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China Takes Lead in Asia's Economic Great Game


A Chinese-built mega-port in the capital of Sri Lanka began the process of opening for business today. The enormous facility was built mostly with Chinese money and resources and sits astride some of the most important maritime transport routes in the world. Operating at full capacity, it would be one of the 20-largest container ports in the world.

Some policy-makers and analysts, especially in India, fret that China’s network of ports and facilities, stretching from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Gulf, is a threat to national security and international stability, but this fear is overblown. The so-called string of pearls is not a network of naval bases, and India should not fear that Beijing will use it to tighten the noose around the Indian subcontinent. Instead, India has something even more important to worry about: falling behind in the quest for economic supremacy in the Indo-Pacific.

With the massive new port in Colombo, China makes a strong claim to the title of chief maritime businessman in the region. Its companies have invested in numerous port facilities not just across the Indian and Pacific oceans but also in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Many of the world’s largest container ports are in China, and state-owned companies control roughly a fifth of the world’s container traffic. By weight almost half the new ships built in 2012 were constructed in China. Chinese companies are angling to take advantage of a new breed of mammoth container ships now coming into service. Colombo’s new deep harbor and new facilities can cope with these monster ships.

In India, no port or harbor comes close to that. “About 13% of India’s container traffic travels via Colombo,” the Economist reported in June. “If the new terminal ran at full capacity and dedicated itself to transhipping containers to India, that could rise to 28%, leaving the country dependent on a foreign-run choke point.”

With investments in ports, highways, railroads, real estate, and much else, China is pulling ahead of India in the race for maritime supremacy in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Asia’s Game of Thrones is not just a battle between countries and their armies and navies; it’s also an economic competition for riches, prosperity, and prestige.

[Image of Colombo harbor courtesy Wikimedia]

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