China 'goes to school' in understanding Suez Canal choke-point, with eye on Malacca Strait

The virtual maritime jam, re-routing of ships and the colossal financial damages caused by this Suez Canal 'choke' is a real-time experience, of inevitable helplessness, in such situations

Bhopinder Singh March 29, 2021 10:37:12 IST
China 'goes to school' in understanding Suez Canal choke-point, with eye on Malacca Strait

A handout picture released by the Suez Canal Authority on 25 March shows an Egyptian officials checking the operation trying to free Taiwan-owned cargo MV Ever Given (Evergreen). AFP

Regime-insecurity is the principal driver of the asymmetric and indecipherable Chinese government's behaviour. Since defeating the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Chinese Nationalist Party at the end of the civil war in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has helmed one of the longest-running single-party regimes in modern history. It is arguably the most sophisticated regimes that deploys a complex admixture of repression, censorship, propaganda, technology and nationalism to overcome any threat to its perceived legitimacy.

The widely-believed transformation from one of the world's poorest countries to among the biggest economies on earth (lifting over half a billion Chinese out of poverty) has denied public space and rationale for any counter-revolution. But externally, where the CCP's power to control the narrative is beyond its control, it remains skittish, hypersensitive and proactive to take preemptive measures. These carefully-calibrated plans are borne out of deep introspection, scenario imagination and perspective planning.

What plays out thereafter is a slew of relentless investments under the Military-Industrial Complex framework, expansionist tendencies and the sovereign bankrolling — executed cleverly by remaining deliberately vague, practicing realpolitik and often doing so, counter-intuitively. Reading Beijing confounds pundits of diplomacy, as Beijing plans decades 'ahead of demand', and that strategic forethought typically challenges the tenure-linked leaderships, in the fast-revolving doors of democracies.

China rarely sleeps, it watches ever global changes very intently.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley remarked, "China went to school on us" in an allusion to the Chinese learning lessons from watching the US conduct wars in West Asia. He added, "They watched us very closely in the First Gulf War, the Second Gulf War. They watched our capabilities. And in many ways, they have mimicked those, and they have adopted many of the doctrines and organisations."

The CCP also monitored the political-societal unrest following the so-called Arab Spring (just as it had conducted a massive study to understand the causes of the Soviet Union collapse) and prematurely snubbed any portent of a potential Jasmine Revolution by getting ahead of events and controlling the narrative. The most significant strategic punt to stay ahead-of-the-curve, is the $1 trillion outflow-led, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a hyper-connectivity and 'cooperation' gambit that seeks to unleash the Chinese footprint and facilitate covert expansionism, by securing multiple arterial options beyond the existing infrastructural routes and vulnerabilities, for the existing to-and-fro.

One acutely imagined vulnerability for the Chinese was coined as the Malacca Dilemma in 2003, by then-Chinese president Hu Jintao. This ultra-narrow and practically unavoidable marine strait sustains the Chinese juggernaut of the mammoth energy-guzzling Military-Industrial Complexes on the Chinese mainland, and opens perilously close to the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This potentially offers a practical 'choke-point' to India, to potentially enforce military measures to block these supply lines that are critical to China's energy and commerce, hence regime-sustenance. Expectedly, China moved quickly and created a viable Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) and started building oil pipelines (eg Kazakhstan-China Pipeline, Eastern Siberian Pacific Ocean Pipeline, Myanmar-Yunnan Pipeline, Gwadar-Xinjiang Pipeline etc) — besides, other BRI imperatives like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which physically connects Gwadar port in Balochistan to mainland China, through interlinkages of infrastructural projects.

So far, all alternatives are in various stages of development and the pandemic pressures have ebbed the appetite to invest as aggressively, as originally envisaged. Till then, Malacca Straits is a geopolitical sweet-spot/nightmare of a 'choke-point' that till now, was only imagined — but, the ensuing spectre of giant container ship MV Ever Given stuck sideways, that ran aground in the narrow Suez Canal that cuts between the African continent and the Sinai Peninsula, is Doomsday 1.0.1 for the Chinese, playing out in chilling reality.

The virtual maritime jam, re-routing of ships and the colossal financial damages caused by this Suez Canal 'choke' is a real-time experience, of inevitable helplessness, in such situations. Obviously the context of the choke-point is literally and physically choke-able in the single-lane stretches (for about six kilometres) of the Suez Canal – and the same physical 'narrowness' is not applicable in the Malacca Straits (given the narrowest stretch is one-and-a-half kilometres wide), however the same dynamic of the 'choke' is potentially enforceable with Indian Navy ships positioned at the mouth of the Malacca Straits. Less than 20,000 ships pass the Suez Canal annually or about 12 percent of world trade, whereas the stakes at the Malacca Straits are substantially higher with at least 1,00,000 ships traversing through the narrow straits.

Wedged diagonally, the Ever Given (measuring at a length that exceeds that of four football fields) has remained unexcavated for nearly a week despite the global might of technology, resources and investments to remedy the situation. Interestingly and expectedly, China has enthusiastically joined the global efforts to support the efforts to dislodge the ship — China could well be using this opportunity 'to go to school' on managing such choke-points, something that has haunted its imagination and fueled its alternative plans, for long.

While the Chinese account for only 10 percent of the value that passes through the Suez Canal, they also realise that this is a non-hostile and inadvertent 'choke' that impacts the entire global supply chain — what could happen in Malacca Straits in an belligerent mode, could be decidedly more complex. Unlike the Suez Canal crisis, where the Chinese benefit from the only international power-projection outpost of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, further down the Red Sea — the geography surrounding Malacca Straits offers no such base of consequence within SOS reach.

The current outreach of the Chinese navy is effectively limited to the restive South China Seas, as it has yet to acquire Blue-Water-Force capabilities and the recent coalescing of the Sino-wary Quad (US, Japan, India and Australia) do not augur well for Beijing, either. India's still conceptual/posturing 'Tri-Service Command' at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be given meaningful bite with additional reinforcements and supplements.

Already the theatre has witnessed many interoperability naval exercises with many 'friendly' nations joining hands in a symbolic show of strength and intent. The exact theatre of concern for the Chinese and the invaluable lever of 'choke' for the Sino-wary forces, is Malacca Straits. But the Chinese are past masters in learning lessons at others' expense and in this latest incident playing out in the Suez Canal, the Chinese would be drawing up crucial lessons for what President Xi Jinping calls 'comprehensive national strength', which is predicated on China operating on its own terms, without any 'choke'.

The author is former Lieutenant-Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry

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