Sarfraz Ahmed Rana
CHINESE Maritime tradition evidently can be traced back through the historically well-known voyages of eminently revered fleet admiral Zheng He, under the Ming Dynasty in the early fifteenth century. The outreach and the scope of the Zheng He’s unprecedented fleet was as far as it vessel through over 100,000 of largely immense water bodies across Southeast Asia, India, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, generally sought to attain his geopolitical ambitions through diplomacy and soft power. In today’s China, maritime collective memory of Zheng He’s popular maritime journeys considers being great historical asset for China and gives a purpose to the leadership group of China to revive and advance its maritime strength and capabilities in order to translate China’s dream of great rejuvenation into reality. Until recently, however, for realizing the significance of Chinese Dream of great rejuvenation for the Chinese nation, the maritime legacy of Zheng He’s era has been precisely revived by the idea of modernizing China’s People’s Liberation Army and Navy (PLAN) and new strategic thinking taking over under an exceptionally ambitious command of chairman Xi Jinping.
Until the late 1980s, unlike the modern blue water maritime naval force, PLA Navy largely was a brown water-defensive navy having obsolete maritime capabilities to navigate merely within its immediate coastal waters. But Chinese economic restoration under Dengist era since 1978 lend Beijing a huge quantum leap over the brief period of time to incrementally augment its maritime capabilities to harbor expeditiously burgeoning economic and geostrategic interests not only in the ‘Near Seas’ but also to capitalize ‘Far Seas’ interests in its maritime struggle. Ever since President Xi who is set to rule China indefinitely came into power in 2012, envisages the predominant role of maritime strength in geopolitical competition in contemporary geopolitics. Keeping the fact as a top policy preference, China constituted a considerable growth in Chinese naval power in the range of maritime spaces demonstrating through more assertiveness in the sovereignty claims in the most hotly contested South China Sea. Similarly China developed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and other equipment on islands it built in South China Sea flaring alarm among rival claimants and the United States.
Amidst Donald Trump’s Populist impulses, US strategic attention become involved in bullying its relatively strong network of partners creates strategic ambiguity. China meanwhile takes the main beneficiary of Trump era, seems to be succeeding to implement its plans successfully by establishing a sphere of influence in its southern coast of South China Sea which serves China a great source of national pride. In April this year, the strategic waters of South China Sea hosted through the unprecedented naval show of power with Xi having the chief guest attended the massive naval power display. This significant show of force was conspicuously meant to signal that any provocation in the South China Sea by the United States and its allies in the region could have led to outright conflict. US Secretary of State Rex Tiller soon after he gets his confirmation as a Secretary announced calling “Beijing’s access to islands in South China Sea is not going to be allowed”. The state-run China Daily right away warned such an attempt of serious consequence. President Xi, however to reckon the role of People’s Liberation Army and Navy in modern times urged “the need for a strong China’s navy had “never been more pressing”. The notion of strong PLAN has led to an upward trend in the military expenditure that has lasted more than two decades. For instance, China emerges to be the second largest defence spender globally amounting $17 billion in 1990 to $175 billion in 2018. Over the past 20 years, the gradual gain in China’s military prowess such as setting up the first overseas military base in Djibouti more yet to come, launching the relatively advanced Liaoning and Type 001A aircraft carriers with systematic combat capability and third aircraft carrier under construction increases the security competition in Asia-Pacific region.
At the face of creeping US sphere of influence, China’s maritime outreach goes global adding up by more maritime manoeuvres as Chinese state owned enterprises currently run at least 76 ports and terminals out of 34 countries spanning from Europe to Asia even in some countries Chinese investment in ports has been followed by high profile visits from Chinese Naval vessels indicates Chinese evolving global maritime role as great power. Moreover, Xi’s grandiose Belt and Road Initiative confers the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, extending from China’s own coastlines through Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the east coast of Africa, and up through the Mediterranean to Greece appears to be another up and coming factor which further leveraging Chinese competitive maritime agenda which would allow China to bolster and connect the world through shared economic growth, peace and prosperity. In a recent Australian government report estimates that by 2030, the Chinese economy will be worth $42 trillion versus $24 trillion for the United States carries China to afford the luxury of making longer term strategic investments in maritime spectrum. Nonetheless, there are little compelling evidences that Beijing’s unavoidable bid for the maritime endeavour is in danger of being reversed. In the second decade of twenty first century, the rise of Chinese military might as well as maritime strength helped China to challenge the exclusive US hegemonic control over Asia-Pacific and also to change the balance of power worldwide.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.