“Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world.” Napoleon Bonaparte
In the year 1271, a young Venetian began a 24-year trek to emperor Kublai Khan’s court in Cambulac—modern day Beijing—and returned on a different route. He visited the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka on his way home. This historic route traveled was later named “Seidenstrasse” (Silk Road) by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877.
Further back in “Western” history, during the reign of emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE) Chinese silk was the most valued commodity in Rome. In a manner of history repeating itself, Robert Kaplan, a contemporary writer, aptly titled his latest book, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century. Argument and speculation surrounding a revival of this world rang true with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Italy and China connecting Rome to Beijing and her network at the highest levels. Italy is the first G7 country to endorse China’s Silk Road: The One Belt One Road (OBOR). The Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte opened the doors for the dragon to re-enter Europe, just as President Rajapaksa pledged its support for the grand strategic Chinese project to enter Sri Lanka five years ago.
A few months ago, I was visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels with some scholars from Asia. At the meeting a question was raised: Will NATO ever bring China and South China Sea to its agenda? The answer was a clear no. It is far from its global agenda. Today, the Trump administration has tabled the Chinese agenda to NATO, especially on Chinese infrastructure projects and telecommunications expansions in Europe. This is with particular reference to Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s investment in Europe’s 5G infrastructure network. It is seen by some as a Trojan horse for Beijing’s digital espionage. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General, made a comment at a speech stating that China’s rise also presents a challenge with its investment in Europe’s critical infrastructure, including its fifth generation, or 5G, wireless communications networks.
With the new development of Huawei seen as a national security threat in the United States, the United States has threatened to curb intelligence cooperation with allies that have allowed Huawei to build up new mobile internet infrastructure. More than 70% of Sri Lanka’s mobile network is on Chinese infrastructure belonging to Huawei and ZTE. It is important to see how Sri Lanka will manage its US relationship when awarding the next tender to Huawei. The Chinese foothold is seen very clearly with its infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and many other South Asian countries.
Looking at Italy’s entry into OBOR and China’s surrounding commercial influences at important ports, including Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, and Piraeus, China has already placed its strategic foot print in the European continent. It could influence future policy decisions in favor of China. This clearly weakens a US liberal hegemonic grip in Europe. The Trump administration will use NATO to curb China’s rising influence in Europe. This will be in addition to an existing incomplete list of duties, including to deter Russia and manage wars in Middle East and Afghanistan.
Marco Polo was described by President Xi during his visit to Italy as the “first bridge” between Italy and China. The modern version is more sophisticated with network of ports, railways, tunnels and other infrastructure spanning 60 countries over land and sea. In a lecture held at the Venetian University Ca’Foscari in 2016, I highlighted the significance of the OBOR and its influence on Sri Lanka including the Hambathota Port and how the $1trillion OBOR will influence the geopolitics of Eurasia. Today, Professor Renzo Cavalieri, of Ca’ Foscari University, says, “Everyone is somehow involved in the project but no other G7 country has signed an MoU of this kind…what Italy has done, in quite a disordered way, is take a step ahead to create something which, so far, is not that strong in content but is quite important symbolically.”
Italy ignored Brussels, despite the EU Commission’s paper issued last week branding China as a “systemic rival”, threatening to regulate Chinese investment in Europe and highlighting the security risk over Huawei’s 5G network. Italy did not consult Brussels or Washington when signing the MOU, the geopolitical calculation has been made to move ahead with China just like 12 other EU nations who had signed MOUs on OBOR before Italy. In the future it is clear many other countries in Europe will follow Italy’s position owing to China’s expanding economic power and the failure of Brussels to adopt a common policy on China that could benefit all EU nations. While some nations like France and Germany are benefiting from Chinese trade, Italy and other southern European nations feel left out. This imbalance of trade with China will open bilateral prospects for the southern nations and former Soviet bloc nations in Central Asia.
I witnessed the same during a visit to Astana, Kazakhstan (now Nur-Sultan) where the Central Asian country with its hard steppe zone of black rich soil is a testimony to Beijing’s attempt to dominate its Central Asian minority areas. Kaplan describes this situation as “smothering them (Central Asian states) with development, even as the Chinese build urban nodes for a postmodern Silk Road of long-distance highways, railways, and energy pipelines linking China with the former Soviet republics nearby.”
With their connected geography, Europe and Asia are the two most significant regions in global trade. According to Parag Khanna (Diagram S.0) they account for $1.6 trillion, more than transatlantic trade at $1.3 trillion and US-Asia trade at $1.4 trillion. The US power balance in Eurasia is in decline. Stephen Walt argues that this is due to liberal hegemony spelled out after the Cold War with a misleading foreign policy followed by one leader after another from Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Trump. United States interference, such as entanglement on regime changes in the Middle East has not economically benefited them. Protecting and restoring the democracy agenda to win local communities has failed due to its double standards.
China on the other hand prefers to only strengthen the economic and trade agenda of OBOR-supporting nations. In this equation, the existing global power, the United States, has accused the emerging power China of “predatory loans” or “debt trap diplomacy,” quoting Sri Lanka at many occasions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, citing Huawei in Budapest, said, “Beijing’s handshake sometimes comes with strings attached, strings that will leave Hungary indebted both politically and economically,”. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned, saying Beijing “took advantage of our division.” Whatever the criticism, China keeps winning nation after another into its global agenda.
In Sri Lanka the division on the Beijing factor is deep and polarized. This is reflected through our policy makers who are engaged with the two spheres of influence - the US and China. Our nation’s policy makers are deficient in articulating foreign policy and oscillate between two increasingly divided factions of Washington and/or Beijing. The two factions are further supported by proxy nations, such as India and Japan with the US and Russia with China. Not only does the pendulum swing with greater frequency between poles, but the swings themselves have become more extreme and visible. It spins on security and power projection; a clear example was the US aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, which navigated Sri Lankan waters a few weeks ago, followed by 1,000 Australian troops with their four vessels who have docked in Colombo and Trincomalee this week, soon to be followed by Chinese frigates in a few months’ time. Another example of the pendulum’s swing between the poles is on issues surrounding Sri Lanka’s strategic infrastructure including ports, airports, and power grids.
This short-term vision which lacks strategic depth has a significant threat to national security. If the Government of Sri Lanka decides to award Mattala Airport to India, who could be seen as a proxy pulling the strings towards the big power, it will be a move to counterbalance Chinese influence and clearly not an economic decision. A Chinese built Mattala airport sitting 25 km from Hambanthota Port is now on discussion, since the Government lacks a strategic path and it has only a leasing out path thinking on short term economic benefits.
According to the RAND Corporation, a leading US think tank, “China sees its security environment in terms of four concentric circles” in the grand strategy of OBOR, first targeting the developing nations and then the developed nations. The first innermost ring encompasses China’s existing geography and the second ring contains the land and bodies of water directly adjacent to China. This periphery is most essential for stability of China. The third ring consists of the entire Asia-Pacific, while the fourth ring is everything beyond Asia (Figure S.1 from RAND). The report highlights the significant growing influence of China in these circles over time, particularly in developing countries. “China could setup more military bases, although may not call them bases” in these countries, argues RAND.
As for the report, Sri Lanka falls in the third circle; what you witness is nations in the second and third circle have migrated from non-binding MOUs to “Pivotal Regional Partnerships (PRP)” with China. Nations like Italy in the fourth circle will also follow just like the Latin American nations to establish PRPs with China. China could establish PRPs, but its pivotal OBOR partner nations should understand how China might act economically, diplomatically and militarily vis-à-vis the United States in time of conflict or peace.
Many nations see OBOR as a solution for economic prosperity only through an economic vantage point. The geopolitical prism must be addressed, for it holds more implications to the nation and its internal policies in the long run.
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the author of “Sri Lanka at Crossroads” (2019), and Director General of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry. The views expressed are the author’s own.