Anwar Altaqi – Esam Aziz
China has just sent an official request to the Iranian government to establish a connection between Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, which Chinese companies are developing, and Iran’s southeastern port of Chabahar.
Abdolrahim Kordi, managing director of Chabahar Free Trade Zone, was quoted as saying that China had informed Iran that it is interested in using Chabahar to transit goods from Gwadar to regional and extra-regional destinations. Kordi emphasized that there was no competition between Iran’s Chabahar and Pakistan’s Gwadar, stressing that the two could complement each other in terms of market access potentials.
But the truth is that the two countries are competing with each other. Each is trying to prove that it has a better port for the Chinese. All the while, China is following a completely different line of thinking. Beijing is creating the environment to compel other countries to knock on its door, making it irresistible to join China’s economic orbit. Political and geostrategic calculi underline the economic impetus,but are oblique at first.
But China’s strategic considerations eventually surface.
In 2000, Asia analyst Robert A. Manning presciently argued that the likelihood of future conflict over energy resources would increase as rising Asian giants such as China shifted away from an economic approach toward a strategic approach to energy security. Since then, as China’s energy consumption has expanded and its rise to power has become the dominant geopolitical issue of our time, Beijing’s energy security policy has become a major discussion topic.
The evidence that China has primarily chosen a politically driven and geostrategic (rather than economic) approach to energy security policy is based on two factors, one domestic and the other external. Firstly, the domestic structure of China’s political economy, especially in the energy sector, means that it relies heavily on state owned enterprises (SOEs) to achieve the country’s national economic objectives, namely securing foreign supplies of oil and refining oil products for domestic use. Within this state-dominated approach, commercial decisions take place within a framework designed to entrench the dominance of SOEs, and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence within these SOEs.
One upshot of this politicized approach to energy policy is that the role of market forces in determining supply, pricing, and distribution of energy resources throughout its economy is limited.
Secondly, Beijing pragmatically participates in international commodity markets, but simultaneously attempts to guard against supply and price disruptions. Unwilling to trust and rely on these markets to fulfill ongoing and future energy needs, subsequent attempts to hedge against risky developments in the international oil markets have pushed Beijing to pursue an economic nationalist, or, ‘‘China first,’’ agenda in many parts of the world. This is evident in Beijing’s offering extensive political and economic assistance to its SOEs in the search to own offshore oil assets in many sidelined or pariah states, or else conclude deals to lock up guaranteed supplies from offshore oil fields.
The “father of geostrategy,” the late Professor Nicholas John Spykman, invented the term “Rimland” at Yale University to express his conviction that geopolitics is the planning of the security policy of a country in terms of its geographical factors. He described the maritime fringe of a country or continent, in particular the densely populated western, southern, and eastern edges of the Eurasian continent. In his criticism to the theory of Halford John Mackinder, Spykman said that Mackinder had given the heartland of any country an exaggerated strategic importance. For Spykman, Rimland is more important than Heartland. He thought that the Rimland, the strip of coastal land that encircles Eurasia, is more important than the central Asian zone for the control of the Eurasian continent. Spykman succinctly said: Whoever controls the Rimland rules Eurasia, and whoever rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.
Now, China is proving that Spykman was right. Following China’s line of thinking, we see that it is seeking to change the geostrategic parameters of the existing game for influence in Asia, and this is where its second great itinerant tradition—through the old Silk Road—comes in.
Silk Road routes offer China the prospect of relief from reliance on sea-based energy imports leaving the Strait of Hormuz (22 miles wide and patrolled by the United States Fifth Fleet) and the Malacca Straits (1.6 miles wide and patrolled by the United States Seventh Fleet.) For example, there are pipelines linking Kazakhstan (with 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves) to Chinese refineries. There are gas pipelines stretching from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and ending in China. Just like the old Silk Road, plans to develop pipelines from the port of Gwadar in Pakistan have successfully negotiated “sovereign guarantees to the port’s facilities with Islamabad.” It is proposed that these pipelines would wind their way to Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province.
Some experts say the project of connecting Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and Iran’s southeastern port of Chabahar is vivid proof of Spykman’s theory. Others add that if central Asia experiences a new economic renaissance via energy resources, Beijing has plans to be the future hub between central Asian states and those in east and southeast Asia, just as states like Japan and Singapore traditionally existed as the key pillars of influence of a maritime-based Asia.
But what is evident so far is that China is busy creating the proper environment for its century. Once the soil is fertilized and watered, the fruits will be abundant.