2021 will likely be a big year for Chinese development westward. However, the possibility that China will use 2021 as an opportunity to test the resolve of its adversaries in Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi, Taipei and Canberra cannot be dismissed.
The political repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which can be attributed to mismanagement by the Chinese government, have been largely avoided. China’s greatest strategic adversary, the United States, was recently embarrassed after a mob of rioters stormed the US Capitol. And Japan and the US have or will have new administrations that are likely to be less antagonistic toward Beijing.
The Indian Ocean
Much of this will occur in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is the most important theater of the maritime “road” of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing signed a 99-year lease with Sri Lanka that will give China vital port access in-route to the Middle East and Europe and a strategic position against India.
Beijing’s relationship with Pakistan has continued to strengthen as China is pouring billions in investment into that country and has access to a deep-water port that will serve as a line between the Indian Ocean and Eurasia.
Additionally, China’s development of ties to Bangladesh and the Maldives will grow, leaving India encircled by Chinese naval and maritime power. As Beijing invests more in the Indian Ocean, China will have more access to the African and European markets. This will also give China greater access to energy and the Middle East.
This can all be attributed to the so-called “String of Pearls” strategy that will strengthen Beijing’s grip over the Indian Ocean.
The Middle East
China has played a delicate balancing act in the Middle East for years. It has had a healthy relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran, both vital energy exporters, even as the relationship between the two Persian Gulf nations has deteriorated. The election of Joe Biden might prove to be fortuitous for Beijing as it continues this balancing act in 2021. President-elect Biden is an outspoken proponent of the Iran Deal, which was signed while he was vice president. While Tehran maintains it will not reenter the agreement with the US, the relations between the two nations will likely be less hostile, though still highly contentious.
Should the Biden administration lessen economic pressure on Iran, Beijing will have greater access to the Iranian market. This will manifest itself in more than energy investment. Through the BRI, China will be positioned to invest more in the Iranian market as well.
Iran is not the only country that might see closer ties with China. Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia during the Obama years were notoriously poor. While the US remains Saudi Arabia’s most important partner, it is questionable whether the US-Saudi relationship will be as strong as it has been during the Trump administration.
As Riyadh continues to fight a war in Yemen and seeks to strengthen its defenses it might turn to countries like China for arms should pressure arise from the US due to Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations during their air campaigns over Yemen.
The first frontier of the land-based “belt” of the BRI is Central Asia. The region is underdeveloped, underinvested in and home to vast amounts of energy resources. Chinese investment in the region seems like a foregone conclusion.
One place to watch is Afghanistan, which China shares a short stretch of its border with. Chinese influence in the region has been rising and Beijing harbors hopes of eventually developing Afghanistan as an energy highway.
In other Central Asian states, China will likely continue to invest in infrastructure and build highways connecting China with the rest of Eurasia. Economics is not the only realm that will be affected, as there will likely be developments in security strategy as well.
China will also invest heavily in the republics of Central Asia to help deter against any hostility toward Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority. Being that Central Asia is historically in Russia’s sphere of influence, the possibility exists for the Sino-Russian relationship to either grow stronger or to weaken, depending on how the political leadership of both nations approach the issue.
The challenges presented by Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea will continue into 2021. Beijing will continue its naval buildup and continue projecting its power and sovereignty out into the South China Sea.
With an incoming Biden administration that is likely to be less coercive toward China and a new Suga government in Japan that will likely be more concerned with domestic concerns, raising tensions in the South China Sea or East China Sea would not serve Beijing’s interest.
However, as seen most recently with the increasing tensions between China and India that have continued to puzzle analysts, Beijing does not always act according to expectations.
All the possible futures explored are predicated on human behavior, which is unpredictable. 2021 will likely be a big year for Chinese development westward. However, the possibility that China will use 2021 as an opportunity to test the resolve of its adversaries in Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi, Taipei and Canberra cannot be dismissed.
Either way, the pace of history will increase and the tone of the next few years will be set in the following months.
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