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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

CPEC as Vital Part of Hard competition in South China Sea and Asia-Pacific

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a lecturer in naval history and the president of the United States Naval War College, published “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783”, a revolutionary analysis of the importance of naval power as a factor in the rise of the British Empire. Mahan was also a close student of international relations and policy analyst of strategic affairs. Indeed, he sought to apply the study of history to understand foreign policy and strategic problems of his own day. This tradition traces its lineage back to Thucydides and includes such prominent thinkers as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger. From his study of history, Mahan concluded that war and change in world politics was rooted in competitions among the great powers, which struggled for security, wellbeing, and leadership. He contended that the great commercial seafaring states in particular would play a leading role in world politics because of the wealth they generated from international trade. During the period examined by Mahan in his histories of sea power, the warring states of Europe — Spain, the Netherlands, France, and England — had struggled with one another for leadership of the international system. In Mahan’s view, the best way to prevent war was for a country to be so well armed that potential adversaries would be deterred from risking a conflict. These policy and strategy prescriptions offered up by Mahan more than a hundred years ago thus have enduring value for American, Chinese as well as other strategic decision makers in the twenty-first century. USA believes that the renewal of American power and its exercise on the world stage remains the best guarantee of a lasting peace. Consequently, domination of the Global Commons i.e. Sea, Land and Air Lines of Communications besides Cyber and Outer Space remain the main arenas of competition amongst Great Powers. However, this article only attempt to analyze the ongoing hard contest between USA / Allies and China in the South China Sea in particular and Asia-Pacific region in general as the quiet standoff in the region appears to be entering a new phase.

Mahan, if writing today, would certainly take note and warn about the shifting global balance of power. Our current age is witnessing what has been described as “the rise of the rest” by a commentator. In his view, “the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.” This transformation of power balances augurs a “post-American world.” These underlying changes in the international system resemble Britain’s declining power position at the beginning of the twentieth century, about which Mahan wrote. In particular, China’s growing economy has increased that country’s power on the international stage. What Brooks Adams wrote in 1900 seems even more relevant in our time than his own — namely, that on “the fate of China may, perhaps, hinge the economic supremacy of the next century.” Robert Kaplan wrote: “Tellingly . . . the Chinese avidly read [Mahan]; the Chinese are the Mahanians now.” Chinese strategists draw from Mahan and the American experience a blueprint for how a rising power can build up anti-access, area-denial capabilities to fight in the interlocked aerospace, information, and maritime domains on their way to asserting regional dominance and global leadership. In South China Sea, the United States is relatively uninterested in who controls a few man-made molehills in the Spratly Islands. But the U.S. would be vitally concerned should any country attempt to use its position to restrict freedom of navigation either for U.S. naval ships or global trade. Some 30 percent of global maritime trade and about half of all global oil tanker shipments pass through the waters each year.

However, at minimum, the U.S. appears primed to accelerate the pace of freedom of navigation operations. The goals and mechanics of these operations, and how they fit into U.S. strategy in the Western Pacific and beyond necessitate attaching some costs to Chinese actions. For example, it can ramp up security assistance to Southeast Asian littoral states and better equip them to defend themselves – supporting the U.S. goal of relieving itself of duties as the global policeman and allowing it to better manage regional affairs from afar( leading from the rear). It’s already been doing this, to a degree, and growing Japanese security assistance to the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia has amplified U.S. efforts. The U.S. could make it clear that certain Chinese moves will be met with a commensurate increase in military aid to the region, creating at least some room for negotiation. The main limit of this approach is that most South China Sea states have no hope of ever achieving parity with the Chinese, making them unlikely to force the issue. Some, like Vietnam, have substantial sea denial capabilities that could be used to at least temporarily restrict Chinese freedom of action. But using them would risk drawing them into a larger conflict they’d have little hope of winning, while also leading to Chinese economic retaliation.

On the other hand, President Xi Jinping also certainly sounds like he is as much a committed disciple of Mahan’s school of sea power. In an internal speech to the Central Military Commission, Xi made clear the connection between sea power and national greatness: “In the 21st century, mankind has entered the age of the large-scale exploitation of the sea. . . . History and experience tell us that a country will rise if it commands the oceans well and will fall if it surrenders them. A powerful state possesses durable sea rights, and a weak state has vulnerable sea rights. . . . We must adhere to a development path of becoming a rich and powerful state by making use of the sea.” The Chinese Grand Strategic response comes as BRI. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road is a development strategy proposed by the Chinese government, which focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries, primarily the People's Republic of China (PRC), the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the ocean-going Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Until 2016 the initiative was known in English as the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR) but the Chinese came to consider the emphasis on the word "one" as misleading. The grand concept envisages, “to construct a unified large market and make full use of both international and domestic markets, through cultural exchange and integration, to enhance mutual understanding and trust of member nations, ending up in an innovative pattern with capital inflows, talent pool, and technology database." The initial focus has been infrastructure investment, education, construction materials, railway and highway, automobile, real estate, power grid, and iron and steel. Already, some estimates list the Belt and Road Initiative as one of the largest infrastructure and investment projects in history, covering more than 68 countries, including 65% of the world's population and 40% of the global GDP as of 2017. The Belt and Road Initiative addresses an "infrastructure gap" and thus has potential to accelerate economic growth across the Asia Pacific area and Central and Eastern Europe: a report from the World Pensions Council (WPC) estimates that excluding China, Asia requires up to US$900 billion of infrastructure investments per year over the next decade, mostly in debt instruments, 50% above current infrastructure spending rates. The gaping need for long term capital explains why many Asian and Eastern European heads of state "gladly expressed their interest to join this new international financial institution focusing solely on 'real assets' and infrastructure-driven economic growth."

It is in such grand geo-strategic environment that Pakistan took the momentous decision to be part of BRI allowing “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) project to commence linking Gawadar deep sea port with Eastern China, CARs, and Eurasia by road and railways; earning American and allies’ ire nevertheless, which had already promoted India as new Strategic ally in the region to contest and contain China, both economically as well as militarily. While Trump phenomenon has posed even greater challenge to already dwindling EU and NATO military alliance; besides, brushing aside better part of “US Asia Pacific Rebalancing Policy” and “The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)”, tectonic shifts in geo-strategic plates and global re-alignment looks a bit confused and muddled for the time being. Nevertheless, despite a host of internal challenges confronting Pakistan, it looks determined to play its due part as China’s main strategic ally. But here is a catch; Pakistan has also remained American ally for almost more than five decades out of seven of its existence but to what avail? Has Pakistan’s policy makers deeply considered the pros and cons of this preferential partnership including its finer details and undertaken long term cost and benefit analyses? Or is it just a circumstantial and usual emotion laden adoption of another extreme end being the only option visible on the strategic horizon? Other numerous international and global politico-economic factors aside, merely being in anti American strategic camp with its both Eastern and Western hostile neighbours under effective American influence means a very precarious scenario for Pakistan. Will China standby Pakistan when the chips are down as hyped by our leadership who usually attach hyperbole phrases to Pak-China friendship being higher than Himalayas and deeper than the ocean? China’s recent mute response on FATF Grey Listing of Pakistan indicates realpolitik nevertheless. Reports of swarms of Chinese workers and investors in Pakistan, acquiring lands and properties and burgeoning Chinese and IMF loans need immediate reconsideration by our new Government. As a matter of principle, Chinese or any other country’s investment must not add to Pakistan’s foreign loans and other formulae in vogue in many developing countries with respect to Foreign Direct Investment need to be explored instead. We must realize that, without vital CPEC and Gawadar deep sea port, Chinese BRI will be hamstrung; a strategic factor that should have been capitalized to Pakistan’s strategic advantage and not for adding another 50-60 billion dollars loan to its already unbearable loan list. US Secretary of State Pompeo pushing IMF not to bailout Pakistan unveils American unease as well as use of Bretton Woods System and use of IMF/World Bank for economic coercion of defiant countries.

Thus, any disproportionate investment in infra-structure development based on spending either national money or by taking foreign loans with obvious hefty kickback money must be investigated thoroughly with other mega corruption cases by new Government and plundered money must be recovered with harshest award of punishments to looter and plunderers as done by Malaysian Mahathir Muhammad, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman of KSA and by Chinese themselves. Pakistan as a state must take pride in its battle hardened brave armed forces, strategic deterrence, pro-active independent judiciary, well informed and much stimulated masses and ultra independent yet gradually maturing media. It is high time for prospective new Government in Pakistan to deeply and seriously review Pakistan’s strategic options, debate every major political and economic decision on the floor of both the houses of parliament, refine them through select committees including concerned technocrats, filter foreign and economic policy choices and strive for a prudent and far sighted way forward based on diversity, multi-polarity centered on security and economic well being of Pakistan and its citizens.

Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a retired senior Army officer with experience in International Relations, Defence and Warfare Studies, in Executive Management, Military & Intelligence Diplomacy, Strategic Analysis and Forecast. (

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