TAIPEI — China's "one belt and one road" initiative could usher in a new era that sees China as the undisputed geopolitical powerhouse in the region, experts say.
The initiative will establish new routes linking Asia, Europe and Africa. It has two parts — a new "Silk Road Eeconomic Bbelt" linking China to Europe that cuts through mountainous regions in Central Asia; and the "mMaritime Silk Road" that links China's port facilities with the African coast and than pushes up through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed during a speech at the Boao Forum on March 28 in Hainan, China, that China intends to push forward on the initiative that many are comparing to the ancient Silk Road.
"The idea of oOne bBelt and oOne rRoad is based mainly on the economy, but has political and strategic components and implications," said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Center for National Strategy Studies. "It aims for the joint development, common prosperity and for energy security, too."
When the economy in the region improves with this initiative, the root cause of terrorism will be lessened and help stabilize the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia." Since improving the region's economy could weaken the root cause of terrorism and help stabilize Central Asia and the Middle East, Zhuang said the US should be more positive about the initiative as a stabilizing force for good in the region.
The unanswered question for mMany experts is question how China will establish security for these new routes, since many of them snake through potentially dangerous areas such as Africa's coast is , such as (maritime piracy) along Africa's coast and the "wild west" of Central Asia prone to (Islamic extremism).
The routes will require logistics hubs, communication networks, airports, railway lines, modern highways, ports and a military component that allows for a rapid response to a crisis. For the military, this means long-range, fixed-wing cargo aircraft, littoral combat ships capable of operating in the narrow and shallow areas of the Strait of Malacca and Suez Canal, hospital ships, and an enhanced capability to conduct Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW).
The "bBelt and rRoad" concept is still in the planning stages, said James Holmes, a China naval specialist at the US Navyal War College, and does not see have any direct military implications, per se, but "iIt could help China ease America out of Asia over the long haul while weaning our allies away from us." he said.
If China wants to create a parallel system in Eurasia and convince others that its system beats America's, it has to deliver the goods, Holmes said. "Ultimately, once they're hooked, it could demand more from its partners, by asking them to restrict or refuse US access to their seaports" — and that is where the direct security and military implications come in. "Xi doesn't cut me in on his plans, but I suspect that's the logic driving the enterprise."
Holmes does not believe this is a latter-day Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which was built in the early 1900s to link Europe with the Ottoman Empire's access to the Persian Arabian Gulf. Unlike that project, this is an "economic project with indirect diplomatic, security and military implications," he said.
Patrick Cronin, senior adviser and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said it is "certainly possible to find sinister opportunities behind China's one belt/, one road initiative," but at present it is still more of a slogan than an operational reality. and this He suggests it is part of China's soft power efforts to offset the costs of itsChina's reputation incurred by maritime coercion in the South and East China Seas.
Cronin is also "nonplussed by America's lack of strategic imagination in failing to showcase our own soft power" in the region.
The China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) — established in 2013 to assist regional neighbors in infrastructure development and to help facilitate the creation of facilities to support the "one belt, one road" One Road, One Belt" initiative — is one example of China's soft power efforts, which helps to counter America's rebalance-to-Asia policy to Asia, Cronin said.
Experts see the creation of the AIIB in 2013 as a direct challenge to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, which China sees as controlled by the USnited States.
"If China wants to compete with the United States for the affections of its neighbors, then supplying them with tangible benefits is a reasonable way to proceed," Holmes said. "This is an approach rooted in Chinese tradition: Chinese dynasties commonly provided gifts and material benefits of various types in return for their political deference to China."
At present, the maritime portion of the plan only needs to be enhanced. China's The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Nnavy has conducted numerous MOOTW in recent years, including anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. Earlier this month the Chinese PLA Nnavy participated in a rescue mission for of trapped citizens trapped in war-torn Yemen. This follows a similar mission in 2011 to rescue citizens from Libya during its civil war.
In 2004, The strategic underpinnings of the "One Belt, and One Road" initiative originated in 2004 with Chinese President Hu Jintao issued guidance to the PLA Chinese nNavy to conduct New Historic Missions (NHM), said Christopher Sharman, a National Defense University Pacific Command Scholar. One of the missions included in NHM is safeguarding national economic development, which was always a Chinese military duty, "but what brought this concept into the forefront was the 2012 defense white paper that emphasized the safeguarding of strategic sea lines of communication." What we are seeing now, he said, is China's Navy fulfilling its strategic guidance — and why the concept of "far seas defense" fits into its evolving maritime strategy.
Sharman said restructuring within the Navy would result in its new 056 Jiangdao corvettes assuming additional requirements within the First Island Chain so that larger combatants can more regularly deploy to the far seas and show presence for limited periods of time at strategic choke points. This restructuring could result in formation of another fleet with a primary mission set to fulfill far seas mission requirements mandate for far seas missions.
"I don't think the maritime Silk Road means a dramatic escalation of PLAN [People's Liberation Army Navy] assets in the far seas — but I do see an incremental increase of far seas deployments" consisting of frigates, destroyers and submarines, Sharman said. As China's navy becomes more adept with these types of missions, "their number will increase."
At the strategic level, it also means the Chinese nNavy must negotiate "places" not "bases" in the far seas. "They must negotiate access for routine logistics work in the far seas as it's too challenging to return to home and go back to the far seas," Sharman said. He said China would continue to reach out to Sri Lanka, East Africa and possibly Indonesia for assistance, he said.
Sharman — the author of a new National Defense University monograph, "China Moves Out: Stepping Stones Toward a New Maritime Strategy" — sees China's second aircraft carrier as a platform for supporting this initiative. Serving as a force multiplier, the diverse mission sets it provides the Chinese nNavy would enable it to respond to a myriad of MOOTW issues and demonstrate a military presence in the far seas, he said.