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The Nicaragua Canal and China’s Naval Presence in the Caribbean

Michal Thim Michal Thim / Ed. 21. 12. 2015

This month, Wikistrat ran a three-week forum about the construction of the Nicaragua Canal and its impact on shipping and international relations. Analysts discussed the possibility that China might be involving itself in the construction and management of this new waterway in order to increase its naval presence in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

Four of Wikistrat’s top China experts were involved in the discussion: Ali Wyne, a Global Fellow at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century; Kristen Gunness, a China advisor for the Department of the Navy; Michal Thim, a PhD Candidate at the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program; and Dr. Tilman Pradt, a Contributing Analyst in Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk.

Here is what they had to say.

Ali Wyne: It would not be surprising if the Chinese government is either officially supporting or quietly encouraging the work of Wang Jing, the enigmatic telecommunications magnate who has been awarded a fifty-year concession to construct and operate the Nicaragua Canal. As part of its “going out” campaign to secure vital commodities from across the world, China is embarking on a dizzying array of infrastructure projects throughout Latin America. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in January that China aims to invest $250 billion in the region over the next decade.

The attention the project has received is commensurate with the scale of its ambition. Projected to be 172 miles long, 90 feet deep, and between 755 and 1,706 feet in width, it stakes a credible claim to being the most ambitious engineering project in history. Still, it doesn’t appear to signify a fundamentally new pattern of Chinese engagement with Latin America; it is in keeping with a longstanding Chinese effort to strengthen its trade and investment ties in the region by building infrastructure.

Even assuming the canal is completed (almost six dozen prior efforts have failed), it seems premature to venture that China will make it a routine thoroughfare for PLAN vessels. Vying for maritime influence in its own neighborhood (Asia-Pacific) is one matter; risking a showdown in waters far away from home, in an area the United States has long considered its backyard, is a far more fraught proposition.

On balance, though, there is little question that Chinese jurisdiction over a completed transcontinental canal would further challenge America’s strategic position in Latin America.

Kristen Gunness: For years, the Chinese have been increasing their naval presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. These engagements have included meetings between Latin American naval officials and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), joint training exercises and humanitarian missions/exchanges on board the PLAN’s hospital ship.

The canal is potentially another deal of this type, meant to ensure Chinese ships have access while keeping its military footprint small.

The bottom line is that China already has fairly good relations with (and access to) the region. So while the Nicaragua Canal would provide additional access (or ensured access), it is not a game-changer in terms of increasing China’s naval presence.

Michal Thim: Whether the Nicaragua Canal would be used to give the PLAN some presence in the Caribbean is a question of capabilities and intentions.

First, does China have capabilities to make itself present in America’s backyard sea? A recent report from the Office of Naval Intelligence suggests that Beijing is becoming more capable of “blue water” deployments. Its replenishment fleet (under development) is growing and would be crucial for any possible PLAN “Caribbean Task Force” in traversing the vast Pacific Ocean.

Second, just because it can be done, should it be done? Or more bluntly: What would be the point? To put pressure on the U.S. Navy? That would require a sizeable task force, one that would have to pass across great distances of the Pacific Ocean relying only on its replenishment capacity — since there is no one who can or will host the PLAN on its way to Nicaragua.

Moreover, once in the Caribbean, what would the PLAN presence be good for? Why would Beijing jeopardize what it has managed to achieve (i.e., qualitative and quantitative superiority in its “Near Seas”) by committing its navy to make incursions in distant waters, thus spreading its strength thin in a manner that would be difficult to sustain.

This is not to say we won’t see PLAN ships in waters where they have already been on a more frequent basis and/or where we have not seen them before. However, there is a difference between demonstrating the ability to go far beyond the Near Seas and making such a deployment sustained and substantial. If we are worried about the PLAN, we should pay attention to what it can do within the First Island Chain.

Dr. Tilman Pradt: In an economic sense, China might take advantage of the opportunities the Nicaragua Canal offers as a new route for trade. But in a geostrategic sense, China will not increase its presence in the Caribbean. The maxim of China’s foreign policy is to demonstrate growing (military) capabilities without provoking the U.S. On the contrary, especially in today’s geopolitical setting — the Ukrainian crisis, sanctions against Russia and the terrorist threat of ISIS — China is experiencing a relative decrease in the world’s perception of it as a threat. A rebalancing of the U.S. strategic focus back to Europe and to the Middle East–North Africa region seems possible.

In the long run, the Nicaragua Canal could pose a strategic option for China for reciprocity with the U.S. (“keep out from my backyard and I will stay out of yours”). However, it is very unlikely that China will act in such an assertive manner within the next decade. Plus, it lacks the naval capabilities to deploy such a force.

Originally published: The Nicaragua Canal and China’s Naval Presence in the Caribbean

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China 265
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international security 257
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