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The Pentagon report highlighted a number of strategic challenges from China. Photo: AP

Pentagon warns of global power play behind Chinese projects such as Belt and Road Initiative

  • US Defence Department highlights range of military and non-military challenges to US strategic interests from Beijing’s favoured projects

The Pentagon has said China is using its expanding military, trading and infrastructure network to pursue global leadership in a report that warned that its global ambitions could undermine the security of the United States and its allies and threatened international economic corridors.

Monday’s report assessed China’s military and non-military expansion efforts, such as the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the “Made in China 2025” industrial strategy, and their implications for America around the world.

It coincided with another detailed assessment by the US Defence Intelligence Agency on Tuesday, which said China’s drive to acquire cutting-edge weaponry – including nuclear bombers and a space-based early warning system – was intended to establish itself as a global military power.

In December 2017 US President Donald Trump shifted the focus of US national security policy away from terrorism to make “great power rivalry” with China and Russia his main concern.

Since then the White House has taken a number of measures to counter Beijing, including the multibillion-dollar trade war.

“China’s most substantial expansion of its military access in recent years has occurred in its near-abroad, where territorial disputes in the East and South China seas persist, but China has also expanded its military operations further from the Chinese mainland,” the US Defence Department report said.

“China’s pursuit of expanded global military access is thus driven both by new PLA missions to protect overseas interests and by a shifting approach to potential contingencies along its maritime periphery,” it said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.

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The report, mandated by the US National Defence Authorisation Act for the financial year of 2018, reflects increasing hawkish views among the Trump administration.

Acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan has recently called for an effort to “sharpen and strengthen US competitiveness”.

Although this year marked the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of the US-China relations, recent months have seen growing suspicion and mistrust between the two sides.

The report warned that Chinese tech giants such as ZTE were being used to boost Beijing’s interests. Photo: Reuters

Despite a temporary trade ceasefire he reached with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, Trump has shown little sign of softening his hardline approach towards China.

The report also raised concerns about Beijing’s economic and infrastructure investments and its acquisition of military and dual-use technology.

In particular, it warned that the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Xi’s push for a transcontinental infrastructure and trade network, and the “21st century Digital Silk Road” were designed to serve “greater strategic purposes”.

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Echoing widespread criticism about Beijing’s “predatory loans” and “debt-trap diplomacy”, it cited 17 cases where Chinese investment projects have had a detrimental effect on the host country.

“China’s attempts to gain veto authority over other countries’ decisions, and its coercion directed at US allies and partners in particular, will likely threaten US posture and access if not addressed,” it warned.

The Digital Silk Road strategy, announced by Xi in May 2017 as a plan to boost connectivity in the digital economy, has received little international attention so far compared with the Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing has revealed few details so far, but Xi said the initiative should involve cooperation and development in “frontier areas”, such as the digital economy, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computing, as well as areas such as big data, cloud computing, and “smart cities”.

The report said Beijing was actively using state-owned or state-affiliated enterprises – including China Telecom, China Unicom, China Mobile, Huawei, and ZTE – to push for forced technology transfer and accelerate its race for tech supremacy with the US.

Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms equipment supplier, has suffered major setbacks in its global push to build 5G infrastructure recently and its alleged ties with the Chinese government and military have prompted increasing suspicion around the world.

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Despite a seemingly bipartisan support for a tougher approach on Beijing in the US and frequent hostile comments by Trump administration officials, an article published by the Brookings Institution on Tuesday expressed doubts about the White House’s policies towards China.

It said it was not clear “whether the Trump administration’s objectives are to compel China to alter its behaviour in specific areas of concern, to ‘decouple’ the American economy from China’s through supply chain diversification, or to obstruct China’s rise”.

The article was written by Jeffrey Bader, an Asia adviser to US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, along with senior Brookings fellows David Dollar and Ryan Hass.

“There also is little clarity on the Trump administration’s strategy for achieving its objectives … Such comments reflect an attitude, but not a strategy,” they said.