With Sri Lanka bankrupt and remaining politically unstable, China looks prepared to move in and take advantage of the situation. Earlier in the week a Chinese flagged vessel arrived in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, a facility constructed by Sri Lanka through Chinese loans. The port never lived up to its potential, Colombo defaulted, and China took over port operations in 2017 with a 99-year lease. Since then, there has been growing concern that China will use the infrastructure it helped build in Sri Lanka, and other nations around Asia, for military purposes. In fact, even though the ship that arrived this week is called a scientific research vessel by Beijing, its real purpose is more nefarious. The Yuan Wang 5 is a PLAN ship used to track satellites and missiles. Hambantota is of little use to Sri Lanka, but it can be used for military purposes and Yuan Wang 5’s arrival could signal a change in China’s stance in the aftermath of heightened tensions with the US over Taiwan as well as domestic and economic concerns at home.
There has always been concern in the West over China’s heavy infrastructure investments across the globe since the early 2000s. Airports, seaports, roads and bridges have been built in many countries through Chinese loans. With its foreign debt crisis mounting, China appears set to assume operational control of many facilities. Sri Lanka might only be the beginning. This infrastructure can quite easily be modified to handle military roles in areas of the world where China has never had a military presence before. Aside from Asia, China has also invested heavily in areas of the Middle East, Africa and is making inroads into the South Pacific. The growing presence and influence in places such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are especially alarming and hold significant military implications in the Pacific for the United States and may of its allies in the region.
The process might be commencing in Sri Lanka with the arrival of Yuan Wang 5, but in all likelihood we will see considerably more activity in other locations around the world soon.
As the G7 summit progresses in Cornwall, England, US President Joe Biden is pushing to create a united front against China. The centerpiece of this plan is an infrastructure proposal intended to counter China’s Belt-and-Road initiative. The proposal is labeled “Build Back Better for the World.” Despite the rather mundane and unoriginal tag that it carries, the Biden administration has high hopes for the proposal, which is intended to be a blueprint to compete with China economically on equal terms. Unfortunately, it could very well be a matter of being too little, too late. China has had a lengthy head start when it comes to its infrastructure initiatives abroad. Billions of dollars have already been dropped into developing countries to fund areas deemed essential to Belt-and-Road development. Beijing’s economic influence and presence already expands far and wide beyond its borders. Put simply, China has had a head start in this area and it is difficult to see what steps the Biden plan will include to level the playing field. As it stands right now, China appears to have an almost decisive advantage in this area.
Other aspects of the Biden plan to create a united front against China will include applying pressure in response to its Uyghur reeducation camps and the dramatic rollback of democracy in Hong Kong in recent years.
How the other G7 leaders respond to the Biden plan will be of keen interest. Publicly this weekend, they will lavish their approval and appear united while standing in front of the world. However, it could very well be a different matter entirely when these leaders return to their respective capitals. Some G7 leaders have dragged their feet when it comes to confronting China. Time will tell if the Biden effort will coalesce into an effective instrument for the West to wield in the face of a resurgent and increasingly aggressive China, or if it is destined to become a forgotten blueprint in the weeks and months to come.
Last week, media outlets broke a story that the Chinese government has plans to restore and upgrade an airstrip on Kiribati, an independent island nation in the South Pacific. Kiribati is located roughly 1900 miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands, an area directly inside America’s Pacific sphere of influence. On one hand, it should come as no surprise to see the Chinese government extending an offer to improve Kiribati’s infrastructure. China has been embarking on infrastructure improvement programs across a large swath of the Third World for some time now. In some locations the programs are directly linked to the Belt and Road while in others, they serve the dual purpose of extending Chinese influence, as well as its potential military reach in a time of conflict. And as an added bonus, For Beijing, Kiribati is tantalizingly close to Hawaii. Not near enough to see Waikiki, but close enough to make Washington uneasy. On the surface, China’s designs on Kiribati may seem harmless enough, but appearances are often misleading. An improved airfield is only a start. Improvement to, or expansion of Kiribati’s port facilities could follow in the future, giving the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) a potential toehold in the eastern Pacific.
The Chinese government publicly stated today its belief that events surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have reached a “critical point” and only the easing of US economic sanctions will end the present stalemate. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin made the statement just one day after Iran officially began restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities. The Iranian move is intended to pressure European nations and the United States into ending the heavy economic sanctions now in place, and eventually restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States removed itself from that agreement, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018. The US withdrawal from JCOPA, followed by the application of harsh economic sanctions, led to severe economic consequences for Iran.
With a new administration now in Washington, there’s been hope that the deal can be resurrected. So far, neither side has been willing to make the first move. Tehran is demanding that the sanctions be lifted before serious talks begin and the United States wants full compliance from Iran before any future move towards restarting the deal begin. This is the stalemate Wang Wenbin was referring to in his comments.
China has long favored a US return to the JCPOA as well as Iranian compliance. Salvaging the 2015 deal would serve Chinese interests in the region well. Beijing and Tehran are reportedly close to finalizing a 25 year trade and military agreement that will see China invest $400 billion into Iran’s communication, transport and infrastructure areas in exchange for a deeply discounted supply of Iranian oil. If these are actually the terms of the agreement then it’s in China’s interest to see the nuclear deal return to its original form. The problem is that the terms of the trade and military agreement between Iran and China have become something of an urban legend in the Middle East. The terms and conditions of the agreement might’ve been exaggerated quite significantly and not be the trojan horse that a good number of analysts and politicians have claimed.
With most doors on the international front now closed to Iran, it was only a matter of time before the Tehran regime turned to China for a lifeline. A major partnership between China and Iran has been discussed by the two governments for well over a decade. A diplomatic track aimed at bringing such a partnership into reality has been active since around the time of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as the Iranian president.
Now it would appear that the deal has become a near-certainty. A strategic partnership proposal between China and Iran is on the table awaiting approval from the Iranian legislature . The deal binds the two nations together through the next 25 years with economic and military cooperation making up a large part of the new arrangement. Under the terms of the deal Iran will provide crude oil to China for 25 years, giving Tehran a sorely needed long term, secure market for Iranian oil. The two nations will cooperate deeply in many areas from energy, to tourism, and cybersecurity. China will be granted ‘unprecedented privileges.’ It will assume control of Iran’s telecommunications infrastructure, and ease the introduction of 5G technology to the nation. China will also invest billions of dollars in Iran as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
At first glance the partnership seems to offer Iran a lucrative lifeline back into the world, and a way to circumvent the crippling effect US sanctions have had on it in the past two years. But there is a considerable amount of internal opposition to the deal. Probably not enough to derail it since it had the official support of Ayatollah Khameini, but perhaps enough opposition to make the regime’s hold on power less assured. A number of prominent Iranians have stated their opposition to the deal, and with good reason. In effect, Iran will be the junior partner in the new relationship, similar to the role Pakistan plays in the Sino-Pakistani partnership. In return for practically handing China the keys to the kingdom, Iran will receive the benefit of becoming a Chinese colony. Power will transfer, albeit gradually, and surreptitiously from Teheran to Beijing. Iranian sovereignty will be degraded.
All of this to defy the United States, and stubbornly hold firmly to the dream of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. If the Iranian government was more moderate perhaps a happy medium could be reached with Washington. Unfortunately, events have gone in another direction and now Iran stands on the verge of selling its soul to the Chinese.