The Chinese regime seized the world’s attention when it began throwing up man-made islands in the South China Sea in an attempt to control access to that huge body of water. What was spectacularly visible there has proceeded in a less eye-catching fashion around the world: a deliberate effort to gain control over critical trade chokepoints.
Whoever controls the world’s shipping chokepoints controls the flow of oil and close to 90 percent of global trade. In its push to become a global naval power, the Chinese regime has sought power over nearly every one of these chokepoints through a string of new naval bases and a series of economic deals.
“I think people don’t appreciate this problem or threat because it’s so unfamiliar,” said Robert Haddick, author of “Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific.”
The world’s most important chokepoints for oil shipments, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), are the Strait of Malacca, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Panama Canal, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Turkish Straits.
To control the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia, the Chinese regime is building islands on the Strait of Malacca’s outlet to the South China Sea, which sees about half of the world’s oil tanker shipments. Airstrips on the islands will be big enough to handle any of its military aircraft, and naval bases there will provide harbors for the Chinese navy.
Near the Suez Canal, and at the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the Chinese regime is trying to establish a permanent base in Djibouti at the chokepoint between the Red Sea and Arabian Sea. At the Strait of Hormuz, China won 40-year management rights from Pakistan at the nearby port of Gwadar.
At the Panama Canal, the state-run China Harbor Engineering Company is trying to build a fourth set of locks, and in nearby Nicaragua it wants to build a new canal entirely. And at the Turkish Straits, the Chinese regime is trying to woo Turkish leaders with its Belt and Road initiative to build a 21st century maritime Silk Road.
The world has grown numb to the value of open maritime trade, Haddick said, mainly because there hasn’t been a great war at sea since 1945 and the United States has helped maintain global naval commerce for over 70 years.
“Nobody has really known a different sort of world since then. But that doesn’t always have to be the case when you have major powers clashing over interests,” said Haddick, who is also a research contractor for U.S. Special Operations Command and a consultant to the U.S. State Department.
If any of the main trade chokepoints were disrupted, it would affect the GDP, employment, and inflation of nearly every country in the world.
If shipments through just the Strait of Hormuz were seriously disrupted, “only a few of the world’s industrialized countries would be unable to avoid a sudden, steep recession,” states a March 2011 federally contracted report from CNA Corporation.
Control of shipping chokepoints has played a key role in many military conflicts over the last several hundred years—including the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II, and going back to the 16th century when rival powers were conscripting pirates to disrupt trade lines of rival empires.
Even for the United States in more recent years, maintaining open sea lanes has been a challenge. There was the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, and the “Tanker Wars” during the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s, both of which required a U.S. military response. Many conflicts with the Soviets during the Cold War circled around trade chokepoints. During the Russo-Georgian War in 1998, Turkey was able to block U.S. relief efforts to Georgia with its control of the Turkish Straits.
A March 2009 report from World Politics Review summed it up well: “Ever since men first put to sea, conflicts have swirled around narrow maritime passages known as choke points.”
A Clear Strategy
The famed American naval strategist, Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914), said that those who control the ocean’s chokepoints control the world’s shipping. Mahan proposed that a great country needs to be a great naval power, said Haddick, “because that naval power will protect its global commercial activity.”
Haddick said that Mahan “is now more well known and popular in China than he is in the United States, and it seems China’s planners are implementing the Mahan playbook very extensively.” He noted that its current strategy around naval bases “comes right out of Mahan’s theories to protect key lines of communication.”
The Chinese regime is being open about its ambitions to become a global naval power. It outlined this plan in its Chinese Military Strategy white paper released on May 26.
The white paper calls for the Chinese regime to abandon “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea” and emphasizes the need to “protect the security of strategic SLOCs [sea lines of communication] and overseas interests.”
As the Chinese regime moves to provide its own security for global trade, Haddick said, it “creates a conflict of interest with the U.S. military, which has been the incumbent power since 1945.”
“If it comes to a clash of arms that results in ruinous consequences for commerce around the world, then everyone around the world is going to suffer from that,” he said.
Maintaining the Party
The Chinese regime publishes its defense white papers every year, but the recent one is significant since it’s “the first one that really emphasizes the importance of the PLA navy,” said Bernard Cole, a professor at the National War College and a leading expert on the Chinese regime’s People’s Liberation Army navy.
Cole said the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions center around the economy. He said it “is very concerned with keeping the economy growing and keeping the Chinese people happy” because this in turn helps them with “validating the CCP rule in Beijing.”
“The number one national security concern in Beijing is keeping the CCP in power,” he said, noting that the PLA is the “Party army, and they never miss an opportunity to mention that.”
The Chinese regime’s push to control key maritime trade chokepoints are only part of a larger economic strategy, with an overall goal of shifting the economic status quo in China’s favor.
Nearly every superpower in the known history of the world had control over major shipping lanes, and many of them simultaneously controlled the reserve currency of the world.
The Chinese regime appears to be trying to replicate this power. It recently created an alternative to the World Bank with its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and is trying to establish a new gold standard using higher purities.
While the Chinese regime’s programs to gain influence over global maritime trade present a concerning scenario for U.S. power, whether its programs actually work when implemented is another issue.
Cole noted that nearly all of the CCP’s plans are running into trouble, or were flawed from the start.
According to Cole, Pakistan’s Gwadar port is isolated and not firmly under Pakistan’s control. In addition, its proximity to India is already stirring up regional conflicts. The port’s security also hinges on whether a China-funded Pakistani paramilitary force can quell sectarian violence, stomp out Taliban offshoots, and end a growing separatist movement in the region.
“While I’d imagine it’s eventually feasible, it’s not very probable,” said Cole, referring to the CCP’s overall plans for the Gwadar port.
In Sri Lanka, newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena is shifting away from the previous administration’s heavy focus on building ties with China, saying in another six years, “our country would become a colony and we would become slaves.” Sirisena’s policy could cost the Chinese regime its planned $1.5 billion Port City Project in Colombo.
Its planned expansions at the Panama Canal are designed to allow ships so large they could only dock at two ports in all the United States, Cole said. The Nicaragua Canal, meanwhile, is facing protests from landholders and heavy scrutiny over its potential environmental impacts.
Cole noted that even many of the CCP’s infrastructure projects in Africa have failed, and in addition to growing ridicule over its one-sided development deals, “They’re repeating the same mistakes that they’ve made elsewhere.”
Even in the South China Sea and East China Sea, where the CCP is putting the bulk of its efforts, it is inadvertently leading its neighboring countries, including Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines to grow militarily and align more strongly with the United States.
“The most concrete Chinese effort,” Cole said, is its leasing of land for a base in Djibouti. Yet, while it is at a key chokepoint, it also already has a pre-existing strong international military presence, due to the problems of piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Regardless of whether the programs can succeed or are doomed to failure, however, the United States and China’s neighbors are facing a clear challenge being posed by an increasingly aggressive Chinese nation.
On Jan. 31, 2013, Capt. James Fanell who was at the time the U.S. Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, gave a speech on a topic that would later cost him his job.
Fanell said that every morning he received updates from all countries in the Asia Pacific region, and “every day, it’s about China.”
“Make no mistake, the PLA navy is focused on war at sea and about sinking an opposing fleet,” he said, adding that “China is negotiating for control of other nations’ resources off their coasts.”
He said that while words like “expand” and “expansive” are controversial when referring to the Chinese regime, “for those of us who have watched this on a daily basis over the last decade, there is no better description for what China’s been doing.”