Beijing’s Asia Pivot in 2016

In its own “pivot” of sorts, China looks set to pursue broader ties in the Asia-Pacific region in 2016, advancing initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and ramping up maritime and land trade corridors. Seven experts assess the challenges and opportunities in China’s relations with Southeast Asia, Japan, Central Asia, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and Australia in the next year.

Authors: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, Council on Foreign Relations Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Alexander Gabuev, Senior Associate and Chair, Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program, Carnegie Moscow Center Brahma Chellaney, Professor of strategic studies, Centre for Policy Research James Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Northeast Asian Politics, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations Merriden Varrall, Director, East Asia Program, Lowy Institute. Interviewer(s): Eleanor Albert, Online Writer/Editor


Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army march during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing, China. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of strategic studies, Centre for Policy Research

China has embarked on major initiatives to change the region’s geopolitical map with its own Asian pivot. The Silk Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank epitomize Beijing’s efforts to reshape Asia’s security and financial architecture. In 2016, China appears determined to step up its efforts to fashion a Sino-centric Asia in place of the present regional order centered on a stable balance of power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has articulated a more expansive role for China than any leader since Mao Zedong. His One Belt, One Road project, an expansive initiative to build up land and maritime trade routes,  is intended to extend the country’s commercial and strategic interests. The Maritime Silk Road and the overland Silk Road encompass Southern Asia and are linked by the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run the Chinese-built port at Gwadar for forty years, which, given its location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, is expected to become a critical outpost for the Chinese navy. Beijing, in turn, has finalized the sale of eight submarines to Islamabad, a transfer that would more than double the size of Pakistan’s submarine force. China is clearly using Pakistan as a launch pad to play a bigger role in the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean are also reflected in its submarine forays in the region, which began in 2014, and the announcement that it would establish a naval hub in Djibouti, which overlooks the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Sina Military Network, a Beijing-based defense website with ties to the People’s Liberation Army, has claimed that ten Chinese attack submarines could blockade India’s eastern and western coastlines. The question of whether the Maritime Silk Road is just a benign-sounding new name for Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy can no longer be dismissed.

Make no mistake: China’s strategic maneuvering in the Indian Ocean and Southern Asia draws strength from its muscular actions in the South China Sea, where it has incurred no international costs for creating artificial islands to host military facilities and expand its sea frontiers. Beijing’s territorial nibbling in the Himalayas and its damming of international rivers on the Tibetan plateau are also part of its effort to change the status quo.

© Council on Foreign Relations, January 5, 2016.