Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Silk Ties That Bind

China's ambitious efforts to build land and sea trade routes to Europe and points between Europe and China--sometimes called the New Silk Road--could really cause a lot of unease along those routes:

OBOR [One Belt, One Road] is supposed to create multiple economic corridors that would cover almost two-thirds of the world’s population and a third of global GDP. The One Belt portion refers to overland corridors; One Road refers to maritime routes. This is a herculean undertaking, and $240 billion barely makes a dent in the total amount of required funding. The infrastructure necessary to link Eurasia will require construction of roads, railways, ports and other elements across vast distances in some of the harshest geography and least populated areas in the world. (Not to mention some of the most lawless and insecure parts of the world.) The fact that over 4.4 billion people only account for a third of the world’s GDP is often skirted over when OBOR’s impressive goals are espoused. But it is an indicator of just how poor many of these areas are. HSBC has projected that OBOR will require at least $4-6 trillion dollars over the next 15 years if it is to take form. That estimate is probably too conservative. Even if accurate, from where and whom this money will come remain open questions.

As the article notes, rather than a foreign policy initiative, the main purpose is to spread out the wealth in China that has been concentrated in coastal provinces geared toward sea trade that kicked off China's growth spurt.

I'll point out right now that it is a mistake to think of policies as foreign or domestic as Westerners conveniently divide them. For China's communist rulers, all threats are on a continuum of threats to Communist Party control of China.

And a policy meant to make more people happy with Communist Party rule by spreading the wealth sends China into regions where they will face opposition or gain vital interests that could put China in conflict with those states that have their finger on this vital component of keeping China's people happy with the communist monopoly of power in China:

Now consider the kind of interests China gains by putting trillions of dollars into this OBOR project.

The northern route goes through Russia. In particular it goes through Russian territory that Russia took from China in the 19th century.

The middle route goes through ex-Soviet republics that Russia still wants to dominate.

The southern land route seems the most problematic given that it must have the cooperation of India, Pakistan, Iran, and then Turkey, to reach European destinations. And if any part is not cooperative, a whole lot of land and air power would be needed to compel cooperation.

The sea route has to make it through the South China Sea, first, and then through the Malacca Straits, and then past Indian air and sea power plus whatever America throws in their path. And then it has to make it through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. Any type of opposition is too much for China to secure militarily, if opposed.

Chinese national interests will follow trade (the flag follows trade). Russia will have the biggest problem from this natural sequence.

But Indonesia, India, and other smaller powers will have to cope as well.

And if the article is correct, China simply can't make these land trade routes into what they hope they will be, so there will be more friction than benefit to the regions that the routes pass through.

And if the land portion of the trade route initiative doesn't work the way China's rulers want because so much trade goes by sea for good reasons--it is cheaper--doesn't that just mean that China will be even more eager to sustain the relatively meager gains for their interior provinces that such a OBOR policy provides?

And would force seem the best way to ensure that domestic tranquility is not disrupted by opposition to Chinese trade inland?

So much of America's new interests as a Pacific power lie in the opposite direction of China's roads west. So getting China to look to the interior of Asia just gets me to bade them to go west, young Han superpower.

UPDATE: The Russians know darned well that China--and not America and NATO--is the real threat with those missiles and economic growth:

China has ancient claims on much of the Russian Far East and is openly replacing Russia as the primary economic, military and political force in Central Asia. This is made worse by the post-Cold War decline of the Russian economy.

Although Strategypage's assessment of China's GDP relies on purchasing power parity to elevate it. But their point stands.

Russia's behavior of quiet fear about a looming China combined with open hostility to a non-threat from NATO is best understood as Moscow's rulers concealing Russian appeasement of China.

UPDATE: It is a good point that China's long-range missiles in their far west are better suited to targeting America given that being closer to Russia gives Russia an opportunity to hit the missiles first.  But China's arsenal is mostly shorter range stuff and that is what I had in mind on missile threats.

UPDATE: On the other hand, Strategypage says that the Chinese missile deployment of the DF-41 makes them more suitable to hit Russian missiles in western Russia.

Of course, they can be safer from sea-based American attack, more vulnerable to Russian attack, and more capable of hitting Russian missiles, without nullifying the other characteristics.