China could leverage BRI projects to “coerce” nations to deny US forces basing, transit, or operational and logistical support as part of a long-term strategy to reduce America’s influence and become the “clear regional hegemon”, a top American admiral has warned. China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a pet project of President Xi Jinping seeks to build rail, maritime and road links from Asia to Europe and Africa in a revival of ancient Silk Road trading routes. Admiral Philip S Davidson, the nominee for US Pacific Command Commander, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing that China wanted to project power worldwide. “China’s expanding global interests, especially its Belt and Road Initiative-associated projects, have Beijing increasingly looking beyond the region,” he said.
“China is expanding its access to foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support required to regularise and sustain deployments in the Indian Ocean region. This larger overseas logistics and basing footprint will enable Beijing to project and sustain military power at greater distances from China,” Davidson said. Noting that he is supportive of any efforts that help developing countries around the region improve the quality of life of their people, Davidson, however, said the predatory nature of many of the loans and initiatives associated with the BRI leads him “to believe that Beijing is using BRI as a mechanism to coerce states into greater access and influence for China.”
The nations that accept China’s offer of low interest loans, grants, and other financial incentives risk Beijing later manipulating economic deals into future security arrangements, and when these countries are unable to pay, Beijing often offers to swap debt for equity, he said as he cited the example of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. “Ultimately, the BRI provides opportunities for China’s military to expand its global reach by gaining access to foreign air and maritime port facilities. This reach will allow China’s military to extend its striking and surveillance operations from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Aden,” Davidson said.
He warned Beijing could leverage BRI projects to pressure nations to deny US forces basing, transit, or operational and logistical support, thereby making it more challenging for the US to preserve international orders and norms. Davidson said China was pursuing a long-term strategy to reduce US access and influence in the region and become the clear regional hegemon. “China is no longer a rising power but an arrived great power and peer competitor to the United States in the region. In his 2018 State of the Union Address, President Trump called China a ‘rival’, and I fully agree with this assessment,” he said.
In pursuing its goals, China seeks to displace the US as the security partner of choice for countries in the Indo-Pacific, Davidson said. Specific to the military instrument of power, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is using its rapidly increasing defense budget to fund the most ambitious military modernisation in the world, he said.
Davidson expressed concern about Beijing’s intent to erode US alliances and partnerships in the region. “Beijing calls them a relic of the Cold War. In fact our alliances and partnerships have been the bedrock of stability in the Indo-Pacific region for the past seventy years, and they remain a core element of our defense strategy,” he said.