Everyman’s Strategic Survey: The Middle of Nowhere

downloadThe very highly regarded (but not uncontroversial) Brookings Institution has published an interesting article about the Sino-Kazakh border city of Khorgas but it is, really, about the prospects of a new Silk Road, linking Western China to the Middle East, Near East and Europe which, in turn, is really about the “Rise of China.”

Khorgas, as the authors (Lisa Kaestner of the World Bank, and Wolfgang Fengler, also of the World Bank) say, is, pretty much, the “middle of nowhere” because, as they write, “The middle of nowhere actually exists. If you look for the place that is furthest away from any ocean in the entire world, you will find yourself in in North-Western China close to Khorgos, which also happens to be the main border crossing between China and Kazakhstan. In the past there was nothing there, just flat grassland and hardly anyone on both sides of the border, especially in Kazakhstan which is the largest landlocked country in the world and sparsely populated.

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Those “spikes” which I have circled on Dr Fengler’s map indicate the density of economic activity and China wants to connect it’s growing economy (and South Korea’s, too) by establishing two major trade routes:

  1. The New Silk Road, which will pass through Khorgas, in the “middle of nowhere;” and
  2. The String of Pearls ~ a network of seaports and naval bases linking Shanghai to the Red Sea …

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… and, giving China some control over all the maritime traffic that wants to pass from Japan and South Korea to Europe (by the shorter Asian route) helps to explain why China is pressing unwarranted claims to the South China Seas.

So what?

The “so what” is that, current financial and structural difficulties notwithstanding, China is on the way up. China’s “rise” threatens the  US hegemony that (not the United Nations’ efforts) has, de facto, kept the peace in East Asia for 65 years, ever since the Korean War. But, in my opinion, China’s “rise” is inexorable and, broadly and generally, is to be welcomed: fewer starving people, fewer desperately poor people, fewer just plain poor people in this world cannot be anything but a good thing … again, that’s  in my opinion.

But I fear that China’s rise will not come without some conflict. It seems, to me, to be important, indeed vital, to contain those conflicts, as we contained East-West conflicts from 1948 to 1998, so that they do not spill over into major armed clashes involving the main protagonists, America and China. Because we are a country for which trade is vitally important, as well as being an important trading nation in our own right, we have a national vital interest in keeping the peace in East Asia.

Many of our resources and mCenterm-terminal-from-sea-level-300x200anufactured goods, once they get to a port (that’s a hint about the need for pipelines in carry Canadian oil to global markets), are carried by ships to markets around the world and thus we have another national vital interest in maintaining the freedom of use of the great sea lines of communications, including those that pass through the South China Seas, which are, now, an area of contention.

So, even if you agree, you will say, “so what,” again, “so what about that?”

The so what is that we should be supporting our allies in the region ~ America, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand the Philippines and so on, friends and trading partners, old and new, as they wrestle with how to accommodate China’s inexorable “rise” while not allowing it to bully its neighbours too much.

(Is there an acceptable level of bullying in international relations? I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of Americans would say that they are “fair and square,” honest traders and good neighbours, but Canadians involved in softwood lumber disputes or when facing various “buy American!” regulations might disagree.)

I believe that Canada should start deploying, annually, one or two of our small, lightly armed ~ very non-threatening ~ Kingston class warships into the South China Sea each year … to support, especially, the Philippines. It would be a long mission, but worthwhile in military (show of force and training value), diplomatic (soft power) and trade terms …

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… the little Kingston class ships would need to refuel in Hawaii and Japan while enroute and returning but they could add real value to the freedom of navigation operations.

We should not ask the Americans to do all the freedom of navigation “heavy lifting” on their own. Other trading nations, like Canada, should share the burden and, by so doing, make sure that this is not a China vs USA thing but rather a China vs the World matter.

Operation CARIBBE

We need friends in the region and the Philippines, which is, now, the third largest “supplier” of New Canadians is a good place to start.

We need to balance our trade focused relationship with China, in which they see us as the supplicant, with a little reminder that we are also a global trading nation that supports its friends.

We do not want to delay or impede the rise of China, we do not want to slow East-West trade and commerce, not even through the middle of nowhere, but we do want to assert our presence in Asia and do a share of guaranteeing freedom of the seas for all.

We have the ships, they are up to the task … but it requires some political will, which I suspect might be lacking …

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3 thoughts on “Everyman’s Strategic Survey: The Middle of Nowhere”

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