BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The second Age of Empires is upon us, friends. Gone are the heady days of the ideological conflicts of the twentieth centuries, when democratic capitalism fought against totalitarian communism. The great American unipolar moment has also faded in the distance, as American strategists attempt to re-learn all of that which was forgotten in the previous phases of international conflict: how to survive–and prosper–in a multipolar world. Because of America’s steep learning curve (and the fact that it overextended itself trying to force the world to comport with its unipolar fantasies–even as it negated funding its greatest strength: economic and technological development at home), the rising great powers of the world today are taking advantage of the United States wherever–and whenever–they can.
Now, today, China spreads its grip throughout the world with the Eurasian-wide Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). Because of their dreams of Eurasian domination, the Chinese have expanded out into their traditional Asian sphere of influence, but they are also marching into major ports ranging from Gwadar in southern Pakistan, to Djibouti in Ethiopia (not far down the road from America’s largest drone base in Africa), Sri Lanka, and more menacingly, into the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Adriatic Sea. That’s right, for the first time in history the new Chinese empire will have a firm–and growing–presence in the heart of the traditional Western world. Presently, the Chinese are developing the port of Piraeus, and the Chinese are pushing heavily for control over the port in Trieste.
Look at a map. What’s the first thing that you notice about China’s moves, both with the BRI throughout Eurasia, but also with their moves at sea?
The Chinese are emulating that which the old European colonial empires did: they are building their military bases abroad along areas where important trade is conducted. Control over Sri Lanka’s port and Gwadar in Pakistan allow China access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It also forces the Sri Lankan and Pakistani governments to hew much closer to Beijing’s worldview. In the case of the latter, this is a sensible option, especially considering Pakistan’s antipathy toward their Indian neighbors (which, China shares also) and Pakistan’s souring relationship with the United States over the issue of the War in Afghanistan specifically, but the overall poorly named “Global War on Terror” as well. Buddying up to China, then, serves Pakistani interests well. As for Sri Lanka, they have a tenuous political situation and doing increased business with China helps to stabilize their economy which, in turn, allows for the political and social unrest to be curbed.
I’ve written previously about the failure of the Obama era “Asia Pivot.” I warned in 2016 how former President Obama’s abandonment of that initiative–coupled with his constant public pronouncements supporting it (even after it was no longer feasible)–would provoke a severe response from the Chinese. No one listened. It has provoked the Chinese. Add on the Trump era tariffs–or, at the very least, the threat of them–and you’ve got China’s swing to the west (NOTE: I applaud President Trump for being the first U.S. president in the modern era to take on the decades-old Chinese practice of forced technology transfers, illegal dumping of goods onto the American market, and the pernicious offshoring of jobs from middle America into China, but the German model of non-tariff trade barriers might have been the better course to take).
Unlike the United States, which has become obsessed with squandering its wealth, young people, and time in the wastelands of Middle East politics, the Chinese have very carefully married ends-ways-means with their actions globally. The result: China is building an empire that could potentially dominate the wealthiest, most populous part of the world. The United States, meanwhile, appears to be a spent force in relative–if not terminal–decline. Yes, our people are more productive and do enjoy a relatively higher standard of living compared to the Chinese (for now). But, our debt load; our federal government’s excessive spending; America’s inability to concentrate on foreign policy strategy; and the completely backward political reality in Washington, D.C. means that America’s leaders are masters of both self-destruction and rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The port of Piraeus has a storied history. Serving originally as a key port for ancient Athens in the Mediterranean Sea, by 2014, the port was named as Europe’s busiest seaport. According to Lloyd’s of London, in 2015, Piraeus ranked eighth out of the top 100 shipping ports in all of Europe, third of the top 100 for the Mediterranean Sea. These numbers are only growing, by the way. That same year, it was reported that Piraeus handled approximately 3.32 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) shipping containers, one of the largest volumes in the world. The state-owned China Ocean Shipping Group Company leased half of this valuable port in 2009 for 35 years.
The Chinese view Piraeus as the western end of their BRI, which will allow for China’s influence to expand greatly beyond its own borders. From Piraeus, Chinese influence and access to the Mediterranean will be assured. Remember, in 2015 the Mediterranean was the site of China’s farthest naval exercise–a joint exercise between the Russian and Chinese navies known as Joint Sea 2015. This not only allowed for China to “show the flag” in a new part of the world, but its massive investment into Piraeus will also allow for China to fulfill its desire to link its international power up with the Mediterranean, as well as with the geostrategically vital Arabian Gulf region.
For China, this is also all about energy. If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to maintain its monopoly of power, it must continue to generate opportunity and prosperity for the Chinese people. In order for that to occur, the Chinese need relatively easy and cheap access to abundant sources of energy. This, more than anything, explains China’s foreign policy–ranging from their brinksmanship in the South China Sea, to their “colonization” of Africa, to their presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. You see, not only does the Med allow for linkages between the energy-rich Black Sea region and the Arabian Gulf area, but the Eastern Mediterranean itself is becoming a hotbed of energy–specifically natural gas–development.
Plus, China, along with Russia and Iran, has a budding relationship with NATO partner, Turkey. Increasing their physical presence and economic linkages with the Eastern Mediterranean, helps to solidify this newfound partnership. Remember, in 2010, the Chinese and Turkish air forces conducted joint training operations in central Turkey. As they did with Russia more recently, a few years back, the Turks decided to purchase air defense systems from China (that are not entirely compatible with the American-based defensive systems that NATO is required to purchase).
From the Mediterranean, then, China intends to make closer–more peaceful–linkages with the Muslim (specifically, the Turkic) world, since they have a large (and growing) Muslim population in the restive western regions of China. Beijing has a rather cynical plan to invigorate their usually-lagging inland, western regions with the BRI, so as to offer similar opportunities and prosperity to the disenfranchised western Chinese citizens that their countrymen in the east coast metropolises have long enjoyed. At the same time, Beijing seeks more positive relations with countries like Turkey (as well as the Central Asian and Middle East Muslim states) to prevent these Muslim-majority countries from becoming bastions for anti-Chinese sentiment throughout western China.
Make no mistake: as time progresses, the commercial presence of China in Piraeus will likely expand to include an overt military presence for China–particularly as China’s interests in the Middle East, North Africa, and with Turkey expand.
Trieste and the Five Ports Alliance
China’s ultimate goal is to link the capital-rich region of Northern Europe–specifically Germany–with its exports. But, the immediate concern is for China to solidify its vice-grip on the Mediterranean-Adriatic-Gulf trading zone, say analysts at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for China-American Studies. Thus, the Italian port of Trieste is a vital component for the proverbial machine that is the Belt-and-Road Initiative. Last May, the Chinese inked a deal with the Italian government to massively invest in Trieste (and the five ports which also include the Italian ports in Ravenna and Venice, but also include the Slovenian port of Capodistria and Fiume in Croatia).
According to HSBC Global:
“The final destination for many of these Chinese-made goods is northern Europe, and they will travel there via Germany and Switzerland after being unloaded at the Adriatic ports. Mediterranean, Balkan and Central European countries have been more eager than Northern Europe to obtain Chinese investment. But even if they were competing with, say, Hamburg for Chinese capital, the Adriatic ports are well-located for China’s Belt and Road effort. Along with Piraeus, the Five Port Alliance serves as China’s strategic logistical hub that links the Maritime Silk ‘Road’ from East Asia through the Middle East, East Africa, and the Red Sea to Europe.”
The BRI, while still growing, is the greatest long-term strategic threat that the United States faces. It has the capacity to utterly displace the United States from its dominant positions in key regions of the world, not only in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, but also in Europe. In fact, it already is. Presently, Italy is China’s 15th trading partner in the world and their fourth largest trading partner in Europe. With all of the dislocations occurring throughout the Europe, thanks to the failure of the European economic project, countries–particularly those of the massively indebted Southern Europe–are looking for new ways to both distance themselves from the northern Europeans, but to also expand their own power and influence globally. Getting closer with China by becoming pivotal conduits for Chinese influence into Europe is a great way to accomplish this.
Further, in an interview with Chinese state-run Xinhua News 2017, the chief economist at Italian export credit agency SACE, Alessandro Terzulli, claimed that the five port cities have formed the North Adriatic Port Association (NAPA), and are working on the construction of a $2.44 billion offshore platform off Venice with the capacity to receive large cargo ships coming from the Suez Canal. According to Terzulli, “While the immediate effects of the Belt and Road Initiative will be on the logistical and ports sector — in which 160,000 Italian companies worth an estimated 220 billion euros operate – it will inevitably have a cascade effect on other types of businesses such as shipbuilding, construction, and transportation manufacturing.”
Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro envisions his city as being the “lagoon city” of the Belt-and-Road Initiative in Europe. And, where the BRI trade goes, the Chinese military and diplomatic influence will soon follow. The United States is entirely unprepared for this reality–and it is doing very little to counter the growing Chinese-Eurasian empire.
Toward a Chinese Century?
For the record, most analysts believe that the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative is worth 30 percent of global GDP, covers 38.5 percent of the world and involves 62.3 percent of its population. Meanwhile, the United States influence globally is on the wane; our military is overstretched; and even our technological innovation–traditionally, America’s silver bullet in world affairs–is being upended by China. In his history of “The Age of Empires: 1875-1914,” Eric Hobsbawm detailed how the upstart German Empire rose to fundamentally challenge the ailing British Empire at every turn during that period. Ultimately, the rise of Germany and how to deal with it, underpinned the First World War–which most believe to have been one of the greatest manmade disasters in history.
At some point, the longer these Chinese moves go unanswered, we will have reached the point of no return. Barring a major catastrophe from within China itself (like political revolution or a collapse of the economic order there), the 21st century will increasingly become a Chinese century–and there will be very little that the United States can do to prevent that…unless we begin acting boldly to counter China’s rise today. So far, we’ve not done that.