Powerful nations throughout history have either been thalassocratic or tellurocratic: either sea-based or land-based powers. It seems China wants to be both.
China has proposed establishing a permanent military base in Vanuatu, something the Pacific island nation vehemently denies, saying it is undergoing preliminary discussions and that no formal proposals have been made.
What Vanuatu failed to mention was that those preliminary discussions included allowing navy vessels from China’s People’s Liberation Army to make regular port calls for repairs and maintenance.
For Australia, China’s usage of Vanuatu would be the second time the nation has faced a national security threat in its own backyard — the first was when Japan captured Rabaul in Papua New Guinea during World War II — and using it as its major military and naval base in the South Pacific.
For the US, this would be its first substantial military strategic threat in the region since it expelled Japan from the Pacific arena after the war.
Experts believe that Tonga will be next. China’s taking of Vanuatu not only affects New Zealand and Australia, but also allows China to extend its control over the Pacific and gives it a clear stretch to South America. This is quite a momentous move.
In 2011, US consultants devised the “string of pearls” hypothesis to describe how China is, through investments and loans, developing a maritime infrastructure connecting ports in the Indian Ocean to ensure oil supply to the Middle East. At the time, it was regarded as a way for China to address its “Malacca dilemma.”
In 2013, China began transforming coral reefs in the South China Sea into military bases, and in 2014, the same year in which Chinese investors won the contract to build the Nicaragua Canal, it announced its Belt and Road Initiative.
The northern “silk road” and southern “string of pearls” extends China’s focus from Middle Eastern oil to African resources and further afield to European technology and markets.
In 2015, Thailand and China signed a memorandum of understanding to construct a shipping passage across southern Thailand’s Kra Isthmus. The proposal was immediately denied, as Thailand had agreed — in the Secret Anglo-Siamese Convention of 1897 and the Anglo-Thai Peace Treaty of 1946 — to not construct a canal in that location without the UK’s approval, but it has been reported that planning is nearly finished.
Last year, China’s military base in Djibouti became operational; this year, China published its “Arctic policy” white paper; now there have been reports of China using Vanuatu as a military base.
In a few short years, China has rapidly extended its reach to the point that it will be difficult to keep under control.
With all of these initiatives, China has clearly set its eyes on the entire world — all that remains is the Atlantic Ocean.
China’s provision of loans is aimed at ensuring that debtor nations have no way of repaying the money, allowing China 99-year leases on strategic bases in their territories. In Vanuatu, 47 percent of foreign investment is Chinese. There are also controversies over the Hambantota Port and in the Maldives, and anger within certain African nations.
Even the US needs to rely on its global allies to extend its reach. Within a decade, China has extended its reach at an alarming rate, posing the question of how it is to be funded. China has not yet completed the transformation from a tellurocracy to a thalassocracy — could it have overextended and lost sight of its basic strategy?
HoonTing is a political commentator.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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