On February 22, 2017, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed for the first time that China should take the lead in shaping the “new world order” and safeguarding international security. Xi’s approach was dubbed the “Two Guides” policy. Immediately, this puts him in stark contrast to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
Since taking over the presidency in November 2012, Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of reviving Imperial China that had maintained Chinese hegemony in Asia during the reign of the Ming Dynasty. “The great revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese Dream,” Xi said before taking office in 2012.
The Ming Dynasty, also known as the “Great Ming,” ruled China from 1368 to 1644 following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty was the last imperial dynasty of China ruled by Han Chinese.
During the Ming dynasty, the Chinese tributary system was institutionalized, which illustrated the great political power of China at the time. The seven maritime expeditions (1405-1433) led by Zheng He projected the imperial power of the Ming dynasty across Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa.
In 1525 the government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships. The greatest navy in history, which once had 3,500 ships (the U.S. Navy today has only 296), was gone.” For the next five centuries, China never ventured out beyond its shores.
China’s naval strategy
In 1982, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, said that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020. The First Island Chain runs from Japan all the way to Vietnam by way of Taiwan, Philippines, Borneo, and Malaysia. The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040.
Currently, China has seven nuclear-powered submarines. The U.S. has 71 nuclear-powered submarines including 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with the capability of wiping out a medium-sized nation with 100 Trident II D-5 missiles. Indeed, the only thing that’s stopping China from pursuing its imperialistic ambitions is America’s Trident II D-5 missiles. There are 24 of these missiles with a range of 4,000 nautical miles in each Ohio-class submarine for a total of 540 missiles.
It is interesting to note that during the summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in California June 2013, Xi told the media that he and Obama were meeting “to chart the future of China-US relations and draw a blueprint for this relationship.” Then he added: “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China.” But Xi had a better idea; he wanted China to dominate the vast Pacific Ocean by 2040.
Today, the Chinese Navy has 335 ships compared to the U.S.’s 296 ships. However, the U.S. Navy is the most fearsome navy ever assembled. With 11 nuclear supercarriers and 71 nuclear submarines, the U.S. Navy is by far the most powerful navy in the world. And this is what’s keeping the Chinese navy from venturing beyond the South China Sea, where it claimed 80% as Chinese territory based on the nine-dash line that China marks as the demarcation, which is being contested by the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei.
One Belt, One Road
While China doesn’t have the firepower to kick the U.S. out of the South China Sea, China is rapidly expanding its global reach economically. With it’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative and soft-power strategy, China is winning friends all over the world, particularly in Africa, Middle East, South Asia, and South East Asia.
In 2017, the Chinese built a military support base in Djibouti. It is China’s first overseas military base. China didn’t waste time deploying 10,000 troops. It is anticipated that China will continue building overseas military bases. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Kenya are expected to be next in China’s sights.
In April 2019, 37 foreign heads of state – mostly from Africa – came to Beijing to take part in the second summit hosted by President Xi. Some leaders came with expectations to sign huge infrastructure deals. Others asked for debt relief. All of these projects are under the OBOR Initiative.
Exactly, what is OBOR? It is China’s grand plan for global domination, which uses debt as a tool of control. Or, is it a new global development platform to propel its much-heralded “win-win” diplomacy?
Indeed, China’s “win-win” diplomacy is the result of its “soft power” approach to winning friends. In 1990, Harvard University scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr. coined “soft power” that is meant for a country to get other countries to “want what it wants.” Nye emphasized that a “country’s perceived legitimacy, attractiveness of ideology and culture, and societal norms play an important role in shaping international politics.” Xi has used “soft power” to pursue his “Chinese Dream” and he’s been extraordinarily successful in achieving it.
But there is a flaw in the calculus. While it might look like a “win-win” scenario, a lot of countries that fell for China’s “soft power” enticements will end up indebted to China. Unable to repay their debts, China would then foreclose the collaterals. Take for instance the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka that was financed by China. Unable to repay the financing, Sri Lanka defaulted and subsequently gave a 99-year lease to China, evidently the result of debt-trap diplomacy.
Sri Lanka was not the only one who fell into China’s “debt-trap diplomacy.” A recent report said that at least 16 countries are vulnerable to China’s economic coercion, including Kenya, Pakistan, Zambia, Djibouti, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Tonga, Micronesia, Vanatu, and the Philippines.
Another project that would soon follow the fate of Sri Lanka is Kenya. If Kenya fails to begin repayment of a $2.3 billion loan for Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC), China would seize the Kilindini Harbor, the biggest port in East Africa, which was the collateral for the Chinese loan. The massive construction loan was the result of Kenya participating in OBOR. But the problem was that the feasibility studies were performed by China, which might have estimated high revenue to be able to service the loan. This led to fears of Kenya’s ability to repay the loans, which would trigger the seizure of the collateral. Should there be any dispute with the Chinese bank, it would be handled through an arbitration process in China, not in Kenyan courts.
Last February 28, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame predicted that the Chinese economy will eventually surpass the U.S. by at least two-fold, which would up the ante between the two nations’ massive militaries. “The foundation of war is economics,” Musk said.
With the U.S. retreating from its global responsibilities, China is ready to pick up the slack. No need to go to war. After all the U.S. is retreating. As Sun Tzu said in his Art of War, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” And by the looks of it, China is winning the war with its economic power, not military power.
At the end of the day, Xi Jinping’s dream of Pax Sinica, a New World Order would soon come to fruition. What’s Donald Trump or whoever his successor is going to do about it?