While the global community is preoccupied with its mortal battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s two most populous nations have been creeping toward what may become a large-scale armed conflict to determine future regional dominance in central and southeast Asia. The outcome of such a campaign could firmly seat China at the head of the highest international tier of power, yet almost no one outside of the region is talking about it.
The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has already begun embarking on an extroverted campaign to increase China’s international influence, the likes of which are relatively unprecendent in modern Chinese history. One key component of this decades-long initiative involves major increases in both the physical and the figurative Chinese military presence in western China and in central Asia.
As a U.S. intelligence professional throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I witnessed a dynamic surge in Chinese government efforts to secure control of the restive western Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. While those efforts at times included minor infrastructure development projects, increased domestic deployments of military and government assets, and periodic social unrest between culture groups, their scale always paled in comparison to what now appear to be the current Chinese ambitions in that region.
The difference is due to a tidal change in China’s approach and attitude toward the outside world. Traditionally known to be very self-contained and self-interested for a nation of its size, the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping announced in 2013 its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly referred to in English as “One Belt One Road”), through which it intends to invest significantly in infrastructure development across more than 70 foreign countries and organizations.
While the improvements expected by such investment are largely seen as beneficial for small under-developed nations like Vanuatu, Tonga…