While the European Commission is wrestling over China’s efforts to draw European countries into joining its Belt and Road Initiative, a similar set of issues deserve attention on the other side of the world.
President Xi Jinping secured deals involving several ports in Italy during an official visit last month, giving China a key maritime and transcontinental gateway into Europe. Meanwhile, China has been conducting legal warfare to consolidate its excessive claims to vast sections of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways.
China’s latest investments in Trieste, on the northern Adriatic Sea, and Genoa, Italy’s biggest seaport, add to a growing network of seaports and maritime trade routes that include stakes in the Greek port of Piraeus, run by Chinese shipping giant Cosco. In Israel, China is building two ports. It has opened its first naval base overseas in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, strategically situated in sea lanes between Asia-Europe trade routes.
A few deals here, a few deals there, and it’s often so low key that many fail to grab attention. It’s only when the dots are joined that the wider picture emerges. In the case of China’s ambition to become a global naval superpower, there are important political and security implications for Europe and the US.
The creeping expansion of China’s presence in the South China Sea should provide a sobering lesson for Europe.
For decades, there have been overlapping claims to the islands, reefs and underwater shoals of the South China Sea involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. China claims more than 80 per cent of the sea, which is home to over 200 specks of land and vast gas and oil reserves, arguing that it has “historic rights” over the area under customary international law. It insists that these rights supersede the rights enjoyed by other coastal countries under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).