China's accidental empire is a growing danger

A Victorian historian said that Britain “conquered... half the world in a fit of absence of mind”.

Chinese Communist Party leaders are not normally associated with absentmindedness, but rather with cool, calculated, long-term strategic thinking. Yet China might well now be building a mixture of influence and obligation - the modern version of an empire- in quite a British way, and one that promises to cause increasing tension with its giant neighbour and regional rival, India.

Events in Sri Lanka, as that nation finally brings an end to a quarter-century-long civil war, are the latest example of China's growing overseas reach. The victory of the Sri Lankan Government was assisted by the supply of arms from China, especially fighter jets, as The Times revealed on May 2, while the Chinese are also building a spanking new port on the southern coast of the country, which the Chinese Navy will be able to use for refuelling and repairs.

This is part of a broad move by China into the Indian Ocean, which India has traditionally considered its sphere of influence. Chinese engineers are building another port at Gwadar in Pakistan; roads are being cut or improved through Burma to help trade routes between Yunnan province in China and the Indian Ocean; ties are being improved with island nations such as the Seychelles; surveillance stations are being sited or upgraded on Burmese islands.

During the 1990s, Chinese foreign policy followed a dictum laid down by Deng Xiaoping, the country's wise old leader, in line with an ancient Chinese saying that China should (to paraphrase) “keep its head down, build its strength and hide its claws”.

The old Maoist-era policy of trying to export revolution was dropped. Border disputes with most of China's Asian neighbours were resolved. Aid started to be handed out to poor countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Burma to buy friendship, promote trade and, others would argue, build dependency.

China's long-time policy of supporting Pakistan, as a means of keeping India preoccupied by the confrontation with its old enemy, was maintained, but in a more discreet way. Arms sales and other aid were also provided to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, but China was careful not to make the support too blatant and substantial, for fear of annoying India.

Just as in 19th-century Britain, however, commerce is now producing a new set of complications. Chinese industry's hunger for oil and other natural resources from the Arabian Gulf and from Africa has led to huge increases in trade across the Indian Ocean to China, as well as to big investments by Chinese state-owned companies in mines and oil wells in Africa.

Chinese workers have moved to Africa, and Chinese soldiers have been sent to protect them in the more unstable countries, such as Sudan and Ethiopia. Most of all, though, Chinese trade will increasingly need protection against piracy or, in future, against blockades in times of international conflict.

Hence the flag of Chinese military power is following its trade. And when countries such as Sri Lanka ask to buy weapons, while others deny them because of bossy worries about human rights abuses, what could be more natural, commercial and friendly than for China to accede to their requests?

Everything China is doing in the Indian Ocean can be explained away by its growing economy and by the natural evolution of a new superpower's military expansion.

Ports and roads need to be built to avoid China being exclusively dependent on ships passing through the Malacca Strait between Singapore and Indonesia, which could easily be blockaded by enemies. The Chinese Navy needs ports and refuelling stations to be able to play its part in policing sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, just as Indian, British, French, American and, soon even Japanese, warships do.

Much of China's double-digit annual increase in military expenditure is now being devoted to strengthening its navy, where in the past the stand-off with Taiwan was the main concern. New classes of submarine are being introduced. At the recent 60th-anniversary celebrations for the Chinese Navy, loud hints were dropped that China would soon start building aircraft carriers, essential for any country wanting to project its naval power beyond simply coastal patrols.

Thus, on the face of it, no one should be worried, or still less surprised, by the steady expansion of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean and in Africa. It is just what you would expect from the world's third-largest economy, one that certainly has proud visions of itself as one of the global leaders of the future. Yet many people certainly are worried. And they are right to be.

The most worried are in India, where the favoured phrase on military planners' lips is of “Chinese encirclement”, thanks to all those ports and military facilities being built in India's South Asian neighbourhood, and thanks to Chinese arms sales in the region. But other Asian countries, too, are nervous about an expanded and more powerful Chinese Navy, partly because many still have unresolved territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea but also because they can see the military balance in the region becoming ever more unequal.

Most of all, Chinese expansion is causing concern because its military spending and operations are so untransparent, and because the region has no Nato or equivalent to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) through which regional defence and security concerns can be openly discussed and resolved. There is really only the US Navy and American diplomacy.

No one can stop Chinese expansion. But what they can and should try to do is build regional institutions - Asian versions of the European Union, Nato or the OSCE - within which that expansion can be monitored and to some degree regulated. The alternative is a regional arms race as India, Japan and others build up their own military strength, as an insurance policy against future Chinese aggression. That is already beginning to happen. If that arms race gets out of control, the results could be truly dangerous for the whole world.

Bill Emmott, the author of Rivals - How the Power Struggle between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade.