[SCMP Column] Ruling the waves

February 06, 2017


Some truths glare at you. Some sneak up from behind, no matter how obvious they ought to be. So it was that a research team from King’s College London, supported by the Financial Times, declared last month that China now “rules the waves”, becoming a world maritime superpower.

So much, so obvious. Of course China ought to be a global maritime superpower. It has a 9,000 mile coastline, is the world’s biggest marine fisherman, and as manufacturer to the world has become home to six of the world’s 10 busiest ports. But the King’s College research goes further, to suggest that China is pursuing a global quest to dominate the world’s sea lanes, and to parley its huge commercial maritime infrastructure into global military power.

Without doubt, if you are in Donald Trump’s anti-China war room, or among Vietnamese or Philippine fisherfolk in the South China Sea, or generally predisposed to believe that China is a nation with malevolent intent, the story must resonate powerfully.

But is China truly building global maritime control by stealth? Or are the developments vividly described by the King’s College team more the natural outcome of China’s emergence as a major global trading economy? At this point – and at the risk of being accused of being a naïve China apologist – I see more evidence of the former.

But the extent of China’s global maritime reach today is striking. It is premature to talk of China as a challenger to the US as policeman of the world’s oceans, but if I were senior in the US Pacific Fleet, I would be watching developments with meticulous interest.

As China has emerged from autarkic isolation in the 1970s to become one of the world’s largest trading powers, so the emergence of China’s ports, and China’s merchant fleet should be no surprise. In 2000, China was home to five of the world’s top 50 ports (if you include Hong Kong). Today it has six of the top 10. Chinese companies today own, or have invested in, 30 of the top 50 ports worldwide.

These 30 ports – which include Gwadar in Pakistan, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Piraeus in Greece – last year handled two thirds of global container volumes, up from 41% in 2010. According to the King’s College team, Hong Kong and Mainland port operators have committed almost US$46bn in the past five years to deals in 40 ports worldwide. To me, this would seem a natural corollary of Xi Jinping’s cherished “One Belt, One Road” initiative, with commitment to improving infrastructure linkage across the Asia-Pacific region. But defence or strategic power analysts are no doubt using a different prism.

In tandem with port development, China’s shipping lines have grown to deliver more containers worldwide today than those from any other country. According to the shipping consultancy Drewry China’s top five carriers together controlled almost one fifth of global container shipping.

To me, this explosion is the natural and inevitable outcome of changing patterns in world trade. In 1970, most global maritime trade involved carrying raw materials from the poor developing world to processors, manufacturers and consumers in the affluent west. According to the UN, developing economies then accounted for 63% of cargoes loaded, but just 18% of cargoes unloaded. Today, as developing economies, in particular China, become significant consumers in their own right, so cargoes unloaded have soared to 61% of cargoes unloaded worldwide.

There is four times as much cargo carried between Asia and North America as is carried across the Atlantic – and four times as much cargo carried between Asia and Europe. China today accounts for 50% of the world’s steel production, and uses 46% of world supply. It accounts for 68% of world iron ore imports, 20% of world coal imports, and 33% of Asia’s grain imports. No wonder China has become the world’s leading maritime trading power.

China has similarly for many years dominated global fishing – both marine fishing, and inshore aquaculture. Out of a total world marine fish catch of 93.4m tonnes a year, China accounts for nearly 15m tonnes. Of 56m people employed worldwide in fisheries, China accounts for around 14m – 9m at sea and 5m fish farming inside China. Of a total world fishing fleet of 4.6m vessels, China accounts for an estimated 700,000 – around twice the total of the world’s second largest fishing fleet in Japan. But before anyone breaks into a sweat, we should remember that more than two thirds of these vessels are less than 10m long, and only one third have engines.

The King’s College researchers begin to hyperventilate when they discover how many of the new China-built or invested ports now provide sanctuary to Chinese naval vessels, or have dual-use potential – in particular at Gwadar in Pakistan, and in Djibouti. As one Indian researcher noted: “There is an inherent duality in the facilities that China is establishing in foreign ports, which are ostensibly commercial but quickly upgradeable to carry out essential military missions.”

Point taken, but how gravely concerned should we be? It is important to recall that the US navy, which accounts for 3.4m deadweight tonnes of vessels, has more naval hardware than the world’s next nine navies combined. China, with about 770,000 dwt, is around one fifth the size.

Defence analysts also express concern at the growth of China’s coastguard. With over 200 vessels, China’s coastguard fleet is almost three times the size of Japan’s fleet. But along a 9,000 mile coastline, how exceptional is this? The United States, with a 12,380 mile coastline, has a coastguard fleet of 1,400 vessels. Of course, China’s coastguard are bumping around in an inherently more sensitive maritime region than the US’s, teeming with globally important shipping lanes, and numerous contested areas around the South China Sea.

The “revelations” of the King’s College research at this point don’t amount to anything that could realistically be described as a “clear and present danger”. But the pace of growth of China’s maritime power is striking – both in the Pacific and beyond. At present evidence of malevolent intent is weak, but the balance of maritime power now needs to be monitored with care.
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