China's massive Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure program has long been viewed as a platform to project Chinese power across the globe, despite official assertions to the contrary. New findings from the New York Times have now reinforced that argument, giving more weight to the idea that the investment plan may not purely be the economic project that Beijing insists.
Last week, the Times said it had reviewed a confidential plan about China's military projects in Pakistan under the Belt and Road. According to the proposal, a special economic zone under the BRI's China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will be created to produce fighter jets while navigation systems and other military hardware will be jointly built at factories in Pakistan. That reveals how the world's second-largest economy "is for the first time explicitly tying a Belt and Road proposal to its military ambitions," the Times said.
In response, Lijian Zhao, deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, took to Twitter to protest the newspaper's claims. He called the Times' report "Western propaganda" and emphasized that the bilateral economic corridor was purely economic in nature.
Lijian Zhao Tweet: 3. Western propaganda against BRI & CPEC takes an ugly turn. It is now saying there are military strings. CPEC is the flagship project of Belt & Road Initiative & purely an economic program – as its name suggests. This is beyond western thinking of unilateralism & zero sum game.
For politics watchers, however, the Times' story strengthens deep-rooted suspicions of the BRI as a tool for the People's Liberation Army, China's armed forces.
"This should come as no real surprise," said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2013 to 2016. The Times' report reinforces the notion that China's BRI project has military applications, he continued.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Chinese military will use the entire BRI to its advantage, but it will certainly tap into a number of projects, he added. BRI infrastructure schemes in member countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti "are all about giving access to China's military," he said.
Beijing, last year, formally launched its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Sri Lanka's Hambantota port, which is under control of China Merchants Port Holdings, and a deep-sea port in Pakistan's Gwadar region are widely speculated to be potential bases for China's navy.
"Most people working in military circles knew there was a security dimension to [the BRI] so this [New York Times report] is just a confirmation at best," said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. It's impossible, he added, for a country to separate military power and economic power when it is striving for greatness.
Cynthia Watson, dean of faculty and academic programs at the National War College, echoed that sentiment, saying it was her opinion that the "BRI is a means to alter China's relationship with this vast swath of nations."
"It would be unlikely to completely exclude military [components] in the long run, regardless of policy statements in the past," she said.
Increased China-Pakistan military ties are likely to worry India, which has long been wary of Beijing's network of defense and commercial facilities in countries along the Indian Ocean.
"This could be the next step in the growing China-India rivalry," Fuchs said. "From the Indian perspective, the Chinese are trying to surround them so New Delhi may now step up its military activities."
Reports of the Chinese military's involvement could damage the BRI's reputation at a time when public anger over the project is already high. Citizens of several member nations are unhappy about the terms of Chinese financing and employment.
"Going forward, I think China will still play up the BRI as trade and prosperity but I think more and more people will be suspicious and mobilize the public against the BRI," Chin warned. "In the end, BRI could end up as a logistical route to sell China-made stuff and nothing else."