Robert D. Kaplan on China's Port Expansion in the Indian Ocean (Agenda)

MIN READJun 29, 2012 | 13:36 GMT

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Video Transcript:

Colin Chapman: Now here's a story. Indian-manufactured autos shipped to a brand new Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka, where they are picked up by a bulk carrier: destination Algeria. The deep-sea port, constructed and largely financed by the Chinese at a cost of $1.5 billion, straddles a major eastward shipping route used by 200 to 300 international vessels daily. Sri Lankan officials say China has agreed to build a second port in Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo and Chinese firms have pledged investments amounting to $50 billion spread over the next decade or so. This is only part of the story, for China is always building a whole range of ports on the rim of the Indian Ocean.

Welcome to Agenda. I'm Colin Chapman and joining me to discuss this is Stratfor's chief analyst Robert D. Kaplan. First, tell me more about this new port.

Robert D. Kaplan: Yes, a few days ago, Hambantota port on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, which in turn is an island, sort of a teardrop hanging off of the bottom of the Indian subcontinent. At this southern tip, the Chinese built a massive port project, and the port finally opened a few days ago. I have visited this port, it is just massive. I was there in the early stages of building, and I can say that it is a great age in history to be a Chinese civil engineer because they are really building things, the way the United States built things during the 1930s with the Grand Coulee Dam and the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system in the 1950s. The Chinese have been building massive state of the art ports and harbors in Sri Lanka, off Myanmar, in Qatar, in Pakistan, they've been involved in upgrading port projects in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and Lamu in northern Kenya. What unites all of these places is, they're all in the Indian Ocean. They are all where the Afro-Asian continent meets the Indian Ocean, so that China eventually, through building these ports, will have access, commercial maritime access along the whole route that brings energy, oil and natural gas from the Middle East all the way to Asia. Because the Indian Ocean is sort of the world's energy interstate and China will have a maritime presence, perhaps even a naval presence in some distant morrow. So the opening of this port in southern Sri Lanka is of real geopolitical significance.

Colin: Are there any agreements for China's military use of any of these ports, or has there been any indication this actually might happen?

Robert: Technically no. So far they're designed solely for trade, but keep this in mind: In all these countries, or most of them, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the Chinese have given significant amounts of military aid and economic aid as well as building these ports — in other words, tying these regimes closer to China. The hope is that China eventually will have very close relations with these countries, will have port projects that it has built, so that its burgeoning navy can make regular port visits to all of these countries. And the Chinese will also be able to use these ports as maritime commercial throughput facilities, so that they can warehouse consumer goods for sale in Europe, in Africa and in other places. The Chinese, I should say, have also been developing ports in Piraeus, Greece, in Rijeka, Croatia, this is in the eastern Mediterranean, so we're seeing the very early stages of the 21th century equivalent of 19th century British coaling stations that will give China a two-ocean presence, the western Pacific plus the Indian Ocean and part of the eastern Mediterranean. This is how empires have always begun in history.

Colin: Right. Now is there infrastructure, with roads and rail, linking these South Asian ports to China?

Robert: It's a mixed bag. There's very little infrastructure in Qatar and Pakistan. There is a road, a modern road that connects Qatar all the way along the Arabian Sea to Karachi. But there is no serviceable, safe road that you can take from Qatar north inland all the way up to the border with western China. That will have to wait until Pakistan and Afghanistan themselves are politically stabilized, if they ever are. Sri Lanka is a relatively small island and there is an infrastructure being built connecting Hambantota with Colombo. When it comes to Myanmar, yes the Chinese are building roads and rails to connect Kyauk Phyu, the Chinese-built port, with Yunnan province in southern China. China hopes to transport natural gas from the Bay of Bengal across Myanmar into Yunnan province, thereby avoiding the congested Strait of Malacca. The Strait of Malacca is really a problem for China because it's narrow. Eighty percent of China's crude oil imports come through the Strait of Malacca. The Chinese leadership would like to diversify that, it would like to be less dependent on the Strait of Malacca and that's where some of these port, road and rail projects are going. Just to sum up, I would say that Sri Lanka and Myanmar are now, Gwadar is for the middle or distant future. Bangladesh and Kenya are for sort of the near-middle future.

Colin: Robert D. Kaplan, chief analyst of Stratfor and author of a book about the importance of the Indian Ocean: Monsoon. That's Agenda for this week, thanks for being with us, bye for now.






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