Only by appreciating the larger picture can we assess whether the promise of an autonomous Chinese port (in Mauritius) has been bartered off at fair value, given its strategic importance to China
Is there any connection between the Namibian port on the south-west coast of Africa and the putative Chinese mega-investment project around Riche-Terre on several hundred acres of land which never took off the ground? Quite possibly none, but with the benefit of hindsight, and a sprinkling of geo-strategic considerations, there might just be a little more than meets the eye.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has undoubtedly the status and privileges of a tier-one superpower, that is a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council with right of veto and the considerable leeway this confers to consider that its geo-strategic interests may at times override or conflict with international norms and laws. Much as the US, Europe, the Soviet Union or Russia have done over decades if not centuries.
Today’s global powers, in a far more complex, intricately woven, multi-polar environment than thirty years ago, will continue to consider their strategic interests paramount to other factors when they engage in global pursuits, either competitive for energy, fuels, commodities and the planet’s natural resources or, at times, cooperative for international security, anti-piracy or anti-terrorism.
Learning when, where and how to compete, arbitrate and cooperate governs the established superpower order. Regional and sub-regional powers like Brazil, Australia, Japan, India or South Africa can only promote their own strategic interests within a framework drawn up or dictated by the tier-one superpowers.
In this multi-polar set-up, over the past twenty years or so, having astutely positioned itself as the world’s factory for mass-production of anything under the sun, everybody recognises that the PRC has undoubtedly emerged as the shrewdest player, benefiting from its authoritarian political regime combined with capitalistic State-owned enterprises (SOE) that have grown gigantic and private enterprise that can only flourish through state sanction and close scrutiny. Its massive levels of accumulated reserves, treasury bonds, gold and cash place it altogether on another footing, far outweighing, in foreign investment capacity, the only comparable economic superpower, the USA and it is widely reckoned that the PRC is set to overtake the latter within the next ten years.
Five years ago, it could probably have bought off the totality of the Greek national debt against Greek ports, airports and large chunks of the country itself, without making a significant dent in its financial reserves! Its financial investment promises at the latest Sino-Africa summit, despite talks of Chinese growth sluggishness, make combined European and US efforts pale in comparison.
Such a massive financial fire-power is underpinned by a ruling Politburo that is unencumbered by democratic processes and changes, that can plan over thirty or fifty-year horizons, that can marshal enormous resources to meet the PRC’s obvious need to secure strategic commodities, fossil fuels and raw materials. And tier-one status confers on China a strong and often undisputed clout, an institutional legitimacy, a sympathetic ear at the UN as a non-former colonial power and the consistent operational ability to place its geo-strategic and its perceived national security interests above all else.
The PRC’s Foreign Policy seems to operate by “spheres”.
On the first sphere, the internal security front, it can displace entire populations, engulf and deculturise Tibet or Mongolia, curtail freedoms of the press or its own ethnic minorities and whip up nationalistic fervour against foreign misgivings through well-articulated disinformation campaigns.
In the second sphere of its “immediate periphery”, more particularly in the South China seas, the PRC is not averse to bullying its neighbours (Japan, Philippines, Viernam…) and the USA Pacific Fleet by claiming hazy legal rights to a huge chunk of international marine waters where naval eyeball to eyeball confrontations and arraignment of fishing vessels by the PRC has been a regular occurrence.
Eventually, the Filipino government brought the matter to the Permanent Maritime Tribunal in the Hague, which on Tuesday 12th July gave a historic verdict, condemning in unequivocal terms the PRC’s claims of sovereignty over the international seas. Unsurprisingly, China, despite being a signatory to the UN Tribunal’s charter, has declared that it does not accept the Tribunal’s verdict and will pursue its South China Seas operations and sovereignty claims. Nobody quite knows at this stage how this will pan out against countries (Japan, Philippines for instance) which have a defence agreement with the US and the challenge to the presence of a strong detachment of the US Pacific Fleet in the region.
The third sphere is far more outgoing and is a testimony of China’s new-found dependance on naval capabilities far beyond its shores as it covers distant countries, ports and sea-lanes which impact China’s strategic resource security. Millennia of focus on its vast lands and territorial integrity have yielded priority to the wider oceans. As an emerging global player, China needs not only to keep its immediate neighbours in check but to project itself onto the Blue seas, test its naval readiness and flex its military muscles abroad to support its state-owned enterprises, its massive investments, its diaspora and its interests in African environments China was unused to.
This is where the Indian Ocean has burst onto the PRC’s national defence strategy a few years ago. If the wide waters of the Pacific can comfortably channel China’s exports, Africa, the volatile Middle East and trade routes through the Indian Ocean control a huge percentage of strategic Chinese imports and also predictable future exports to emerging price-sensitive markets. Their security, from a Chinese perspective, cannot rely on the West at Diego Garcia, Australia, Reunion or Djibouti or on other Indian Ocean rim regional powers which have their own agenda.
So, despite not being an Indian Ocean rim nation, China’s naval flotillas, nuclear or conventional submarines and frigates regularly criss-cross the Indian Ocean, berthing at friendly ports for refuelling, projection of naval power or protecting local governments where Chinese investments are enormous. China and Djibouti have recently signed agreement to the first Chinese overseas major military and naval base next to American and French ones. All East African (Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania) or Indian Ocean (Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Maldives) ports being massively funded by China, obey the same double strategic imperative: (i) cargo, sea-lane and trade security, and (ii) furtherance and projection of naval power and muscles in the third sphere, both under the sweet if rather deceptive acronym of a new Maritime Silk Road.
Former President Hu Jintao’s policy of five large special economic zones across the African continent (of which one was to be in Tianli, later Jin Fei as confirmed on a State visit in 2009) has been subtly superseded or complemented by President Xi’s policy that massive Chinese investments in Africa require maritime security as much as China’s global clout needs an ability to flex its naval and military muscles way beyond its traditional shores. And, in effect, the Chinese Foreign Minister confirmed on a visit here earlier this year President Xi’s official invitation for Mauritius to join and be part of China’s Maritime Silk Road. As Mauritius offers no hinterland of mineral resources to tap and China most certainly does not need us to penetrate Africa, whatever the pep-talk, this can only mean granting China the ability to fund, operate and manage a port, nominally and ostensibly for fishing development, but, in effect, to Chinese strategists, for comforting their military and naval presence in the strategic Indian Ocean.
We can now perhaps better understand why the Jin Fei project, conceptualised in 2007, blessed by former President Hu in 2009, never really took off as the Chinese politburo dismissed Hu and reviewed its global African and Indian Ocean strategy.
Following the announced Djibouti naval base, hushed news have it that Namibia has signed a similar naval and military base agreement with the PRC at Walvis Bay (a former British, German and South African base), offering China a comfortable maritime security and naval presence around the Cape and onto the southern Atlantic, an impressive first foray onto the unknown Blue for China.
And this is where the link up with our original question could crop up. Walvis Bay is much further away from Chinese shores than South East Asia or even the Gulf, Aden and Djibouti, where convenient naval and cargo stopovers at Maldives or Sri Lanka dot the way. From and to Walvis Bay, Chinese naval flotillas can use either the longer Mozambique Channel, passing north of Madagascar, with high piracy risks off the East African, Comoros or Malagasy coasts. An autonomous Chinese run and operated port at Mauritius, without doubt, presents a coveted, much safer, shorter and far more profitable alternative to PRC’s geo-strategists.
It is perhaps symptomatic that the fallow Jin Fei lands that had seen little or no development over several years, were so easily and quickly bartered back to Mauritius by Chinese authorities. Clearly they had obtained a far more attractive prize: an autonomous naval berthing, surveillance and refuelling port on the maritime road to southern Africa, Namibia and the Atlantic, a launch-pad for testing Chinese ambitions on the wider fourth sphere of influence: that of a real fast-emerging superpower competing and cooperating as necessary with the only other planetary superpower, the USA.
As this is not a China-bashing piece, our purpose here is to underline why as a tiny nation with vast territorial waters, strategically situated in the middle of an important maritime area, where superpowers and regional powers, most of which are our traditional allies, have confluent and contradictory strategic interests, we have to play our cards, negotiate or barter astutely in the larger games being played out.
Only by appreciating the larger picture can we assess whether the promise of an autonomous Chinese port has been bartered off at fair value, given its strategic importance to the PRC, or whether we are, not in precipitate action on one side, causing more than unease in other friendly quarters, most notably France, USA and India. Have we lost some warmth in headquarters and strategic think-tanks of our other allies?
* Published in print edition on 15 July 2016