China’s soft power strategy

Commenter Dunc made the astute observation in response to an earlier post about North Korea that we tend to overlook the importance of commercial shipping routes when discussing geopolitical strategy. He says that the only reason the US cares about either Korea is because of the nearby shipping routes and he linked to a map (below) that describes the core and secondary maritime routes and the primary and secondary choke points. He says that much of the maneuvering of nations can be understood by seeing its relationship to shipping.

At almost the same time his comment appeared, I came across this news item that said that China had just signed a 99-year lease agreement with the government of Sri Lanka for the complete rights to the control and development of a new harbor that they helped build in Hambantota on the southern tip of the island (see below), which the map above shows is a key hub on the core East-West shipping route that connects three primary chokepoints. Chinese control also extends to 15,000 acres of the surrounding land for a new industrial zone, leading to the displacement of all the villagers in the area, not to mention disruption of wildlife habitats. That region is also close to a national park and home to elephants and other wild animals, while blue whales swim in the oceans near the harbor. This has led to some protests.

This deal shows how China is skillfully wielding soft power. For a long time, China has been giving huge loans to Sri Lanka on very generous terms that have gone into rebuilding infrastructure such as roads, airports, harbors, and other development projects. The previous Sri Lankan government was seen as being too close to China and there were reports that the US and India had secretly funded opposition parties during the last election a couple of years ago in order to bring down the government and replace it with one friendlier to the west. (Remember the rule: It is the god given right of the US to interfere in the elections of other countries but if any country intervenes in US elections, however slightly, that is a monstrous crime on the scale of Hitler invading Poland.)

So why did the new government that was presumed to be very pro-western give China this lease? It looks like money played a big role. While the Chinese government has been loaning huge amounts of money to Sri Lankan governments for a long time irrespective of their ideological leanings (and some of which very likely covertly enriched politicians and business leaders), the money has to be repaid and the government signed this lease in order to do so. I have no doubt that this was a long-term goal of China and they have skillfully achieved it.

This shows the big difference in the way that the US and China are operating in the developing world. While US ‘aid’ to countries is often in the form of military equipment and the US is also destroying countries by bombing them directly or through proxies such as NATO or Saudi Arabia or by arming rebel groups to destabilize governments, China is identified with building projects that are improving infrastructure in many developing nations Asia and Africa, like they have done in Sri Lanka.

Guess which country in winning the propaganda war?


  1. Dunc says

    He says that the only reason the US cares about either Korea is because of the nearby shipping routes

    Not quite -- I also said that it was a great excuse to have a large US military presence right on China’s doorstep.

    Of course, the history is a bit more complicated, as Marcus describes in his post North Korea: Origin Story, which was posted shortly after I made that comment, and looks in more detail at the history of the partition of Korea in the immediate aftermath of WWII. (Shorter: the US used Korea to stop the USSR from taking Japan.)

  2. says

    That Chinese base will almost always have a “visiting” missile-boat with enough ship-killers to sink an aircraft carrier. China’s leaders are capable of thinking strategically, unlike the type of people the US system tends to select. America has been coasting on wealth abd technological innovation while making a huge array of blunders -- that’s not a long-term approach unless the potential tech-ramp is infinite (as Kurzweil appears to believe) and you’re able to always be on it.

  3. says

    I don’t think the US was thinking that strategically at the time. But the effect was the same -- Americans were already catching on to the idea that Stalin was going to be a problem, and the USSR was capable of grabbing land all over the place. Also, The Red Army was behaving badly -- Americans had been learning that The Red Army was paying in the same coin as the SS had, and there was a sense even in the lower echelons of grabbing places to keep the USSR out. My father’s old colleague who fought in Bastogne and crossed the Rhine once told me that the collapse of Germany turned into a settler-style land rush to stake out claims and the Germans were very happy to be captured by Americans or British because the Soviets were grabbing anything they could carry (which was a lot!) and raping women to death.

    My take on the 1st Incheon landing is that it was MacArthur’s imperialism and the US’ feeling that the war with Japan was our war and we’d won it and the Soviets weren’t getting away with a land-grab. Which is pretty much what they attempted.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    An intriguing and informative map.

    Odd how the Bosporus ranks as a primary chokepoint when it has only a secondary route going through it.

  5. says

    Oh, also: I very deliberately dodged the question of whether the US nuked Japan as a warning to Stalin. That is a really interesting theory that, I think, gives more credit for foresight than the US leadership probably deserves. It was a factor, though, and I would not immediately laugh off a claim that US use of nukes was what prevented Stalin from letting The Red Army take and keep Berlin, Korea, and Manchuria.

  6. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#4:
    The Bosphorus is not one of the world’s most active shipping lanes but without it, Russia may as well not have a navy. So it’s probably on the list because of its strategic importance as well as commercial shipping.

    Imagine an alternate reality in which the USSR kept Manchuria and Korea and had a massive navy with global reach to match the US’… China would not have evolved to be a power, they’d be a client state like Canada and Japan would be like fortress Gibraltar.

  7. stumble says

    Sri Lanka may be a good example, but there are ones much closer to home.

    In the last few years Jamaica has slowly been inundated with Chinese investment. First it was a large four lane highway a few years ago. Now China is investing billions in further infrastructure investments. From new roads (superhighway type), to hospitals, and most recently a $1.5 Billion dollar port for mega ships.

    China is using massive infrastructure investment to change the narrative on the island. First they were investors in businesses (the first road was a toll road), now they are seen as partners in the local economy (a new children’s hospital). China is now the leader in government-government loan guarantees to Jamaica, far exceeding those of the US.

    Locals are concerned about the huge numbers of Chinese workers being imported to handle basic construction jobs. But the government is now incapable of setting real road blocks to Chinese policy on the island. The scope of investment is just too high.

    Of course the US has its own deals on offer. We are willing to make major loan concessions for military hardware, and thats about it. As well as threaten to withhold support unless Jamaica buys into our war on drugs….

    China is willing because they are paying for things the people need, and infrastructure the country wants. While we keep trying to sell them upgraded military hardware.

  8. Matt G says

    Maybe if we ask really nicely, the Chinese will invest in OUR infrastructure. I have a few roads and bridges in mind….

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Dunc is correct that a great deal (though obviously not all) of international affairs can be better understood as attempts to access and/or control resources, which includes not merely on-the-ground presence at resource extraction or manufacturing sites, but also favorable deals with governments with jurisdiction over those sites and certain geographical relationships to global locations important to shipping resources or products from those locations to the domestic territory of a State actor.

    Diego Garcia is another good example not yet discussed above. While DG seems removed from sites of actual oil extraction, it is very close to the shipping lane that connects Europe to Australia via the Red Sea and within easy reach of the same choke point you discuss in relation to China’s lease: the southern tip of India and southern coast of Sri Lanka. Almost as easy to reach is the Horn of Africa which is the site of the Gulf of Aden and Bab-el-Mandeb, the gateway between Europe and the Persian Gulf, as well as between Europe and Asia.

    The amount of trade that passes through Bab-el-Mandeb, is immense and ultimately what grants Egypt, relatively oil-poor (wikipedia describes Egypt as having “the sixth largest proved oil reserves in Africa” and internationally validated estimates give Libya ten times the proven reserves to which Egypt can lay claim), its outsized international influence. “But why?” you might reasonably ask. Egypt, after all, controls neither the northeastern boundary of Bab-el-Mandeb (that’s Yemen) nor the southwestern boundary (that’s Eritrea). Well, yes. That’s true. All that trade does pass through Bab-el-Mandeb and that strait is entirely uncontrolled by Egypt. However, that trade isn’t primarily going to Mecca. These shipments don’t get to their destinations without passing through the Suez Canal, which is controlled by Egypt. Directly threatening Egypt is bad news, because it can do more damage to European economies by cutting traffic through the Suez than it suffers by losing access to transit payments. However, the ability of the US to logistically support operations that can close Bab-el-Mandeb does create a situation in which two separate actors have the power to cut off trade through the Red Sea. It may be a threat the US does not wish to invoke frequently or overtly, but Egypt is acutely aware of the ability of the US to cut off trade through Suez.

    Trade would still get through to Europe, but it would have to take the long way round the Cape of Good Hope and a great deal of it would have to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar (though, yes, some traffic to northern Europe would skip the Gibraltar choke point because in circling Africa it no longer needs to pass through the Med on its way to Ireland, the UK, Scandinavia, or other ports on the Baltic or the North Sea. There would be considerable extra expense, even after the savings from not paying the Suez transit fees*1, but the real damage would be done by an unplanned change in shipping routes. Suddenly regular supplies of food, energy, and other crucial products would be delayed by weeks. Without planning for such a disruption, grocers or petrol refiners could run out of products to sell with disastrous consequences.

    By maintaining a logistical base for operations sufficient to close shipping traffic through the Red Sea, the US and UK have a counter-threat to Egypt’s power over trade. While Egypt could in theory impose short, random disruptions to trade that cause havoc in Europe, with sufficient repetition to extort quite a lot from EU (and especially Mediterranean/Black Sea) nations, the US and UK could then respond by closing Red Sea trade entirely. The thinking is that if disruptions are going to occur with Egypt in control, closing the Red Sea provides predictability as well as punishes Egypt for any strategy of disruption.

    Of course, that’s not the rationale for Diego Garcia you will typically see in the press. No, the actual history of Diego Garcia is considerably less happy and praise worthy than the justifications for DC promulgated by the UK and the US.

    *1: it is this expense that makes it possible to charge fees for Suez transit, after all -- you save time and fuel, and thus one boat can carry much more cargo through more trips, but Egypt demands a cut of the money you save. So long as that cut is less than 100% of the expense of going around, shippers will continue to use the Suez Canal.

  10. Ks says

    Referring to that comment about nazis preferring capture by the west, I am not surprised. It was payback time for the immense suffering they inflicted on the Russians. Many more deaths, looting and rape by nazis. And seeing that Russia has suffered devastating invasion over the centurIes, I would say it would be natural for them for the land grab. I don’t know what this has to do with North Korea though

  11. Dunc says

    Crip Dyke, @10: Yeah, Diego Garcia is a perfect example of the sort of thing I’m talking about, for exactly the reasons you discuss -- and you also identify the reason why Britain will never relinquish control of Gibraltar if we can possibly help it, and a good deal of the reason why we supported white supremacist rule in South Africa until the bitter end. (Obviously white supremacy itself was also a big factor, but we gave up trying to defend that in the rest of Africa much sooner.) Similar factors apply to the various British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean.

    I’m also very glad that you brought up the history of Diego Garcia, as it shows exactly what lengths we’re willing to go to to hang on to these strategic locations. I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to refer to the forced relocation of the Chagossians as an act of genocide.

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