Contrary to the apprehensions of the US Department of Defense that China is wooing 12 countries to make them agree to host its military logistic facilities, Beijing is increasingly finding it difficult to succeed in its mission.
These 12 countries are Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.
China is realizing that potential host nations’ political stability, economic health, and level of bilateral ties are not conducive enough to make them reliable military-partners.
For instance, Toshi Yoshihara, a Senior Fellow at the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has quoted Chinese scholars like Guo Lingli to point out how Chinese policymakers now hold dim views of Pakistan, home to one of the PLA’s prospective logistics points at Gwadar.
They have realized that Pakistan suffers from political instability, terrorist threats, a separatist movement in Balochistan, an underdeveloped economy, a weak industrial base, poor infrastructure, and socio-cultural obstacles that include local resistance to modernization.
“These factors have directly contributed to Gwadar port’s lackluster performance since its inauguration in 2007. Describing Gwadar as a ‘bare port’, a Chinese study complains that its supporting facilities and infrastructure have remained woefully inadequate for fulfilling China’s needs. These problems bode ill for the PLA’s future presence there”, writes Yoshihara.
So much so that China now appears to be backing away from its initial financial promises to Pakistan under Beijing-financed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion infrastructure building plan, amid rising corruption and militant attacks on Chinese engineers.
Overall lending by the state-backed China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China declined from a peak of USD 75 billion in 2016 to just $3 billion last year. The instances of corruption are so many that the matter has become a huge political issue in Pakistan, with none other than Prime Minister Imran Khan putting on hold several CPEC projects.
Equally troublesome has been Chinese efforts in Sri Lanka where it took in 2017 a 99-year lease to develop its port at Hambantota at a cost of $1.1 billion. Protests broke out over concern that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty was infringed upon. Sri Lankan political parties have also argued that Chinese investments are corrupt, debt-traps, and dangerous.
So much so that despite his government’s well-known pro-China leanings, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose brother also happens to be the Prime Minister, wants to undo the lease, which was given by the previous regime.
“We would like them to give it back,” Ajith Nivard Cabraal, a former central bank governor and an economic adviser to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, said in an interview recently. “The ideal situation would be to go back to the status quo. We pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed without any disturbance at all.”
The Rajapaksas and the Sri Lankan policymakers also take the India-factor seriously in dealing with the Chinese. They realize that as of now, China lacks the military capabilities to truly challenge India for the allegiance of smaller South Asian nations.
Although a Chinese sub visited Sri Lanka in 2014, the People’s Liberation Army Navy lacks the capacity to contest the Indian Ocean against India and its strategic partner United States that operates out of Diego Garcia.
Until China can successfully overcome the so-called “Malacca Dilemma”, it will always remain a distant goal for Beijing to intervene effectively in the Indian Ocean.
And that being the case, Sri Lanka will not do anything that will antagonize India, for whom a Chinese military base in the region is a red herring.
Sri Lanka may provide the promise of massive Belt and Road investment for Xi Jinping’s China, but it will not do anything to annoy neighboring giant India, which can always play the “Tamil Card” in its domestic politics.
No wonder why during his just-concluded visit to Colombo, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s advice to Sri Lanka to fulfill expectations of the Tamil minority was a subtle warning to tread carefully with China.
Likewise, Chinese plans over the last decade to base warships in Bangladesh and the Maldives are least likely to succeed. These two nations’ proximity to India and their desires to balance their relations between India and China indicate that China will not develop military facilities in these countries.
While the Chinese are investing in them a great deal, it is highly improbable that Dhaka and Male will allow Beijing to establish a military presence as it would undermine their security.
The South Asian examples are illustrative of Chinese experience elsewhere too. Writings of the Chinese experts on the subject of late “clearly exhibit a growing awareness — and wariness — of the complex political, diplomatic, cultural, and religious sensitivities surrounding the use of foreign bases. One study observes that the management of overseas bases is not strictly a military affair. Rather, it encompasses the political, diplomatic, cultural, and religious spheres of host nations as well”, says Yoshihara.
Even Cambodia, where China exercises a considerable influence, has dismissed any idea towards allowing a Chinese base in that country.
Military bases are considered important for powerful countries for both military and economic reasons. China’s ascent as the world’s second-largest economy and its integration into the global economy have exposed growing numbers of its citizens and their assets to potential harm.
According to Chinese authorities, 30,000 of the country’s enterprises are located overseas, and more than 100 million Chinese citizens travel abroad annually. In the process, they have become vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, and serious natural disasters and epidemics.
In previous centuries, to secure their overseas interests, powerful nations frequently relied on expeditionary militaries and imperial conquests. Colonies were conquered. But after decolonization became the reality in the post World War II period, powerful nations started developing an extensive network of military bases located in allied countries.
China wants to do the same. It has spent billions on turning islands and reefs in the South China Sea into military bases and airstrips. And it has procured base facilities in Djibouti.
In the process, it has annoyed many countries in Southeast Asia who stake claims in the South China Sea. In Djibouti, the experience has not been good either, given its economic weakness and Muslim-majority status that has cultural barriers in working with the Chinese.
But then what best is China doing under the prevailing circumstances? It is providing arms and economic assistance to the local security forces provided by nations hosting major Chinese assets.
That explains why Chinese arms sales have expanded in recent years to include countries that host major Chinese investments, particularly along the routes outlined for the BRI: Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.