Still Waters: One Belt, One Road and the End of a Geopolitical Debate

On 12 July 2016, a Special Tribunal constituted at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague issued its final award on the dispute between the Philippines and China on maritime rights in the South China Sea. For Beijing, the award was not just a legal defeat, but a diplomatic debacle. China had decided not to participate in the arbitral proceedings—initiated by the Philippines in January 2013—arguing that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction on the dispute. But the Tribunal decided to the contrary in late October 2015 and eventually released a final award that was largely favourable to the Philippines.

China’s official reaction to the award was furious. On 12 July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a ‘solemn statement’ declaring that the award was ‘invalid, with no binding force’, and that it in no way would be ‘accepted or recognised’ by China. On the same day, a second statement from the Chinese government reaffirmed Beijing’s official position on the issue of the South China Sea. The same principles were reiterated the day later, in a White Paper of the State Council’s Information Office that was published in Chinese, Arabic, English, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang commented on the award on 12 July, while meeting a high-level European Union (EU) delegation in Beijing for the Eighteenth China-EU summit. In the following days, the official media ramped up a pervasive campaign against the Tribunal, the Philippines, and their international supporters. In a commentary by editorial staff published on 13 July, the People’s Daily summarised China’s policy as follows: ‘Of the territory that doesn’t belong to us, we don’t want even one inch. But of the territory that does belong to us, we will not relinquish one single inch’ (bu shuyu women de tudi, women yi cun ye bu yao. Dan shuyu women de tudi, women cun tu bu rang). Similarly nationalistic views were conveyed in eight commentaries also published by the People’s Daily in the following days. Authored by ‘Zhong Sheng’—‘the voice of the bell’, homophone of ‘the voice of China’—the commentaries appeared under the headline: ‘The arbitration on the South Sea is nothing more than a political farce’ (nanhai zhongcai an buguo shi chang zhengzhi naoju).

In such a context, no public debate on the South China Sea or on China’s policy in the region took place. In fact, very little has been published on these topics in the major Chinese academic journals throughout 2016, except for a few papers unanimously supporting the official policy of the central government. Considering the political sensitivity of the issue and the ongoing campaign in the media, it would be naïve to expect a public debate on what China is doing—or should be doing—in its maritime periphery. What is striking, however, is that no longer than ten years ago—in the second half of the past decade—China’s policy towards the maritime domain was the object of a great debate that took place publicly, with the involvement of well-known scholars.


Ten Years Ago: Sea Power or Land Power?

This public and academic discussion over China’s maritime role was set within a wider theoretical debate on the continuing importance of geopolitics, and a policy debate on the directions of China’s diplomacy and defence. The central issue was a classic one—whether the future of international politics would be decided by sea power or land power. But it was not an abstract discussion on a purely theoretical issue: the focus was very much on the implications of geopolitics for China’s rise in the new century.

On the one hand, supporters of sea power argued that history had consistently demonstrated the centrality of the maritime domain for the rise and fall of great powers. According to Zhang Wenmu, a vocal supporter of sea power based at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, command of the sea was the foundation of British and American imperialism, and of Japanese militarism. In his opinion, it was the neglect of sea power that had condemned ancient civilisations, such as China and India, to decades of foreign domination. Ni Lexiong of the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law envisaged a global historical trend from land power to sea power. In his view, China itself is currently transitioning from the status of a ‘continental rural country’ (neilu nonggeng guojia) to that of a ‘contemporary oceanic country’ (xiandai haiyang guojia).

For the supporters of sea power, China’s national interests are increasingly centred on the maritime domain. First of all, China is committed to the goal of national reunification, which implies a focus on maritime areas—the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Second, China’s integration in the international economic system has expanded the country’s sphere of maritime interests: China now has a national interest in the security of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that are used to import natural resources and export manufactured goods. National reunification itself can thus be seen in a different perspective: not just as an end in and of itself, but as the precondition for a more effective projection of China’s naval power in East Asia and beyond. For all of these reasons, supporters of sea power advocated a reorientation of China’s diplomacy and defence towards the maritime domain. Accordingly, China’s most pressing need was, in their opinion, the development of a powerful navy—and especially the development of China’s first aircraft carrier group.

Supporters of land power responded by saying that China still remains a land power whose foreign and security policy should focus on the Eurasian landmass. Particularly Ye Zicheng, Professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, called for a ‘new land-power perspective’ (xin luquan guan). In his opinion, China might represent a new model of land power, different from the two historical models of the pre-modern Mongol empire and the modern Russian (and then Soviet) state. In articulating such a perspective, Ye rejected the main ideas of Zhang Wenmu and his fellow supporters of sea power. While recognising China’s growing dependence on the SLOCs as being a major security challenge, Ye maintained that the only solution would be to rebalance China’s foreign trade through a stronger ‘land to land’ economic cooperation with China’s Central Asian neighbours. Although not against the development of a more effective Navy, Ye argued that China should focus more on the development of its connections with the Eurasian landmass than on a burdensome naval build-up.

Some scholars tried to find a common ground between the two positions. To Li Yihu, also based at Peking University, China is a power with ‘mixed maritime-continental geopolitical features’ (hailu jianbei de diyuan tezheng). In his opinion, after the end of the Cold War China’s geopolitical axis has reoriented from a North-South direction—where security threats were posed by the Soviet Union in the North and the United States in the South—to an East-West direction, with Beijing now focusing on maritime disputes in the East and continental integration in the West. For this reason, Li called for a balanced development of both land and sea power, although the neglect for the latter during the Cold War meant that—in the short term—priority should be placed on the improvement of China’s maritime capabilities.

End of the Geopolitical Debate

No common ground was found, though, and by the end of past decade the public debate had drawn to a close. Two main reasons contributed to this situation. First of all, the issue of sea power had gradually become more of a policy problem than a theoretical topic. Against the background of the United States ‘pivot to Asia’—with Washington’s expanding diplomatic and military ties with allies and friends in the region—the maritime domain became the focus of growing competition. Tensions in the region increased, leading to an overall deterioration of China’s relations with many of its neighbours both in Northeast and Southeast Asia. In 2012, the Japanese government’s decision to nationalise part of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands was met with an assertive reaction from Beijing. In November 2013, China unilaterally declared an Air Defence Identification Zone over the disputed islands, causing alarm throughout the region. In the South China Sea, maritime tensions complicated relations with the Philippines and Vietnam. In 2012, after a long stand-off, China established de facto control over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which eventually led Manila to initiate the arbitral proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Beijing’s relations with Hanoi soured in Spring 2014, when the China National Offshore Oil Company deployed a drilling rig near the disputed Paracel Islands. A long standoff led to mass protests in Vietnam, with attacks against Chinese targets. Tensions in the region further escalated in 2015, with China’s extensive reclamation works in some of the disputed areas and with the United States’ so-called ‘freedom of navigation operations’. As Beijing has become more and more embroiled in maritime tensions, naval policy has gradually transformed into a politically sensitive issue, with little room left for public debate.

The second reason is that the Chinese authorities have come out with their own official discourse on sea and land in the future of China’s rise—the so-called ‘One Belt, One Road Initiative’ (yi dai yi lu changyi), abbreviated in English as ‘OBOR’. On 7 September 2013, in a high-level speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, President Xi Jinping launched the idea of a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (sichou zhi lu jingji dai). A maritime component was added a few weeks later: in his speech at the Indonesian Parliament on 3 October, President Xi called for a ‘Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road’ (ershiyi shiji haishang sichou zhi lu). In March 2015, a ‘Vision and Action Plan’ on the initiative was jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce. As argued in the official English translation of the document:

The Belt and Road run through the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa, connecting the vibrant East Asia economic circle at one end and developed European economic circle at the other, and encompassing countries with huge potential for economic development. The Silk Road Economic Belt focuses on bringing together China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe (the Baltic); linking China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea through Central Asia and West Asia; and connecting China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road is designed to go from China’s coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and from China’s coast through the South China Sea to the South Pacific in the other.

China would work as the central pivot of this ambitious plan, thanks to its geopolitical versatility: the country’s Northeastern and Northwestern regions would become a bridge towards Russia, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and Iran; the Southwestern regions would connect China to the ASEAN countries through new land corridors, while coastal regions would improve interconnection with Asia’s maritime countries thanks to improved port infrastructures; finally, inland regions would serve as production and service centres for the rest of China. The One Belt One Road was thus conceived not only as a policy initiative, but also as a broader geopolitical design for the future of China, with an ambition to reshape the country’s role in the Eurasian landmass and surrounding oceans.

Unresolved Problems

While the public debate on sea power and land power is now over, many of the issues raised in that debate have not been properly addressed and continue to pose a major challenge for China’s foreign policy. This is particularly the case with two problems that were fiercely debated ten years ago.

The first one is the issue of priorities. The core of the geopolitical debate concerned whether China should place a priority on the development of sea power or land power. This dilemma has been only worsened by the official discourse on the One Belt One Road, which opted for a mere juxtaposition of China’s continental and maritime peripheries, with no clear hierarchy between the two. To be sure, a continental and a maritime agenda are not mutually exclusive and China’s diplomacy may well be skilled enough to manage both at the same time. What is more problematic, however, is playing at two different geopolitical tables in a context of growing instability. Yet this is exactly what is currently happening. On the one hand, political instability spreading from the Middle East and North Africa through Central Asia is a major concern for China’s national security, as highlighted by reports of militants from Xinjiang fighting in Syria. On the other hand, instability in the East and South China Seas—which Beijing is itself significantly contributing to—is creating a new set of dilemmas for China’s foreign policy, against the backdrop of a more focussed coordination between the United States and some of China’s neighbours. Managing both fronts at the same time might thus prove especially difficult, as scholars had already noted ten years ago.

The second unresolved issue is the connection between economic cooperation and political stability. The assumption underlying the whole Belt and Road vision is that strengthening economic cooperation is a tool for consolidating political stability—promoting interconnectedness and thereby increasing trade volumes as the main road towards a more stable neighbourhood. This approach is nothing new to Beijing: over the past decades, it has been systematically applied by the Chinese authorities to pacify political conflicts of different types—including, for instance, ethnic strife in Xinjiang and cross-straits relations with Taiwan. Yet the connection between economic tools and political goals is far from perfect (to say the least), as Beijing is learning in the case of relations with Taiwan, where increased economic cooperation during the Ma Ying-jeou years might, in fact, be resulting in heightened political conflict. In this respect, it remains to be seen whether cooperation projects associated with the Belt and Road initiative will help to solve political contrasts, or will rather become their first victim. This is particularly relevant for the maritime domain, where growing tensions over disputed waters might eventually derail Beijing’s ambitious cooperation plans—instead of being appeased by them. In fact, some signals that this is happening are already there: consider, for instance, how China’s stance in the South China Sea has complicated relations with Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries that had developed positive relations with China over the past twenty years and are now crucial for the implementation of the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road.

All of this poses a major challenge for China’s foreign and security policy—a challenge that was emphasised by the diplomatic debacle in the arbitration with the Philippines. In this context, the muted reaction from the Chinese scholarly community should not be taken as a sign that no discussions exist among Chinese scholars about the recent direction of China’s foreign policy. Rather, this is a sign that the growing political sensitivity of Beijing’s maritime policy and the pervasiveness of the One Belt One Road geopolitical discourse have dramatically reduced the space for such a debate in the public sphere. However, outside of the public sphere, primarily within academia, the geopolitical debate continues—ready to re-emerge as soon as changing external conditions allow space for a renewed discussion.

photo credits: Ran Allen on Map of territorial claims in the South China Sea from
Simone Dossi
Simone Dossi

Simone Dossi is Postdoctoral Fellow in International Relations at the University of Milan and Research Fellow (non resident) at the Torino World Affairs Institute (T.wai). His research interests include China’s foreign policy, the military doctrine of the People’s Liberation Army, and China’s civil-military relations. Simone is the author of Rotte cinesi. Teatri marittimi e dottrina militare (Milan: Università Bocconi Editore, 2014, in Italian).