China Is Building The Most Extensive Global Commercial-Military Empire In History

dJune 9, 2015

Quartz(Reuters/Stringer)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the sun famously never set on the British empire. A commanding navy enforced its will, yet all would have been lost if it were not for ports, roads, and railroads. The infrastructure that the British built everywhere they went embedded and enabled their power like bones and veins in a body.

Great nations have done this since Rome paved 55,000 miles (89,000 km) of roads and aqueducts in Europe. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia and the United States established their own imprint, skewering and taming nearby territories with projects like the Trans-Siberian and the Trans-Continental railways.

Now it’s the turn of the Chinese. Much has been made of Beijing’s “resource grab” in Africa and elsewhere, its construction of militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea and, most recently, its new strategy to project naval power broadly in the open seas.

Yet these profiles of an allegedly grasping and treacherous China tend to consider its ambitions in disconnected pieces. What these pieces add up to is a whole latticework of infrastructure materializing around the world. Combined with the ambitious activities of Chinese companies, they are quickly growing into history’s most extensive global commercial empire.

China views almost no place as uncontested. Chinese-financed and -built dams, roads, railroads, natural gas pipelines, ports, and airports are either in place or will be from Samoa to Rio de Janeiro, St. Petersburg to Jakarta, Mombasa to Vanuatu, and from the Arctic to Antarctica. Many are built in service of current and prospective mines, oilfields, and other businesses back to China, and at times to markets abroad.

But while this grand picture suggests a deliberate plan devised in Beijing, it also reflects an unbridled commercial frenzy. Chinese companies are venturing out and doing deals lacking any particular order. Mostly, they’re interested in finding growth abroad that is proving difficult to manage at home. This, too, is typical for a fast-growing power.

“This is very much in line with what we would expect from other great powers whose military posture follows its economic and diplomatic footprint,” Lyle Morris, a China specialist with Rand, told Quartz.

Below are snapshots of components that are either already in place or on the way

The story starts with a reimagined Silk Road …

Map showing the planned Maritime Silk Road route and Silk Road Economic Belt.
Map 1. The Silk Road economic belt and its maritime counterpart.(Reuters)

In September 2013, newly anointed Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. He was in town to seal the Chinese purchase of a $5 billion stake in Kashagan, one of the world’s largest oilfields. On that trip, he unveiled a plan ultimately dubbed “One Belt, One Road”—a land-and-sea version of the fabled East-West Silk Road trading route.

The idea is audacious in scope.

(Map 2. The Kunming-Singapore rail link. Classical Geographer/Wikimedia Commons)

On land, Beijing has in mind a high-speed rail network (map 2). It will start in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and connect with Laos and on into Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Another overland network of roads, rail and energy pipelines will begin in Xi’an in central China and head west as far as Belgium (see dotted brown line above). As we’ve written previously, Beijing has already initiated an 8,011-mile cargo rail route between the Chinese city of Yiwu and Madrid, Spain. Finally, another 1,125-mile-long bullet train will start in Kashgar and punch south through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadur. The thinking behind this rail-driven plan isn’t new–as we have written previously, Beijing has been piecing it together for awhile.

At sea, a companion 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (see dotted blue line in map 1) would connect the South China Sea, and the Indian and South Pacific oceans. China would begin to protect its own sea lanes as well. On May 26 it disclosed a strategy for expanding its navy into a fleet that not only hugs its own shores, but can wander the open ocean.

China does not need to build all of these thousands of miles of railroads and other facilities. Much of the infrastructure already exists; where it does, the trick is to link it all together. 

Everywhere, new public works will be required. And to make its vision materialize, Beijing must be careful to be seen as generously sharing the big engineering and construction projects. Up to now, such contracts have been treated as rare, big profit opportunities for state-owned Chinese industrial units. These include the China Railway Group, whose already-inflated share prices have often gone up each time another piece of the overseas empire has fallen into place. If local infrastructure companies are excluded from the largesse, there will be push-back on almost every continent.

More at Quartz

Disclaimer: This article was not written by Silent Soldier.

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