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‘Two Hands’ and ‘Two Roads’

From the series News from the Silk Road

The international tensions which China will face on the seas in the next fifteen years could find a buffer in the expansion of China’s influence on land in Central, Southern and Western Asia. Wang Jisi is the dean of the School of International Studies at the University of Beijing and a major figure of the American party in China. His unexpected foray into ‘geopolitics’ has reignited the old clash between different American currents — a phenomenon we analysed more than twenty years ago.

At the time, Robert Manning, the author of The Asian Energy Factor and adviser to the State Department in 1991, viewed Asia’s growing dependence on the Persian Gulf for its energy requirements in the light of geoeconomics and geostrategy and foresaw a possible convergence between the USA and China. From a geoeconomic standpoint, both trade and the funding and development of the infrastructure necessary for Asia’s energy needs were more important than territorial disputes in the South China Sea. These disputes have become symbols of China’s growing stature and assertion of political sovereignty, rather than just a question of energy supplies.


of the Silk Road Manning did not totally ignore ‘geostrategy’ — the struggle between powers for and through energy — but he emphasised that there was a common interest in securing steady energy supplies, at least in the medium term. It therefore appeared improbable that China would develop the air and naval power required to challenge the USA in the Persian Gulf during the next twenty years. An arms race between China, India and Japan was not inconceivable. However, Beijing’s energy security would still be based for the time being on the geoeconomics of the markets and America’s guarantees of an open-door policy and free access to shipping routes.

These considerations helped form our view in 2003 that the war in Iraq was an American attempt to condition the speed of China’s rise as a great power by securing its oil supply. Since then a series of unresolved conflicts, two global economic crises and the pandemic of the century have characterised the past two decades of the new strategic phase. Today, Beijing is in the process of creating a fleet of aircraft carriers and building the infrastructure required to extend the Silk Road. By means of these initiatives China intends to play both the ‘geoeconomics’ and ‘geostrategy’ cards. The rise of this new power has disrupted the old logic of convergence.

In Strategies of a Great Power [Beijing, 2015], Wang Jisi notes that: China must consider the protection of its own [oil] interests, but this necessity pushes China to strengthen cooperation with countries in various regions, and this includes cooperation with maritime powers such as the United States.

There are a number of different views in Beijing. One apparently reasonable current of thought argues that the Chinese Dragon should not get bogged down in the quagmire of the Greater Middle East and should leave the USA and Europe to sort out the region’s affairs. They argue that the more chaos there is in the region, the smaller the possibility of the USA countering China in the Asia-Pacific region, Wang questions this view and argues that it underestimates the characteristics of today’s globalization and the speed with which turbulent problems in the Greater Middle East would spread to China.

The era of ten aircraft carriers

These resource-rich regions will probably find themselves in a state of instability with intensified internal and regional conflicts over the next ten years or so. If left uncontrolled, these conflicts will inevitably damage China b threatening supplies, economic rights, and even undermine the unity of different ethnic groups in border areas and China’s Western provinces. The latter could influence national unity and social stability. In the meantime, China should use various means to strengthen its voice on the [region’s] burning issues, starting with Iran and Syria.

Wang believes that realistically, it is impossible for China to rapidly build ten aircraft carriers and that strategic negotiations on the energy arteries are imminent: The United States feels that its maritime hegemony isn’t as secure as it could be and wants the other powers, including China, to share the responsibility. The sharing of responsibilities would contribute to reinforcing China’s military projection: Also cooperation on security matters and military exchanges with interested nations should be strengthened. In this way China will one day use military and paramilitary means to protect its rights and interests.

China should increase its use of naval bases on a ‘string of pearls’ basis (in preference to permanent military bases) in the Gulf of Bengal, the Persian Gulf, in the Red Sea, and along the coast of Africa. Finally, Indian Ocean’s coasts should become an important part of China’s geostrategic chessboard.

Space and imperialism

Both components of the Silk Road — the maritime and the terrestrial routes — form the ‘two hands’ of negotiation and military build-up respectively. For Wang Jisi, geostrategy [...] is a concept which includes geopolitics and geoeconomics. Wang’s view can be essentially considered a criticism of the western theoreticians of geopolitics, or at the very least an attempt to address the weaknesses in their thought. Wang argues that economic development modifies the idea of space: the United States is a nation with two oceans, while China has a ‘single ocean’. However, today — with the development of transport links — these geographic disadvantages can be overcome. Financial flows can also be considered a contributing factor. Anyway, Wang points out how the same geographical notions are grasped by the powers, to the point that, paradoxically, in its history China has had several geopolitical positions.

China’s place in time and space has changed during the course of the history of imperialism. Although it was the European powers that attributed the East label to China, this gradually became the self-awareness and self-positioning of the Chinese in the rapid collision with the West in modern times. Mao’s China also initially identified itself with the geopolitical concept of the East. However, during the 1970s, the main threat came from the USSR and Mao adopted the horizontal line with the USA and Japan. In Wang’s view, Mao’s theory of a united front showed how China had effectively already abandoned the Cold War’s geostrategic concept of East and West.

‘Geostrategy’ of the Middle Kingdom

With the reform and opening up of 1978, China’s rapid development became inseparable from Eastern Asia. China looked East and developed as a great power. Our geographic position has changed appreciably, and we can imagine China returning to being ‘China’, that is, the Middle Kingdom.

Only by becoming an imperialist power — imperialism being a unitary, global phenomenon — can the Chinese Dragon hope to definitively overturn the old notion of East. Only if we widen our perspective and consider China as the Middle Kingdom’ of the Asian continent which is developing westward can we envisage China’s regional power assuming a global role. There are potentially a number of different directions in which China’s influence could spread. Wang connects China’s ambition to play an important part in global affairs, and not merely the affairs of Eastern Asia to its projection westward via the maritime and terrestrial routes of the Silk Road.

The westward imperialist hinterland

In the era of continental concentration of finance capitalism, it would be wrong to mechanistically interpret these tendencies as univocal expressions of regional fractions — i.e., maritime routes as an expression of the power of China’s east coast and land routes as the sole expression of the continental hinterland. Undoubtedly this dimension is present, above all in the building of political coalitions which determine the lines of expansion of a continental a power. According to Wang: the first consideration determining the ‘movement towards the West’ is China’s internal equilibrium. The fact that China has developed economically in an eastward direction means that it must undergo internal economic rebalancing. This will influence China’s external equilibrium.

Secondly, China’s continental imperialism, which also includes the East coast, cannot ignore Central and Western Asia — an area in which the other powers are already intervening. Wang does not hesitate to use the concepts of strategic depth and vital space in referring to the huge land masses of China, the USA and Europe.

Russia considers the Caspian region and Central Asia its backyard: it cooperates with oil producers of the Persian Gulf in determining oil prices, and actively intervenes in security issues in the Middle East. The EU depends to a high degree on energy supplies from the Middle East while the Caspian region and Central Asia are the main areas of focus of its energy diplomacy. India considers the Middle East and Central Asia as the keys to the diversification of its energy imports and to its security policy. Even Japan increasingly sees the region as the key to its economic and security interests. Japan’s economic and security interests in the region are also on the rise.

Counter-assurances of the ‘American party’

Wang argues that the West must, above all, rebalance the relations between China and the USA through the great potential for cooperation. The two superpowers must collaborate on the field of energy policies, counter-terrorism and on regional stability. Instead of seeing anywhere west of China as a battlefield they should see it as a buffer for a zero-sum game in Eastern Asia.

The USA made the first move in 2011 when Hillary Clinton announced a New Silk Road’ and predicted that energy reserves in Turkmenistan could more than satisfy demand from India a and Pakistan via a pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that Tajiki cotton could supply the Indian textile industry. Beijing responded with two ‘roads’ towards the West - via sea and land - advancing China’s central role in power relations as well as in economic exchange routes.

China’s geostrategic positioning is ever more dependent on Central Asia, both its land and sea power are equally important. The common view today is that the security question depends on the seas and countries to the East, in other words on the USA and Japan. But, if the Chinese Dragon looks West, the scope for action is vast.

Decades of ambivalence and multidirectional projection will generate various schools of diplomatic and military thought.

Lotta Comunista, March 2021