By Matthew Johnson
China is redrawing the global security map beyond Asia-Pacific. This article, the first in a four-part series, examines the background of China’s geopolitical restructuring efforts and how they have unfolded within the context of relations with a critical security partner, Bangladesh.
Part One: China’s Global Security Agenda Moves West
China’s power in the Asia-Pacific is growing according to assessments of military strength. Independent analysts predict that the country is already close to becoming an Asian superpower on par with the United States. A new wave of involvement in overseas port acquisition and construction has pointed to the possibility of basing rights and power projection as far as Africa. These more recent developments raise crucial questions: has China’s security concept already reached a post-Asia-Pacific stage?
If so, what are the consequences for other regions where Beijing’s overseas ambitions come up against preexisting regional balance-of-power dynamics and security frameworks? This article looks at how and why China’s strategic vision has shifted westward, and how traditional security and risk management concerns are driving efforts to link continental states beyond the immediate periphery – focusing first on Bangladesh – with an existing cluster of interests and influence in Southeast Asia.
China’s ‘New Asian’ Security Concept: Challenging a U.S centric order
The immediate objectives of its Asia-Pacific security engagement are to outflank the U.S.-led alliance system in the Western Pacific and create an alternative concentration of power through the integration of Asian states. Beijing’s actions reflect its growing potential for challenging the status quo and offer an alternative to the preexisting security realm in the region and beyond. Xi Jinping first proposed a ‘new Asian security concept’ in 2014 at the Fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Shanghai. State media commentary, while not mentioning the U.S. directly, criticised the region’s ‘Cold War security structure’ as an ‘Achilles heel’.
Xi’s announcement followed more than a decade of increasingly China-centered institution-building within the wider Asian region. This began with the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (1999) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (2001). The Beijing Xiangshan Forum (2006) further set a new stage for this agenda. China has moved from ‘participant’ and ‘good neighbour’ to multilateral coalition-builder in the security domain. It seeks to create exclusive new mechanisms for cooperation such as the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 adopted in 2018.
China’s leaders have also repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with both the U.S.-led alliance system and more narrowly constructed frameworks tied to specific Asian sub-regions. Xi has remarked on the ‘Asian community of common destiny’ and China’s central role in regional development, exemplified by the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan. He further describes Asia as a grouping of states with common interests, a formulation with broader implications for which countries belong, who makes the rules, and who ensures peace. China has since used the ‘Asian community’ concept as a guiding vision for participation in regional mechanisms. An example is the Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Forum, whose goals include regional peace and stability.
A 2016 paper, China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation, signalled China’s intent to gain wider international recognition for the cause of building a new model of international relations. This initiative would consist of improving existing multilateral mechanisms, building new regional security structures, and providing more public security resources to the Asia-Pacific region. At the inaugural Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations 2019, Xi advanced an Asia-centered manifesto for civilizational equality. It was interpreted mainly as criticising the role of the U.S. as a legitimate partner for Asian countries.
Marching West: From regional to global security actor
The conventional analysis says that within Asia, China’s resources are primarily deployed to safeguard frontiers while expanding control over the East China Sea, South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. During the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, defence minister Wei Fenghe devoted a significant portion of his speech to the Asia-Pacific, while engaging in pointed rebuttals of U.S. policy regarding the SCS and Taiwan. As a result, media coverage and other analysis honed in on U.S.-China tensions, rather than the scope of Wei’s message, which also covered growing security ties with South Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as international cooperation under OBOR.
While China’s defence priority may be the Asia-Pacific, its security strategy is broader. The government’s most recent military white paper, China’s National Strategy (2015), listed a vital security task for the armed forces as ‘participat[ing] in regional and international security cooperation and maintain[ing] regional and world peace’. References to maritime security, in particular the shift in defence capabilities from ‘offshore waters defence’ to ‘open seas protection,’ as well as to newer domains of outer space and cyberspace, signaled a global strategic orientation that reflected both technological change and new requirements associated with China’s increasingly far-flung energy and commercial interests.
Shifting from a regional to a global orientation requires intermediate steps. The OBOR plan seems to extend into all regions and domains but is focused primarily on Eurasia and Africa. ‘March West’ (西进) – a phrase coined by Wang Jisi – describes the current stage in China’s strategic evolution. The march West geostrategy argues that the CCP’s ‘Great Western Opening’ (西部大开发计划)policy has already marked a shift. It moved from the stasis of great power rivalry in the Asia-Pacific to a more dynamic strategy suited to a developmental stage. With this, China’s core objectives were to secure reliable sources of energy and access to other economic resources. In subsequent talks and articles, Wang extended this policy exposition to describe central Eurasia as China’s ‘great frontier’ connecting outward to South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
While these are not the authoritative words of a policymaker, evidence such as the OBOR plan suggests that China’s ‘March West’ strategy is being carried out. Xi Jinping has sought to increase the closeness of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by focusing on regional security and stabilisation of Afghanistan. Port projects in the Indo-Pacific suggest intentions to create political leverage, build military presence, and reshape the strategic environment. While officially eschewing alliances, China has also expressed willingness to ‘work with all countries’ in exploring a new security architecture – not just through institutions in which it already has a significant say, but also by creating new transregional security arrangements that are embedding China’s national interests in settings well beyond the immediate western periphery.
Bangladesh: Integrating Southern Asia with Southwest China
Bangladesh and the adjacent Bay of Bengal represent the next zone of expansion beyond China’s existing sphere of influence on the Southeast Asia peninsula. Security is the backbone of China-Bangladesh relations. Since 2002, China is the only country with which Bangladesh has signed a defence agreement. China is Bangladesh’s largest arms supplier while Bangladesh is China’s second-largest military customer, with a list of purchases including submarines, frigates, missile boats, tanks, jets, and weapons systems. The two countries also engage in joint officer training. Economically, China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner and a vital component of its bid to ‘look East’ and reduce dependence on India. Bangladesh also seeks to increase maritime security and protect its naval economy from threats posed by piracy and transnational criminal organisations.
For China, a closer relationship with Bangladesh represents an essential check on India’s power in the Indo-Pacific. Greater control over the Bay of Bengal would allow China more easily project power into strategically important South Asia and contiguous maritime spaces. In neighbouring Myanmar, joint China-Myanmar construction of a deepwater port at Kyaukphyu is already underway despite earlier stalled negotiations concerning scale and funding. China is likewise engaged in converting Bangladesh’s port at Chittagong to a dual-use commercial-military facility that would potentially serve the navies of both countries – China has sent fleets to Chittagong in 2016 and 2017.
Through economic and transport deals, Beijing appears to be further seeking consolidation of a strategic position astride India’s easternmost provinces, also bolstered by attempts to woo Bhutan and Nepal from New Delhi’s orbit. The cross-border China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, which runs from Kyaukphyu to Kunming, highlights the added significance of the Bay of Bengal as a transport region for energy imports. Bypassing the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, an overland connection between Malaysia and Yunnan would secure one source of energy and trade from potential bottlenecks, with the Bay of Bengal part of a principal maritime ‘middle ring’ buffer zone.
In a manner typical of other OBOR corridor initiatives, China also seeks to involve Bangladesh in broader connectivity efforts which could redraw the regional configuration of Southeast Asia and displace existing institutions, which previously included the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Integration. Both road and rail plans exist for connecting Bangladesh to China’s southwestern city of Kunming via Myanmar. The China-South Asia Cooperation Forum, also launched in Kunming in September 2018, seeks to link countries in southern Asia through another regional initiative which complements the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Forum and China-ASEAN strategic partnership.
In geospatial terms, cities in China like Kunming and Chongqing – promoted as a finance link to Singapore – serve as central nodes in a fast-growing regional trade connectivity network encompassing Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia, meaning that Bangladesh could thus ultimately represent the western edge of a broader cluster of China’s commercial and investment interests. The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor, currently on the agenda of upcoming China-South Asia Cooperation Forum discussions, suggests Bangladesh itself could become an economic gateway for China into India.
Military and other security dimensions of this new configuration are taking shape as well. In addition to Chittagong and Kyaukpyu, China’s ownership of a 99-year lease to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port has strategic implications for the balance of power in the Indian Ocean should these facilities become militarised. Myanmar is China’s fourth-largest arms customer, while Thailand’s military represents another long-term client. Persistent rumours continue to circle concerning China’s efforts to build base(s) in Cambodia.
Informally, Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea has been paralleled by strengthening of military patron-client networks in the heart of Southeast Asia while establishing a maritime presence through ports and naval operations in the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean – prompting India to open a third military facility in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Analysts in China describe the Bay of Bengal as the western boundary of the Southeast Asia region, and thus a significant component of acknowledged U.S.-China rivalry in the area. Connecting increasingly China-dependent western Southeast Asia with the Indo-Pacific arc, Bangladesh is key to its strategic efforts to reconfigure the ‘global South’ in the military as well as economic terms.
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