By Salman Rafi Sheikh

On May 26, China released its first “White Paper” outlining the country’s military strategy.

While this document stirred consternation in India, a careful reading shows that is not India-centric as such. On the contrary, it is a reflection of what may be called a “Chinese assessment” of a rapidly changing and deteriorating military situation around the world —  specifically in the Middle East and Asia Pacific region — and how China can protect its vital interests. Recognizing U.S. “grand plans” for the Asian region, the paper clearly stresses the need for revolutionizing the Chinese military — especially the navy.

Therefore, it’s not incorrect to say that the policy outlined by the paper is a Chinese response to the U.S’ “Asia Pivot.” The document makes explicit references to the U.S “rebalancing” strategy and Washington’s effort to enhance its military presence in the region. The U.S. is not the only nation described as the main country “threatening” Chinese interests. Japan, Taiwan, “offshore neighbors,” “external countries,” “separatist movements” in various regions are also described as the main challenges faced by China which must be overcome to achieve what the analysis calls “the Chinese Dream of great national rejuvenation.”

From a geopolitical standpoint, it also doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the White Paper has been issued at a time when China is starting to take a serious interest in areas like the internal politics of other countries, albeit in a very limited and cautious way. Afghanistan is one nation where China is politically active in resolving an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. It’s also committed its forces to Africa with the specific purpose of resolving the conflict in Sudan. While Chinese troops serve under the UN command, the very decision to commit troops marks a sharp escalation of China’s efforts to ensure the safety of its workers and assets in Africa, while ensuring a steady flow of energy for domestic consumption.

The long and short of it is that China’s military strategy shouldn’t be analyzed in isolation. That is to say, to understand China’s military strategy, we must give full consideration to China’s foreign policy as it is evolving under the geopolitical pressures of a U.S. pivot to Asia and the constraints on China’s sources of natural resources. The latter focuses on China’s ever increasing reliance on imported resources, specifically oil, from the most restive regions: Africa and the Middle East.

The White Paper is explicit in explaining the increase in China’s influence in the world as well as the rapid expansion of China’s strategic interests. That China needs to prioritize its naval power, as the paper makes clear, becomes intelligible when we take into account the fact that more than 80% of Beijing’s imported oil winds its way through one global choke point: the Strait of Malacca.

China is also set on raising its politico-military standing in the Asia-Pac region as well as globally. The world is already cognizant of China’s economic might. By Chinese lights, the time has also come for the world to appreciate its military might as well. What China is doing under current circumstances is a logical response to the changes taking place in the world. As a matter of fact, it appears that China would self-destruct if it tried to remain aloof or permanently detached from international politics as has been the case until now.  Until recently, Chinese foreign policy has remained focused on one simple equation: access to global markets (financial and consumer) and the uninterrupted flow of oil and gas to its industries.

Though global consumer markets are very much open to China, it is the supply of resources to Chinese industry at home that’s become a serious concern for Beijing. In recent years, this concern, which is also known as the “Malacca Dilemma,” has led China to introduce some “revolutionary” changes in its foreign policy outlook and its erstwhile principle of “non-interference” in other states’ internal affairs. This historical principle of “non-interference” met its first “violation” in 2013 when Beijing sent 170 soldiers to Mali to help prevent the country’s tumult from spilling into its oil-rich neighbors, such as Algeria and Libya — countries that supply a lot of resources to Chinese companies.  A year later, in another “fist of aggressive diplomacy,” China leaped into peace talks between warring factions in South Sudan.  In December 2014, China offered Iraq military support in the form of air strikes to combat the Islamic State, though the offer was declined. Similarly, in November 2014, China offered Washington money to the tune of $10 million to aid displaced persons. It is now an open secret that China is already “deeply” involved in resolving conflict in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, Taliban delegates met Chinese officials recently and expressed their “wish” for China to play a more constructive role in politically resolving the longest war in U.S. history. No wonder, after such violations of “non-interference,” the paper doesn’t make any reference to, nor does it even mention China’s famous “five principles of peaceful co-existence.”

Coming from a country that has long viewed the U.S.-led military interventions as the sharp end of nefarious Western plots, these offers were absolutely startling for many who have long viewed China as a politically “disinterested” state. However, as China’s demand for oil and other resources has grown exponentially in the last few years, and as the regions providing China with adequate supply of resources become more volatile, China, too, is forced to make necessary policy adjustments in order to ensure an uninterrupted supply of resources.

The reason for stationing troops in Africa thus becomes clear in the context of the May 26 White Paper. The document clearly states that this is strategically part of an effort “to safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests.” The corollary to this is the idea of using the Chinese military to “maintain regional and world peace.”

Although the White Paper was officially released in 2015, its tenets have been fully operational since at least 2013. As a matter of fact, the immediate reason for playing a proactive political role and stationing of troops in Sudan was economic interest.  Consider the following story: China’s state-owned National Petroleum Corp. holds a 40% stake in a joint venture that operates in South Sudan’s vast oil fields. The company also has a 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) export pipeline that carries crude through neighboring Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Before the latest fighting in South Sudan flared, the country accounted for 5% of China’s crude imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Output had since then plummeted by a third — to 160,000 barrels a day — following the outbreak of fighting late last year — hence, the need for an immediate resolution of the conflict. Although the conflict couldn’t be resolved, China was still able to secure a safe passage for its supplies. In 2015, it was reported that China would send an additional 700 troops to Sudan to “maintain peaceful environment” for development.

China’s White Paper, therefore, isn’t merely “military strategy”-centric. Although the title suggests this, it has deep political underpinnings. It asserts an altogether new political role that China is to play in the world. That role is to protect, enhance and materialize the “global scope” of China’s politico-economic and security interests. It is for this reason that specific emphasis has been placed on the question of access to overseas energy reservoirs, the people and infrastructure that support this access, and the sea lines of communication and supply these resources traverse. These are the activities that China has already been pursuing on a large scale. The paper has, therefore, only confirmed what until May 26 was only speculation.

This paper and the strategy outlined is not country-centric. It embodies the notion of a Chinese reality check. The reality is very simple and straightforward: China’s increasing participation in global economics and consequent security affairs has reached a point where China cannot afford to stay aloof and pursue its old stance of so-called “non-interference.” What began in 2013 has morphed into a full-blown policy and this trend, given prevailing global security concerns, is most likely to intensify. This is logical for a country that imports nearly 60% of its oil — a demand that has doubled since 2000 and will most probably keep increasing in years to come. Hence, China’s resolve to take a “holistic view of national security.”  The long and short of this is an altogether new global outlook.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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