The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor has been billed as the “flagship” project of China’s vast Belt and Road Initiative. Beginning in 2014, Pakistan and China have formulated a plan to invest 62 billion USD on improvements to the Gwadar Port complex near the Iranian border, upgrades to Pakistan’s energy and transportation infrastructure, and a series of special economic zones throughout the country. There have been some early modest successes; however, Pakistan has been unable to provide further security for these improvements and the workers building them. This, in addition to the pervasive corruption in the country, means that the project is unlikely result in the dramatic economic growth necessary to prevent Pakistan from incurring the debt complications that other nations have faced after accepting Chinese credit in hopes of bettering their economies. Consequently, the project is unlikely to either result in Pakistan achieving many of its ambitious goals or in forging the kind of strategic relationship between China and Pakistan the United States and the West fear most.
The countries that were originally considered to be part of the String of Pearls quite easily fit into the BRI with their strategic naval outposts. When one takes a closer look at Chinese engagement in the Indian Ocean, it is evident that China’s involvement in the region is not limited to strategic locations or high-risk investments, but it also extends to securing long-term strategic ties with governments and people of these countries. Therefore, one could argue that, particularly under the BRI, Beijing has gone beyond what was initially perceived as a few strategic outposts in the Indian Ocean to secure China’s trade and energy supply routes to a grander vision of being a global power that can project power in countries on the other side of the globe. Therefore, one could argue that China’s interest in the Indo-Pacific goes beyond merely securing trade routes or even ensuring a strategic presence. If the West continues with the narrative of a debt trap and fails to take the growing expansionism in China seriously, the developing nations of the Global South will find “an all-weather friend” and “a preferred development partner” in China.
This article contends that China, through its Belt and Road Initiative, is continuing a long-standing pursuit of its energy security strategy begun in 1993 and a separate maritime strategy. The economic corridors that have resulted will diversify the sources and routes of energy imports, and the initiative’s energy cooperation projects are a continuation of China’s long-term goals. China’s maritime strategy, pursued through the Maritime Silk Road, is designed to achieve the goals of developing naval bases and the blue-water navy and increasing military capabilities and naval activities to protect China’s vital interests.
The United States should pursue a strategy of selective engagement to prevent a Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific by balancing the BRI. This will require targeted US investment in the region’s economies through economic aid packages.
For years, Southeast Asia has become more reliant on China, striking a Faustian bargain, wherein they accept Chinese investments in return for acquiescence to Chinese hegemony and a commitment not to criticize its central government. In 2021, the Biden administration must take bold diplomatic, messaging, military, and economic actions to curtail Chinese influence and coercion in the region. Many of these actions can begin immediately and will benefit both Southeast Asia and the United States for years to come. Failure to solidify the US role in Southeast Asia will result in China becoming inextricably entrenched in the region and embolden Beijing to take even more aggressive actions against American allies and interests.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the developments in Xinjiang, it is vital to track and identify the effects of the Belt and Road Initiative and COVID-19 on Beijing's repression of China's Uyghur minority.
Dr. Peter Harris, et al
December 2020 Full Edition
The views and opinions expressed or implied in JIPA are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.