slated to be the project managers for the new Moroccan port at Nador, east of Tangier. Clearly, commercial competition for sea freight is heating up in the Mediterranean and the Chinese presence allows these competitors to outflank the European countries that traditionally handled the bulk of that business.
Depending on one’s perspectives, this multi-faceted outreach is a challenge or a complement to existing Chinese power arrangements along the routes from Pakistan to Morocco. The activities described above mostly affect majority Muslim countries. Yet, none of them seem to demonstrate much concern with the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs – their oppressed and persecuted co-religionists in Xijiang Province in northwestern China – except for Turkey, even though it hosts major Chinese companies at the port in Istanbul. In Lebanon, it is well known that Hezbollah wants the country to get in bed with China to avoid further punishing sanctions from the West and continue its patronage system to the oligarchs.
In countries such as Morocco, China’s presence is tied to its long-term commitment to invest in infrastructure.
In other countries such as Morocco, China’s presence is tied to its long-term commitment to invest in infrastructure spanning transportation, logistics, automotive manufacturing, and other job producers that Morocco desperately needs. Throughout the northern Mediterranean countries, Chinese investments offset budget constraints and offer alternatives to upgrade infrastructure and services.
Underlying these benefits is the reality that it helps, in China’s case, to have an autocratic regime, focused on a long-term vision, with the resources, leadership, and talent to implement policies over decades rather than the relatively short-term tenures of rival democratic administrations. It is obvious that the Chinese, through their investments, project implementation presence, and technology, have set up the world’s largest information-gathering and, possibly, generating capability on the planet. How this will serve global human development is the stuff that think tanks and conspiracy theorists revel in, as there are no comparable Western resources to respond adequately to the Chinese challenge.