When we look at aggressive Chinese actions, we tend to see them in terms of the South China Sea, and the first island chain. That is, in the far reaches of the western Pacific Ocean.
Writing at The Diplomat, David Brewster takes a look at Chinese efforts to extend their influence not to their east, but rather to the west, in the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal.
Since late 2013, Beijing has been promoting its “Maritime Silk Route” (MSR) initiative as a proposed oceanic complement to its various overland “Silk Route” projects. Details remain sketchy, but the proposal appears to envisage a system of linked ports, infrastructure projects and special economic zones in Southeast Asia and the northern Indian Ocean. While much of the public discussion to date has focused on ports and infrastructure, probably of greater significance is the development of new production and distribution chains across the region, with China at its center. The concept might be seen as akin to Japan’s “flying geese” strategy of the 1970s when Japanese companies outsourced component production to successive tiers of lower-cost states in Southeast Asia.
This actually makes a fair amount of sense, and while the Chinese might resort to bullying and aggressive behavior, it isn’t necessarily so.
China’s massive economic growth in the last 40 years was largely financed by selling very cheap goods to America. Not solely, but largely. But that is changing. First, the market is saturated, with poor prospects for growth. And China desperately needs to continue economic growth or risk internal instability. Second, the growth in the Chinese economy has raised the standard of living, meaning that the very tool they used to achieve growth, dirt cheap labor, is no longer available. On the plus side, however, their manufacturing infrastructure and their pool of talent has grown.
The Bay nations have a large pool of low skilled, extremely cheap labor. China can seek to establish trade with those nations, buying the sort of cheap goods they formerly exported to us, now for their own domestic consumption, a prices cheaper than their own production can achieve. And the Chinese can then export to those Bay nation goods that they previously could not afford.
The Chinese Maritime Silk Road can be seen as a form of soft colonialism, or as embracing trade as a mutually beneficial means of economic growth and a path to prosperity.
Brewster’s article reasonably looks at Chinese attempts to gain access to ports and other facilities for military applications. Which, from a Chinese perspective is entirely reasonable. The Royal Navy didn’t grow to span the globe just because. It grew to protect the international trade of the British Empire. So too can one see the Chinese Navy protecting its trade routes, particularly when the post-war guarantor of maritime security, the United States Navy, is shrinking, and less and less able to exert its influences in areas such as the Bay of Bengal.