Why is China reclaiming land and extending some small islands in the South China Sea? It is an idea that was seeded at around 2005 when piracy started becoming troublesome in a large sea area all round the coast of Somalia. It . . . grew until there were well over 100 attacks a year involving ransomes of hundreds of millions of pounds and it was only brought to an end in 2012 when a combined Maritime Task Force, of which China was a member, finally got on top of it. Other prominent members whose shipping had also been badly affected were India, Russia, America, and some European countries.
Piracy has also been a problem in the seas around south-east Asia. Whereas Somalian-led piracy was a by-product of its own economic problems, piracy in what China claims to be its own sea territory — but strongly disputed by several other Asian countries with overlapping claims — has been a perennial problem for hundreds of years. But none of the larger powers, except America, are as interested in the Asian problem as around Somalia. Also the other countries in south-east Asia don’t have anywhere near the same sort of naval power.
Nor does China to any great extent. But what it has got to a considerable degree are space satellites. With one or two geostationary satellites overhead and constant air patrols China operating from a central location then China would have considerable surveillance powers over the movements of pirates to be helpful to other Asian countries as well being able to direct its own sea patrols. In this way China would be able to give valuable intelligence about suspected pirates to all those other south-east Asian countries with which, at present, there is some tension, over the extent of the South China Sea which China is claiming for itself.
This is what China’s president, Xi Jinping, calls neigbourhood diplomacy. By this means China hopes to ease the tension that presently exists in south-east Asia. How far it will be successful remains to be seen. Individual countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malasya will have to trade-off losses of fishing capacity against gains in maritime security. More specifically, Xi calls this policy, the Maritime Silk Road.
Because exporting, particularly of physical goods, will be very important to China for many decades to come, the Maritime Silk Road is a natural partner to China’s much more massive project, the Silk Road Economic Belt — high-speed road and rail links between China and Europe with industrial development (equivalent, if you like, to the oases on the original Medieval Silk Road) in the central Asian countries in between.
Combined, the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) policy is the kingpin of present-day China’s policy. America and the European Union will have to adjust to it. There are signs that America is, in fact, doing so already — Xi Jinping will be paying a state visit to America in September. However, how the EU will adjust to China — already having its currency and immigration problems — may be above the pay-scale of the Commissioners in Brussels, so we’ll have to wait and see. As the Chinese are supposed to say: “We live in interesting times”.