Rows of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks were seen crossing the China-Russia border last week to participate in a joint military exercise. The good news is that China and Russia are not at war at this moment. But the rest of the world should still be concerned, because China is sending tanks, troops, and soon aircraft to take part in Russia’s Vostok 2018, which claims to be the largest military exercise since 1981, involving 300,000 troops and 1,000 aircraft in Russia’s Trans-Baikal region from Sept. 11-15.
President Trump says war games are expensive and unnecessary. But the world’s two top dictators beg to differ. This is the first time China has participated in a Russian military exercise. Given that the two nations fought several bitter border wars only several decades ago, this is unprecedented for both nations. China is especially hoping to gain valuable real-life combat experience from their Russian counterparts, because the PLA hasn’t been part of any major military conflict since the 1970s.
The world has sadly gotten used to Russia’s hegemony, but few are even prepared for the reality that China is emerging as a much more powerful force than Russia. China’s economy is almost 10 times the size of Russia’s economy. Measured by gross domestic product, the World Bank ranks China second, with $12.2 trillion, while Russia is 11th, with $1.5 trillion. China accomplished its economic great leap forward in merely three decades.
The Chinese government has long insisted that China’s rise to a world power is a peaceful process, yet under President Xi, China has increasingly leveraged its newly gained economic power to greatly expand its geopolitical influence, flex its military muscle, and expand the PLA presence overseas. Trump’s trade war and harsh rhetoric haven’t slowed China’s pace.
What China’s Been Up To Recently
In 2017, China set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti, a tiny African country that is strategically located at the entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal. Since China’s military base is only miles away from the U.S. military base, it gains the advantage of closely monitoring U.S. military activities.
China described the main function of its base as a logistics center for humanitarian purposes. But since its opening, U.S. pilots report being harassed by lasers near the Chinese military base. The laser harassment has become so bad that the Pentagon issued a notice warning aircraft about “unauthorized laser activity” in Djibouti.
The PLA’s presence in Djibouti provides valuable lessons on how to operate an overseas military base. China is quickly applying lessons learned to its next military adventure. The South China Morning Post reported recently that China’s PLA provided funding and is building a training camp in Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan region. The stated goal of the camp is to help train Afghan soldiers against “terrorists.” Despite denials from the governments of Afghanistan and China, however, Chinese soldiers are highly likely to remain stationed in the camp after it is built.
The camp seems to be located in the middle of nowhere, but China chose for it very strategic purposes. The site of the camp is on a path that extends to China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where about 11 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic minority, live.
Xinjiang plays an important role today in Xi’s “One Belt and One Road” project, a foreign policy initiative that consists of building infrastructure projects along the ancient route and its network of pathways throughout Asia, Europe and beyond. Xinjiang’s geographic location and the religious beliefs of its inhabitants (most are Muslims) make the atheist Chinese government uneasy.
Under Xi, China has quietly built out a vast surveillance network in Xinjiang, using tactics such as facial recognition cameras and passport control to limit the freedom of movement of its Muslim population. In the last two years, the Chinese government reportedly sent about 1 million Muslims into various internment camps in Xinjiang. Even the usually weak United Nations openly sounded the alarm recently about the massive incarceration of Uighurs. But the Chinese government denied any human rights violation, calling the internment camps “vocational training centers.”
Undeterred by international criticism, Beijing has now taken its crackdown across the border to neighboring countries. The training camp that is under construction in Afghanistan is just a first step, all in the name of “war on terror.” Many suspect that the training camp is a cover for a PLA military base. The location is chosen so PLA can easily prevent Muslim fighters and activists from infiltrating Xinjiang and stop Uighurs from unauthorized moves out of Xinjiang.
China Is Also Moving Into Pakistan
Besides Djibouti and Afghanistan, China is also reportedly in discussions with Pakistan to build a naval base near the Gwadar port. If the project proceeds, it will provide China with an alternative to the Strait of Malacca and better access to Southeast Asia and especially the Indian Ocean. This project is a centerpiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component of President Xi’s road initiative.
“CPEC is a 15-year investment program that aims to address energy shortages, build out Pakistan’s transportation network, develop a deep-water port at Gwadar, and eventually support Pakistan’s industrial development as a manufacturing hub within China’s growing sphere of influence,” James Schwemlein, a former diplomat, explains. “Since CPEC launched in 2013, Chinese firms have finalized $19 billion in investments in Pakistan.”
Chinese investments help stimulate Pakistan’s growth, but also put the country under a heavy debt burden. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates “debt service obligations to the Chinese state, banks, and firms are projected to grow gradually, peaking in 2025 at between about $3.4 billion and $4.5 billion.” Pakistan is in economic turmoil and seeking a bailout from the IMF. Although Chinese investments through the CPEC didn’t cause Pakistan’s economic problem, Pakistan’s debt obligation to China is likely to worsen Pakistan’s economic woes.
China’s military expansion in these three countries follows the same pattern: First, these countries are carefully chosen because of their geographic location and poor economic conditions; Second, China offers economic assistance such as providing badly need financing and technical know-how to build infrastructure projects; Third, when the targeted countries become economically dependent on Chinese money when they are unable to pay back Chinese loans, the Chinese government steps in to ask to build military bases or lease strategic ports as part of the loan payment plan. Some countries are highly critical of such moves, calling them “debt-trap diplomacy.”
Not Every Poor Country Is This Stupid
A few nations have already wised up. Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, cancelled two China-financed infrastructure projects recently (both part of China’s road initiative) by stating that his country couldn’t afford these expensive projects and they were not necessary right now. But Malaysia is in the minority. More countries, especially those run by despots, are only too happy to take China’s money.
We can almost be certain that China’s oversea military expansion won’t stop at Djibouti, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. There will be more. As Frank King, a journalist and China observer, explains: “In its imagined world, the realization of Xi’s Chinese Dream will place China once again at the center of the world, after a couple of centuries of being disrupted by Western imperialism. In the Chinese imagination, this is not subjugation of neighbors but simply restoration of the normal order.”
Chinese leaders are patient, methodical, and relentless. They won’t stop until they accomplish their strategic goal. The rest of the world, including the United States, is too slow to realize this and grossly underprepared to deal with it.