While China is finding itself getting entangled in serious standoffs with several countries including India and the US, it is unlikely that Beijing can afford a full-scale war on multiple fronts.
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A confrontation with any of its powerful adversaries will leave its trade routes especially the Malacca Strait and even the and China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), vulnerable to attacks.
The violent clashes at the Indo-Sino border including the first one in June that killed 20 Indian troops have led to severe escalations of tensions. China is also neck-deep in confrontation with the US over Taiwan, where it appears that a war can break-out any day.
Experts suggest that China is especially worried because in case of war breaks out with the US or India or both, Beijing could be choked for supplies.
China’s Malacca Dilemma
The Malacca Strait holds economic importance as it connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean with almost 84,000 ships passing through it every year carrying around 30 percent of global sea trade.
China’s oil trade through this route is around 80 percent. Disrupting the Strait of Malacca could heavily impact China’s energy supply.
New Delhi didn’t hesitate to threaten Beijing by countering China’s violence in June. Reportedly, the Indian Navy had quietly deployed its warship in the South China Sea and Malacca Straits just after the Galwan valley clash, blocking PLA Navy’s misadventures and threatening to block the crucial straits of Malacca.
“The immediate deployment of the Indian Navy warship in the South China Sea had a desired effect on the Chinese Navy and security establishment as they complained to the Indian side about the Indian warship’s presence there during the diplomatic level talks with the Indian side,” ANI reported quoting its sources.
India has been ramping up its military bases in Andaman and Nicobar islands. It has now deployed additional troops and is boosting infrastructure on the archipelago to choke China’s Malacca route if needed.
According to top military officials cited by HT, the airstrip at INS Kohassa, Shibpur in North Andamans and the Campbell strip at Nicobar will be upgraded into full-fledged fighter bases.
Apart from the Indian warships, the US Navy has also been muscle-flexing in the region. According to media reports, the USS Ronald and USS Nimitz carrier strikes groups, comprising more than 12,000 US military personnel among the two aircraft carriers and their escorting cruisers and destroyers, were operating in the South China Sea under its Pacific Fleet.
Reportedly, the Indian warships are maintaining close contact with the US counterparts over secure communication systems while sending both overt and covert message to China over its Achilles heal – the Malacca Straits.
The QUAD Stunner At Kra Canal
Beijing is now aware of its vulnerability in the Malacca Strait and has been trying to find alternatives that would strengthen its position. One such alternative is building the Kra Canal by pushing Thailand to expedite the work.
This is a part of China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative, a key constituent of the ambitious One Belt One Road project. By building this 120 kilometer canal, China will be able to bypass the Malacca Strait.
However, Thailand is pushing back the Chinese pressure for the canal. Reportedly, Thailand has shelved the proposal to build the canal by replacing it with another proposal and has invited the QUAD nations including India, Australia for the project.
Following public outrage in the country, Thailand decided to stall the Canal project and is now planning to develop two deep seaports on either side of the country’s southern coasts, and link them via highway and rail, according to Saksiam.
The 100-kilometer “land bridge” would replace an existing proposal to dredge a canal through the isthmus. The government has already approved a $2.4 million budget to ascertain the feasibility of the project.
This is a major set back for Beijing, not just in terms its vulnerability in the Malacca Strait but with building pressure from the US and India, its strongest ally, Thailand, has left China in a rut.
China’s Rising Hope From CPEC
With little success pursuing alternative sea routes, Beijing’s ambitious CPEC program allows an alternative route by linking it through roads and highways. The Gwadar port in Pakistan is a land route alternative allowing goods unloaded at the port to be shipped to China.
On June 8, the Pakistani government approved a $7.2bn upgrade to a railway which will connect Gwadar to Kashgar, China. The port is not yet operating at capacity, but the direction seems clear.
While Gwadar is a safer route as it lies in a third country, the biggest issue is that it passes through Pakistan-administered-Kashmir, a region claimed by India, which New Delhi vehemently objects to the CPEC project.
If a war breaks out between India and China or with Pakistan, the traditional foe in the region, the CPEC route passing through Pakistan-administered-Kashmir could come under direct attack, again leaving the Chinese supply lines in a complete mess.
And, Beijing has invested a whopping $60B in the CPEC project, so India endangers both Chinese supply lines and economic interest in the region. If India, Pakistan breaks out, which Islamabad has been speculating with repeated warnings to the global community, the Chinese will be impacted the most.
VS Reddy, a research assistant at the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the ORF believes that “China has been pressing to complete the Gwadar port in Pakistan and build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), allowing it to be connected overland to an Indian Ocean port.
Gwadar may be a much better option for China to carry out trade, however, it still requires to operate through sea routes to reach the port from where the land route will be taken. And both the sea routes and the land routes will come under attack in a possible confrontation leaving the Chinese side high and dry.
OpEd: Smriti Chaudhary. Edited By Xavier Francis. Views Personel