At least as early as the second century BCE, China has sought to control trade throughout the known world. By being the primary source of silk textiles, China set itself as a powerhouse in world economics. The silk textiles that were available almost exclusively from China became sought by others throughout the world, bringing others to trade with China.
For approximately 1,700 years, into the mid-15th Century, trade routes were developed to China for others to be able to obtain these silk textiles and other items that were produced by China. Covering over 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers), the Silk Road or Silk Routes was used by China to traverse land and sea to explore and “pacify” new lands. China secured these routes with soldiers and used them to gather information and resources.
Silk textiles were not the only commodity that China provided to the world over these routes. The Chinese also used these routes to supply Europe, the Middle East, and others with such other commodities as tea, dyes, perfumes, and porcelain. Due to the desire for these items, the routes helped develop diplomatic ties with much of the world as it was known at the time. Paper and gunpowder were additional items that China used to trade with others in exchange for horses, camels, honey, wine, and gold.
In “securing” these routes, China expanded its territory such that the Great Wall was expanded in length. As they would enter new areas, they would conquer the peoples there and take that land as their own, incorporating it into the Chinese empire.
The mutually-beneficial trade of these products, combined with Chinese offers to secure the routes, laid the foundation for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of today’s era and has led to fears that China will attempt to expand their empire much as they did through the mid-15th Century.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping began the BRI as a way to expand China’s influence throughout the world. Having fallen into being a third-world country, China had also begun becoming a source of various items to the world. Particularly in the United States, it was becoming difficult to locate an item that did not have at least some components that were made in China. As time rolled on, China would become an industrial powerhouse, providing virtually all manner of electronics and trinkets to the world, and becoming the primary source for these.
The BRI, though, expanded this. Using the money that had been generated through the sale of items to other parts of the world, China began offering its services to help provide infrastructure to primarily underdeveloped countries. To help bring these countries into the 21st Century, China offered to build and maintain roads, water and sewage systems, and other infrastructure, including seaports and airports, for countries in need. Through the BRI, China provides trillions of dollars in loans and services to recipient countries with strict repayment schedules. In many cases, part of the agreements also includes the installation of Chinese countries to operate the ports and services.
Despite fears by some that China, under communist rule, could use these efforts to expand its military influence throughout the world, China was allowed to continue “under the radar” without much, if any, fanfare. By establishing roadways, ports, airfields, and other infrastructure that are just as vital for military operations, China was seeming, as the fears warned, to develop the base structure that could be used by military forces should China choose to do so.
Over the past few years, China has begun its efforts to use the BRI to expand its military presence around the world. As with the building of the infrastructure, China has quietly been moving military operations surreptitiously into these programs. On the pretense of securing the facilities, it is suspected that these operations are actually for surveillance of others, both Chinese citizens working abroad as well as of security and military installations of other countries.
The most recent count has the BRI active in at least 44 countries in all corners of the world. Almost every continent on the planet has at least one country enrolled in the BRI and working with Chinese companies, indirectly with the Chinese government, to establish infrastructure and enhance industries supported by shipping ports and airports.
Although not officially a part of the BRI, Afghanistan accepted assistance from and developed a compact with Chinese corporations and the Chinese government when the Taliban filled the Afghani government void created by the removal of U.S. troops in August 2021. This caused consternation among some as Afghanistan holds the world’s largest field of lithium, which is used in the manufacture of almost all rechargeable batteries.
Similarly not included in the BRI but also developing a cozy relationship with China is Honduras. This relationship has strengthened such that Taiwan, under constant threat of invasion by Chinese forces, recalled its ambassador to Honduras on March 23, 2023.
Since mid-2022, focus was placed on Chinese so-called “police stations” located in other countries such as the U.S. and Canada. Operating within these “free” countries, worry was formed that the stations’ purpose is two-fold: to make sure that Chinese citizens remained true to their country, and to become intelligence centers regarding other citizens and residents of the host countries. This fear has been combined with land purchases by Chinese companies and citizens in the U.S. near U.S. military installations, with plans to develop the property such that it could easily hide surveillance and intelligence-gathering equipment and operations. These activities have gained attention through U.S. Congressional and law enforcement inquiries.
Also not included in the list of BRI activities is an agreement between China and Iran, one of America’s nemeses in the Middle East. While details have not been made available to the West, China is to reportedly invest $400 billion in Iran’s economy over a 25-year period. Signed in March 2021, this agreement likely led to the recent restoral of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, once the U.S.’s closest ally after Israel in the region.
The accord between Iran and Saudi Arabia, negotiated by China, comes only two and a half years after the so-called Abraham Accords that saw Israel develop normalization agreements with the Arabic countries of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. Similarly, Saudi relations with Iran reverse a trend that had reportedly been occurring for several months, if not for years.
Despite not having established diplomatic relations in the history of Israel’s establishment, Israel’s newly-normalized relations with other Arab countries combined with a deteriorating relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) had led to a warming of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well. Iran has long supported Hamas in the former state of Palestine, so Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the PNA was seen by many as an indicator of Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran. As that deteriorated, Iran’s arch-enemy of Israel was seen to gain favor with Saudi Arabia.
In coordinating the meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials, China was instrumental in reversing the trend of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This places the United States in an interesting position as their two closest allies in the region seem headed toward opposing sides should conflict erupt.
Although Iran is not officially enrolled in the BRI as that would likely be prohibited by embargoes against Iran, Saudi Arabia is a member. With that, many suspect that China, either directly or through proxies such as North Korea, is supplying Iran with materials and technology needed to develop its war arsenal which has been shared with the likes of Russia. Such assistance also would have pushed Iran closer to the development of nuclear weapons that could be used against U.S. allies such as Israel or countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Saudi Arabia’s involvement with the BRI is not the only one in the Middle East that worries those concerned about China using the BRI to develop infrastructure for their own military desires.
Pakistan, while considered to be part of Asia, lies just to the east of the Middle East and is bordered by Afghanistan on the north and Iran on the west. Constantly in conflict with U.S. ally India to their south, Pakistan joins other countries surrounding India as a member of the BRI. This list of member countries includes Sri Lanka to the south of India and Malaysia to India’s east.
On the western side of Saudi Arabia BRI boasts members Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. This essentially provides China with the ability to control the Gulf of Aden, where the USS Cole was attacked in 2000.
Moving toward the heart of the African continent, China has enrolled Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Sudan. As African countries have a reputation for being notoriously corrupt and tribal in nature, providing infrastructure and then “securing” this with their own forces as they did for almost 1,700 years would allow China to take control of these areas as they have done previously. Having a foothold in these countries also allows for expansion into other countries with similar reputations.
In the far south of the African continent, China and Russia recently also held military exercises with South Africa’s forces. Even though South Africa is not currently part of the BRI, being able to base military forces there would provide China with access to other African countries that are not already part of the BRI. Access to the continent for China is already located in countries that could play strategic roles for the Chinese military.
In North Africa, China has installed the BRI in countries such as Algeria and Nigeria, near countries with dubious relations with the U.S. such as Libya. These are also near countries with less-than-stable governments such as Niger, Chad, and Ghana. The possibility of expansion of China’s influence on these countries and their potential development of infrastructure that could be used by China’s military concerns many.
Moving closer to the United States, China has expanded the BRI to the South American countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela. This causes concern as Argentina was reputed to have been a safe haven for Nazi officials after World War II, and those officials are suspected to have also traveled and settled in the other countries listed. China moves northward toward the U.S. by also enrolling Central American countries such as Panama, where the U.S. previously had assisted with the development of the Panama Canal.
In the Caribbean, China has developed BRI ties with Jamaica and Barbados. Both of these are hot vacation spots for U.S. citizens but also are close enough to become strategic locations for Chinese military operations.
Combined with their BRI connections in Europe and the Eurasian Economic Union – Poland, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Russia, and Belarus are all members – the expansion described above provides China with substantial opportunity to also expand their military presence around the world. This basically provides a surrounding of the larger and better-known European countries.
China is home to roughly one-fifth of the world’s population (1.454 trillion to 7.942 trillion). With a male population almost twice the total population of the United States (an estimated 722 million to 336 million), China, through forced conscription, would be able to easily overpower any forces that they face.
Having developed the BRI into countries rich in metals and other materials vital to technological advancement, China also has the capability to surpass virtually all other countries in the development of advanced weapon systems. They have already proven to surpass the United States in the development of hypersonic weapons. Further, these technological capabilities also provide China with the opportunity to disable weapons and security intended to protect China’s foes.
Through BRI and other strategic partnerships, it appears that China is looking to remake the World Order according to its desires. As they did during the years of the Silk Road, China is using the BRI to expand its influence and its empire.
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