China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is far more than an instrument of Chinese foreign economic and development policy, argues Mher D Sahakyan of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research in Yerevan, Armenia. The BRI, he writes, is the backbone of a new kind of Chinese diplomacy – one shifting from a defensive posture to a proactive stance focused on enhancing national security and countering American power and influence.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is changing its foreign policy stance from defensive to proactive. Beijing is trying to become an independent politico-economic pole in the world. This means that China will try to transform from a regional power into a global geopolitical power, which will give it opportunities to strengthen its security and stimulate economic development. Of course, before China can become a distinct, influential pole in the world, it must solve its internal socio-economic problems.
For this reason, according to a roadmap drawn by Chinese decision-makers, by the time the CCP celebrates its centenary in 2021, China must turn into a modern socialist country. By 2049, when the People’s Republic of China marks its centennial, the Party aims to rejuvenate the nation; create favorable external conditions for the country’s reform and development; safeguard the country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests; and maintain world peace and stability to promote common development. To implement this plan successfully, China is using its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which consists of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR).
External threats to China's security
Here are seven scenarios of potential external threats to China's national security:
1. With its “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, the United States intends mainly to deter China from taking a dominant position in the region and rebalance power among the other main regional players.
2. US President Donald Trump’s protectionism could threaten the business of Chinese companies working in or with the US market and have a profoundly negative impact on the Chinese economy.
3. In the event of a Sino-American confrontation, the US Navy could blockade the South China Sea, through which passes 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports coming from the Middle East and Africa via the Strait of Malacca.
4. Inspired and directed by terror organizations in the Middle East, violent Islamic extremists with Chinese citizenship could target Chinese cities.
5. Chinese businesses and tourists overseas come under attack from terrorists.
6. Tension or military action on the Korean Peninsula over North Korea’s nuclear program threatens the peace, security and economic stability of the region.
7. China’s territorial disputes with Japan and India escalate into low-grade military conflict or worse.
Of the challengers to Chinese security listed above, the main one is the US, which in the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) released in December 2017 identified China as a challenge and threat American national security. According to the document, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”
Although US policy-makers did not mention the BRI directly, they had in mind what China regards as the main tool with which it tries to project its power in the region. The BRI clashes with the US “Silk Road” project, which Washington launched in 2011. The US Silk Road aims to build connections between Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. The US views China and its BRI as an American national security challenge. Washington hopes to enlist India and Japan in its effort to counter China and the influence that Beijing is gaining across the world through the BRI.
The BRI as security tool
From a security perspective, the main aim of the SREB, as a component of BRI, is to create alternative routes for China in case of possible military clashes in the South and East China Seas prompted by China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors. Also, with the BRI, Beijing is creating a financial and economic platform that is independent from the West so that in the event of a China-US confrontation, China would not be isolated.
Other steps that China has taken in this direction include its push for the Chinese currency’s inclusion in the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) valuation basket, the founding of New Development Bank (known previously as the BRICS Development Bank) in Shanghai, and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which China billed as an alternative to the established international financial institutions for sourcing infrastructure development funding.
Meanwhile, China has built up military facilities on artificial islands in the South China Sea, the main aim of which is to safeguard the passage of Chinese vessels along the so-called Maritime Silk Road.
By implementing the BRI, China aims to improve security in the country’s northwest. In contributing to the economic development and stability of neighboring countries and nations in the Middle East, Beijing believes it strengthens its own national security. Of special concern is the region of Xinjiang, where more than half of the population consists of ethnic Uyghurs. China seeks to prevent radical extremists from giving support to the separatist movement in the area.
China is trying to involve Japan and India in the BRI initiative. By coaxing them into collaborating on BRI projects and deepening economic relations with its two neighbors, Beijing aims gradually to overcome their distrust. China is trying to convince Delhi to strengthen cooperation in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM EC), a plan for which the four nations drew up in 2013. China reckons that pursuing this would help ease tensions between Beijing and Delhi and lead to significant bilateral trade and commercial benefits.
In sum, China is using the BRI to mitigate territorial and regional disputes. At the same time, it is deepening its military and political cooperation with Russia as a counterbalance to the power and influence of the US in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. In this context, Moscow and Beijing have agreed to link the BRI with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic, an economic union of states that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is actively promoting the ideology of globalization. Through the BRI, Beijing is creating deeper economic and political links with surrounding countries and beyond stretching to Europe and Africa so that it will not be isolated in the event of a Sino-American confrontation and will still be able to pursue its own geopolitical and geo-economic agenda. The implementation of the BRI will not only spread China’s influence but also significantly strengthen its national security, notably by improving relations with states with which it has territorial disputes or tense political relations.
China calls this a binding strategy. If Beijing uses the BRI to create safe alternative ways for China to conduct trade and commerce and deepen relationships with countries across the two corridors, it will be able to counter US influence, particularly at a time when Washington’s partnerships around the world are under strain and it is retreating from multilateral cooperation. Pursuing this strategy indicates how China is transforming its foreign policy approach from a defensive posture to a proactive stance aimed at building a security belt in its surrounding territories.
Rolland, Nadège. (September 3, 2019) “Securing the Belt and Road: Prospects for Chinese Military Engagement Along the Silk Roads”, The National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle.
Sahakyan, Mher. (May 21, 2019) “China and Armenia, two old civilizations in the world”, China Plus, China Radio International, Beijing.
Wu, Xiao. (August 6, 2019) “Belt and Road Initiative: Understanding China’s Foreign Policy Strategy”, NATO Association of Canada, Toronto.
Wuthnow, Joel. (January 25, 2018) “Securing China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Dimensions and Implications”, Testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) Hearing on “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Five Years Later”, US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington
2022 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong, and the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research