The Contest of the Century

The Contest of the Century by Geoff A. Dyer

Book: The Contest of the Century by Geoff A. Dyer Read Free Book Online
Authors: Geoff A. Dyer
capital to Sittwe, on the northwest coast, just north of Ramree Island. It is facile to suggest, as some do, that China is trying to re-create an old-fashioned empire, but it is fair to say that China’s overseas investments are repeating elements of the same imperial dynamic, the old story of the flag following the trade. In a political system in which someof the lines of control have eroded, ambitious local governments and connected state-owned corporations are pushing projects that involve substantial international commitments, the local economic tail wagging the Beijing diplomatic dog. In the case of the Burma pipeline, the project won the backing of Beijing even though its strategic benefits are really something of a mirage. If there ever were some form of conflict between the U.S. and China, then the pipeline would be much more vulnerable than the sea-lanes through the Strait of Malacca. It would take the permanent presence of a significant fleet to enforce a blockade of the strait, but only one bombing run to destroy the pipeline. The Ramree Island investment brings no actual security for China.
    On Ramree Island itself, there is widespread suspicion about China’s eventual plans for the area. Common among locals I talked to was the assumption that China would eventually want to have a naval base there, to help secure its interests and protect the commercial traffic to the port. In Yangon, I heard the same story, a constant refrain that the pipeline is some sort of Trojan Horse that will justify a Chinese military presence. There is no evidence that this is happening—and such an idea would likely spark considerable resistance in Burma, including from the new civilian government. But the reality is that China is now building a huge oil facility looking onto the Bay of Bengal, which it needs to protect. Its commercial interests are pulling it into the Indian Ocean in ways that were not originally anticipated.
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    Whether by secret design or by the inertia of its advancing business interests, China is likely to push for a much stronger presence in the Indian Ocean. But just as there are enormous operational challenges ahead if China wants to construct a navy that can contend in the Indian Ocean, so there are huge political obstacles if it tries to establish the sort of military basing rights that would allow it to project power far from its home base. If China really aspires to a stealth “String of Pearls” strategy, it will be very difficult to turn this into reality, because few countries will want to be seen taking sides. Every government in the region knows that, even with the huge investments China is making in its navy, the U.S. will have a superior fighting ability in the Indian Ocean for severaldecades to come. This means that a Chinese base on their territory would turn them into a highly vulnerable target in the first days of a conflict. Burma’s new government has tilted away from China in a way that makes it very hard to imagine its accepting a Chinese base, despite the incessant rumor mill in the country. Sri Lanka, too, knows how vulnerable it would be if Chinese vessels were permanently based at Hambantota. “There may or may not be a Chinese string in the region, but we will not be one of their pearls,” as one Sri Lankan official puts it.
    Pakistan is the one country that has expressed some interest in hosting a Chinese base. But the idea is a lot less attractive than it seems. Gwadar is occasionally referred to in the press as “the most important place you have never heard of,” given its closeness to the Persian Gulf. But on closer inspection, it is of much less strategic use than it seems. Gwadar is an isolated city in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, squeezed in between Iran and Afghanistan, where an insurgency against the state has been running for decades, becoming particularly ugly in recent years. The roads and rail links to the more prosperous parts of Pakistan, around

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