The USA’s Concerns About China’s Construction of New Ports in Various Countries

08.02.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

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On November 15 last year the popular Hong Kong-based newspaper Asia Times published an article with the headline: Cambodia at the Center of a New Cold War. The article claimed that since 2017 China has been actively lobbying Cambodia’s government to allow it to build naval bases near the port city of Koh Kong (the capital of Koh Kong Province) on the Gulf of Thailand, part of the South China Sea.

The article inevitably attracted a lot of attention, as the South China Sea – including the island of Taiwan – has indeed been the focus of confrontations between the two leading world powers, the USA and China. These confrontations have taken on a global character: and may, without exaggeration, be described as a “new Cold War”. Nevertheless, it might be a bit far-fetched to describe the Kingdom of Cambodia – one of the ten countries bordering on the South China Sea – as the “center” of that new Cold War.

Until recently, the tensions have been focused in the eastern part of the South China Sea, which Beijing (in accordance with its well-known “nine dash line” doctrine) considers to be part of its territorial waters. China has constructed artificial islands in this part of the South China Sea, and is using them as sites for military infrastructure: harbors, military aerodromes, land-based observation posts and anti-missile systems. But other nations bordering on the South China Sea also claim sovereignty over all or some of the archipelagoes in this area. And observers have noted that US Navy ships are also increasingly active in this eastern part of the South China Sea. Washington, which officially adopts a neutral position in relation to China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors, claims that it is merely exercising the general right to “free passage in the South China Sea”.

It is possible to identify two main reasons for China’s wide-ranging activities in the South China Sea in recent years. The first reason is the almost sacred concept, deeply rooted in history, of a “single Chinese nation”. This ideal is a goal in itself, irrespective of any “practical” advantages which it might bring.

The second reason is directly related to China’s current pragmatic policies. One of these concerns the problem of ensuring the uninterrupted and reliable transport of hydrocarbons from its main suppliers in Africa and the Persian Gulf. China’s main geopolitical opponent, the USA, has a near total control over the world’s oceans, and this has prompted China to construct new ports that can be used by its commercial ships as they navigate the crucial shipping route from the Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca into the South China Sea.

The names of such ports as Hambantota, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, and Gwadar, on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, are now well known. Both countries are adamant that they have the right to use their ports for military purposes, even though these ports are leased by China, which also claims such right in respect of both ports.

The most vulnerable section of the above shipping route is the Strait of Malacca, especially the entrance into the strait, which is commanded by the city-state of Singapore. The latter, like all the countries in South East Asia, is caught between the spheres of influence of the two major world powers, and has to maintain a delicate balancing act.

Each country in South East Asia departs slightly from keeping a perfect balance (which would, in any event, be a fragile and uncertain state). Although Singapore is determined to develop links with China, particularly in relation to economic issues, there is still little doubt about its “pro-American” position. Beijing, in its search for a site where it can establish a Chinese military base near the entrance to the Strait, has therefore, naturally enough, had to look elsewhere.

In Cambodia, it seems, Beijing has found what it was looking for. As we now know, in mid-November 2018, on the sidelines of the ASEAN+USA Forum, held in Singapore, representatives from the US and the Cambodian Foreign Ministries discussed the possibility of Cambodia leasing territory on its coast to China. Until the Asia Times reported on these talks in its article, they had completely escaped the notice of the global media.

Several days after the publication of the article, Hun Sen, the Cambodian Prime Minister confirmed that his country had discussed the above issue with the USA, and also that, during the same Singapore Forum he had received a letter from US Vice-President Mike Pence, who had headed the US delegation.

Hun Sen, citing the national Constitution, categorically denied the possibility of any foreign military bases being constructed, or any foreign troops being based, in Cambodia.

It appears that Washington’s fears have prompted the release of information on Beijing’s plans to finance the construction of a tourism resort on a huge site, 450 square kilometers in area (which is clearly too big for a naval base), in Koh Kong Province. Naturally, if the area is to attract tourists, a modern transport and logistical infrastructure will need to be created, especially since the area is not far from Thailand’s well-known and popular coastal resorts. It is very possible that the modernization project will include the port of Koh Kong.

Nevertheless, the US “observation services” will henceforth be keeping a close eye, not only on the ports of Hambantota and Gwadar, but on Koh Kong in Cambodia as well.

And not just on Koh Kong. The USA may soon have reason to be concerned about another port, this time in a country which it never expected to have any problems with. The port in question is Haifa, in Israel. In September 2018 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article with a dramatic headline: Israel is Giving China the Keys to its Largest Port – and the U.S. Navy May Abandon Israel. The article describes a scenario that is indeed difficult to imagine: a single port with a Chinese section, fitted out to service large container ships, side by side with anchorages and shore infrastructure used by US Navy vessels as well as Israeli Navy bases used for submarines (presumably) equipped with nuclear missiles.

A month later the serious and far from sensationalist British magazine The Economist reported that the heads of certain Israeli special services has been “astonished” to see Chinese construction laborers hard at work building something close to one of Haifa’s port terminals.

That author of that article also suggests that the appearance of Chinese workers in Haifa in June 2018 was connected with the activities of the Shanghai-based Shanghai International Port Group, which had, in 2015, won an international tender to modernize certain parts of Haifa’s port. Apparently, the possibility of Chinese companies participating in that tender had not been discussed by the Israeli Government.

According to the article, the Israeli special services are very concerned about the development of wide-ranging ties between Israel and China, especially in relation to the sharing of technological know-how.

However, when the Israeli government is, without warning, accused of making blunders, then this is probably related to the inevitable bickering between the various factions in Israeli politics, especially in the run up to the country’s elections, which will take place in April 2019.

But, with relations with the USA far from simple, the Israeli government is being careful – as far as politics and economics are concerned – not to put all its eggs into one (Chinese) basket.

The influence of Japan – China’s main geopolitical opponent – in Israel’s economy is also growing rapidly. According to one report, the number of Japanese companies doing business in Israel has tripled since 2013, and the total amount of Japanese investment in the country increased dramatically. This year has brought further evidence of the two countries’ shared interest in developing their cooperation (especially in the high technology sector): in mid-January Israel was visited by a Japanese trade delegation. Led by Hiroshige Sekō, the Minister for the Economy, Trade and Industry, it included representatives from major companies in many sectors,

In response to the USA’s concerns about China’s efforts to develop port facilities in various parts of the world, China itself insists that its activities are of an exclusively peaceful nature, and are aimed at supporting the development of its One Belt, One Road initiative.

Whether that is true or not, we can certainly say that, following a fairly static period after the end of the Cold War, we are now seeing radical changes to the international order taking place as we watch, and this ongoing process is likely to have lots of surprises in store for us.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.