China notoriously has the world’s largest navy and coast guard — the result of a 10-fold increase in military spending since 1995 — which it uses to advance its pugnacious revisionism.
Yet there are also numerous lesser-known — indeed, highly opaque — policies, projects and activities which support Chinese expansionism, placing the entire world at risk.
China has a long record of expanding its strategic footprint through stealthy maneuvers that it brazenly denies. In 2017, it established its first overseas military base in Djibouti — a tiny country on the Horn of Africa, which also happens to be deeply in debt to China — while insisting that it had no such plan.
Today, China is building a naval base in Cambodia, which has leased to Beijing one-fifth of its coastline and some islets. The almost-complete pier at the Chinese-financed Ream Naval Base appears conspicuously similar in size and design to a pier at China’s Djibouti base.
China said it has invested in the base, but only Cambodia’s navy would have access to it.
Realistically, it seems likely that China’s navy would use the facility at least for military logistics. This would further bolster China’s position in the South China Sea, where it has already built seven artificial islands as forward military bases, giving it effective control of this critical corridor between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
China also takes a highly secretive approach to its massive dam projects on international rivers flowing to other countries from the Chinese-annexed Tibetan Plateau. While the world knows that the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress approved the construction of the world’s largest dam near China’s heavily militarized frontier with India in 2021, there have been no public updates on the project since.
The dam is supposed to generate three times as much electricity as the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower plant, and China has built a new railroad and highway to transport heavy equipment, materials and workers to the remote project site. We might find out more only when construction is far enough along that the dam can no longer be hidden from commercially available satellite imagery. At that point, it would be a fait accompli.
China has used this strategy to build 11 giant dams on the Mekong, not only gaining geopolitical leverage over its neighbors, but also wreaking environmental havoc. It has become the world’s most dammed country, with more large dams in operation than the rest of the world combined.
Furthermore, China is constructing or planning at least eight more dams on the Mekong alone.
Opacity has also been a defining feature of the lending binge that has made China the world’s largest sovereign creditor to developing countries. Almost every Chinese loan issued in the past decade has included a sweeping confidentiality clause compelling the borrowing country not to disclose the loan’s terms. Many African, Asian and Latin American countries have become ensnared in a debt trap, leaving them highly vulnerable to Chinese pressure to pursue policies that advance China’s economic and geopolitical interests.
One study found that the loan contracts give China “broad latitude to cancel loans or accelerate repayment if it disagrees with a borrower’s policies.”
There can be no better illustration of the global costs of Chinese secrecy than the COVID-19 pandemic. Had China’s government responded quickly to evidence that a deadly new coronavirus had emerged in Wuhan, warning the public and implementing control measures, the damage could have been contained.
Instead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rushed to suppress and discredit information about the outbreak, paving the way for a raging worldwide pandemic that killed almost 7 million people and disrupted countless lives and livelihoods. To this day, Chinese obfuscation has prevented scientists from confirming the true origins of COVID-19, which, emerged in China’s main hub for research on super-viruses.
China’s willingness to contravene international laws, rules and norms compounds the opacity problem. The Chinese government has repeatedly reneged on its international commitments, including promises to safeguard the autonomy of Hong Kong and not to militarize features in the South China Sea. It was China’s furtive contravention of its commitment not to alter unilaterally the “status quo” of its disputed Himalayan border with India that triggered a three-year (and counting) military standoff between the two countries.
There is no reason to expect China to abandon its rule-breaking, its debt-based coercion or its other malign activities any time soon. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) — who has strengthened the CCP’s control over information, cutting off outside analysts’ access even to economic data — is on track to hold power for life, and remains eager to reshape the international order to China’s benefit.
Ominously, Xi’s appetite for risk appears to be growing. This partly reflects time pressure: Xi seems to believe that China has a narrow window of opportunity to achieve global pre-eminence before unfavorable demographic, economic and geopolitical trends catch up with it.
However, Xi has also been emboldened by the international community’s utter failure to impose meaningful consequences on China for its bad behavior.
Whereas Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China prefers incrementalism, enabled by stealth and deception, to advance its revisionist agenda. This, together with tremendous economic clout, shields it from a decisive Western response. That is why, barring a major strategic blunder by Xi, China’s salami-slicing expansionism is likely to persist.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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