The new silk road and the Indonesian archipelago

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Irawan Ronodipuro
INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – In his seminal work, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and The Future of American Power, award-winning author and geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan explains how future superpower relations will be played out in what he defines as the “Greater Indian Ocean, stretching eastward from the Horn of Africa past the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian Subcontinent, all the way to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond.

There is no doubt the Indian Ocean will be an extraordinarily important part of the strategic landscape in the 21st century, especially when it comes to U.S.A.-China rivalries. This is a fact not lost on the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishments.  One decade ago, the U.S. Navy proclaimed it would transform itself into a two-ocean navy, not encompassing the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans as in the past, but rather the Pacific and Indian oceans.

This post-Cold War approach, which recognizes the Atlantic and European continent as having less significance than before, is also reflected in the U.S. National Security Strategy paper released by the White House in December, 2017.  In a subsection covering the Indo-Pacific, it is argued China is “using economic inducements and penalties, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.  China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations.  China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.”

The Trump administration’s warnings about China might sound alarmist for some.  But for policymakers and analysts closely watching developments, China’s strategic intentions are clear and they would agree wholeheartedly with Washington’s assessment of the potential threats.

To wit is China’s One Belt One Road initiative (otherwise known as OBOR), which is a modern-day version of the Han dynasty’s Silk Road.  In terms of its size and reach, it is the most ambitious infrastructure project ever: OBOR includes a trillion dollars of investments in 68 countries for deepwater and dry ports, power stations, oil and gas pipelines, railways, highways and land bridges across Asia, Africa and Europe.    Once completed, OBOR will enhance China’s trade by connecting it with thirty percent of global G.D.P. and more than half of humanity.  Its ports and pipelines will give China the ability to dominate the energy interstate stretching from the Middle East, through chokepoints into Europe, across the Indian Ocean in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and finally through the Straits of Malacca into the South China Sea, and it will offer docking and refueling facilities for China’s blue water navy.

One example is in the Republic of Djibouti.  Located on the Horn of Africa and guarding the southern entrance to the Red Sea and ultimately the Suez, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has established its footprint in Djibouti with a 56-hectare military base.  There are also plans to construct a multi-purpose wharf for China’s supply ships, destroyers, frigates and amphibious assault ships.

Beijing says the purpose of the Djibouti base and wharf is to resupply vessels participating in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia.   But it has not been lost on naval strategists that Djibouti’s strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, meaning “Gate of Tears” in Arabic, is one of the world’s major shipping chokepoints.  According to some estimates, 3.2 million barrels of oil shipped from the Persian Gulf pass through the Bab-el-Adeb on a daily basis as these vital energy supplies are headed for the Suez and onwards to the Mediterranean Sea where, not coincidentally, China has recently bought a majority stake in Piraeus, Greece’s main port.

Another relevant example is the port town of Gwadar, located near the border with Iran on the southwestern coast of Pakistan; once coveted by the Russians during their occupation of Afghanistan to the north, Gwadar was envisioned by the Kremlin to be the key in their quest (only to fail after being ousted from Kabul) to open a deepwater port to the south of the Soviet Union.

Much later Gwadar would once again become the object of great power ambitions when, in 1999, Pakistani army general Pervez Musharraf seized power.   Perez promptly invited the Chinese to develop a port at Gwadar, which resulted in the inking of a US$200 million project.   The port is also envisioned to be part of the so-called China-Pakistan Corridor, which is a collection of on-going infrastructure megaprojects throughout Pakistan and will link her southern ports in Karachi and Gwadar with its northern reaches, the western Chinese province of Xinjiang and eventually with Central Asia, as well.

Most relevant to Indonesia is the growing presence of Chinese port developments along the 500 nautical-mile-long Straits of Malacca.  The straits are the main passage between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea; it is estimated more than one-third of seaborne trade passes through these waters, and the major economies of Asia—China, Japan and South Korea—are heavily dependent on the safe and clean passage of hydrocarbons through the straits to fuel their industries.

On the Malaysian side of the Straits of Malacca, China is already hard at work.  The offshore Melaka Gateway and Forest City port and mixed development projects are, as well as bilateral trade deals between China and Malaysia, good examples of how the former leverages its commercial strength as a means (as the Trump administration points out) to reinforce its geopolitical aspirations.

Yet the projects are not without controversy.  Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has come under heavy fire by the political establishment for his relying too heavily upon China for funding strategic industries, especially when it comes to sensitive areas such as the Straits of Malacca.   Critics say, rightly so, that Najib’s deal-making with Beijing places Malaysia’s maritime sovereignty under unacceptable risk.

Much the same should be said about plans afoot to build a US$7.4 billion Chinese- financed port and mixed development project in Medan, North Sumatra.  The 3,000 hectare project, a venture between Medan-based Best & Grow Investment Group and China’s Shenzhen Qixin Construction Group, is the outcome of high-level meetings between Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Panjaitan and then-Minister of Industry Airlangga Hartarto with their Chinese counterparts one week before the OBOR Summit in Beijing that took place in May, 2017.

If the project goes ahead, China will have succeeded in developing and having ownership over ports on both the Malaysian and Indonesian sides of the Straits of Malacca.   Before the project does proceed, there should be policy discussions and a more open debate about the merits and potential risks. The potential geopolitical consequences are far-reaching enough that Indonesian policymakers, and Indonesians alike, should be made aware this is not just another simple port development.

(Iro Ronodipuro)