Mahan Over the Tumen Delta: China’s Naval Ambitions for Rason

By | April 18, 2012 | 12 Comments

This guest essay comes to us from Sabine van Ameijden, Department of War Studies, King’s College, in London.

Mahan Over the Tumen Delta: China’s Naval Ambitions for Rason

by Sabine van Ameijden

In spite of Kim Jong Un’s recent assertion that the military is his “first, second and third priority”, it is observable that North Korea is moving away from a military-first policy (Songun, 선군) towards a focus on the principle of self-reliance (Juche, 주체) and economic development. Such a strategy can be perceived as a necessary one, considering that the country’s economy is laboring under crippling shortages and inefficiencies, and as domestic legitimacy remains fundamental to any leadership transition, even one buttressed by Kim blood ties. Rason has remained both physically and economically peripheral to North Korea, but it may be the key for the new direction in the hermit kingdom.

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In the North Korean Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Rason, the location for the two port cities of Rajin and Sonbong, economic development is moving forward as Chinese businesses have invested in the establishment of businesses and infrastructure, especially since 2009. That year, for example, the Chinese Chuangli Group invested $3.8 million in the renovation of Rajin’s Pier No. 1, which is part of a North Korean lease to China. Chinese reporters visited in December 2010, both plugging business and asserting that there was room for further growth. Also, in anticipation of the North Korean leadership transition, China has made significant investment efforts in exchange for stability guarantees from Pyongyang. An example is the Yanbian Tianyu International Trade Company, who quadrupled the size of a bazaar market as part of this policy.  Huanqiu Shibao reporter Cheng Gang again travelled to the zone in early March 2012 to drum up Chinese interest in the zone and to affirm that the DPRK had not entirely closed down to the outside after Kim Jong Il’s death.

Western observers are very familiar with the formula for China’s economic involvement in Rason; in essence, it is not entirely different from China’s investments in Africa. What makes Rason particularly significant, however, are the questions being raised regarding China’s naval ambitions in the zone. China proclaims that its regional maritime policies are peacefully aimed at securing its trade, particularly in terms of energy. However, considering China’s naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and East China Sea, the question arises whether China is solely trying to protect its trade routes or if there is a Mahanian agenda to secure command of the sea? And how does this tie in with China’s ambitions for North Korea’s Rason?

China looks seawards | The world is witnessing an expansion of the Chinese navy.  Robert D. Kaplan explains that China’s expanding maritime orientation is a luxury. Traditionally a land power, today China’s land borders are no longer under threat and the nation can therefore afford to look seaward.[i] Also, China’s rapid economic growth ties in with an increasing energy demand. For the import of oil and natural gas, China is highly dependent on the sea lanes of communication from the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea. Along this route China is forming  the ‘String of Pearls’ through the establishment of bases by gaining access to ports and airfields, special diplomatic relationships with littoral countries and modernised military forces. Thus, for its energy security it now has become necessary for China to get involved at sea, but the development of the ‘String of Pearls’ make analysts question whether Beijing will soon move away from its proclaimed peaceful foreign policy towards a military agenda.[ii]

Furthermore, China’s interests regarding Taiwan and several maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea highlight its geopolitical relation to the sea. Chains of islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea, including Taiwan, geographically shield China from the east. To regain control of Taiwan and win the territorial disputes is vital in order to gain access to the Pacific. Concurrently, the PLA Navy is growing in strength and we view that China has been pursuing its blue water aspirations, illustrated by the construction of the first PLA Navy aircraft carrier in 2011.

Rason’s Development since 2009 | Since 2009 there has been significant Chinese interest in one of North Korea’s most rapidly evolving special economic zones, Rason. Rason was  established as an SEZ in 1991 to allow capitalist trading market and attract foreign businesses and investors. But it has only been since 2009, when the Chinese began the Changjitu Plan (abbreviation for Changchun-Jilin-Tumen), that  Rason has experienced unprecedented development. A reluctance to commit to the SEZ on behalf of the North Korean administration, due to fears for an uncontrollable spill-over of the economic reforms, explains why it has taken this long to witness tangible development in Rason.  Andray Abrahamian has continuously set out why we should direct our attention to Rason in order to explore China’s activities and ambitions in the zone and in order to keep track of North Korean domestic economic change. Chinese investments, businesses and work force are flowing to Rason. Of particular significance is the construction, paid for by the Chinese, of a paved highway connecting Rason with the Chinese border city of Wonjong.[iii]

SEZs in Sinuiju and Rason

Why does China care about Rason? | China invests in Rason because of the geopolitical opportunities and challenges that rise from the zone. Under the Changjitu plan, Rason comes into play, as the economic development in North Korea enhances the prosperity of China’s Jilin province. Moreover, economic growth in North Korea is, in itself, already beneficial to China. The Special Economic Zone enhances domestic economic stability in the DPRK. Such stability is crucial for preventing a collapse of the North Korean regime, which would gravely damage China’s political and economic interests. [iv]

Regarding China’s naval ambitions, Rason is of great importance to China as the ports provide it with access to the East Sea. Above I pointed out China’s problematic access to the sea in the South China Sea and East China Sea and its consequent  search for alternative routes to gain access to the Pacific. In the Northeast region China has no coast, as it is landlocked by Russian and North Korean territory. Thus the access to the East Sea greatly enhances China’s naval possibilities in the Pacific.

At the moment China uses the renovated port in Rajin, which primarily allows the transportation of coal from Jilin province to other Chinese coastal cities, such as Shanghai. In regards of Chinese military activity in Rason, in January 2011 it had been reported that Chinese troops have been stationed in Rason, said to protect the facilities and Chinese residents. These were the first Chinese troops to be stationed in North Korea since their withdrawal from the DMZ town of Panmunjeom. Furthermore, in August 2011 a Chinese flotilla consisting of two PLA Navy exercise warships visited the North Korean east coast port city of Wonsan. Such a visit was the first of its kind since 15 years and it was said to mark the cooperative relations between the Chinese and North Korean navies.

Mahan Over East Asia | China’s recent turn to the sea has left analysts with much fodder for speculation about a Chinese Mahanian maritime policy to gain command of the sea. Whether China is focusing on economic development in Rason just for trade purposes or for eventual military aims is hard to conclude. Nevertheless, it is obvious that geopolitically Rason is very important to the Chinese, as it allows the PRC access to the Pacific. We should continue to monitor this area for further developments.

12 Comments

  1. wow.. i will try to follow your articles!! 🙂
    very well organized!!

  2. Great article, a very informative read.

  3. Great article. There are a couple of additional factors worth noting:
    1. The Rason port is currently too shallow (9.8 meters deep) for most naval vessels. The port would have to be dredged before China could deploy anything significant there.
    2. China has leased one relatively small pier in Rason. The naval deployments possible with this one pier are limited.
    3. Rason does not have a stable electricity supply. This severely limits what can be done with the port.
    This means that Rason would need capital improvements and many years of work to have the capacity to support a significant deployment by the PLAN.

  4. Scott Thomas Bruce, thank you reading my essay and for your comments.
    I agree that these factors are important to keep in mind when discussing Rason and Chinese naval ambitions. My take on the PLAN at the moment is that there are signs of a considerable geographical and capabilities expansion. However, fears for Chinese military hegemony in Asia might be exaggerated. For the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’, but also for Rason, as you aptly pointed out, it should be noted that still a lot of time and resources need to be devoted before there would be a significant PLAN capacity or one that would be able to outnumber the American Navy.
    My point here is that in this essay I addressed a Mahanian Chinese naval aspiration, which, if existent at all, should be approached with great caution. Commercial interests should not be confused for military intentions. Neither should we overmagnify or downplay the facts at hand. Thank you again for your remarks, they appropriately balance the discussion.

  5. Sabine,

    The whole piece struck me as pretty alarmist that is built on assumptions, imaginations and questionable claims (for example, “the source” Chosun Ilbo quoted who allegedly said some PLA units had moved into North Korea. How believable is that? If we go by the words of these “sources”, we might as well believe there was a coup in Beijing recently, Hu Jintao, Xin Jinping etc. have been arrested). Like Scott pointed out, Rason simply does not have the necessary infrastructures to support a Chinese naval base. And what is the point for the PLAN to have a base there? Gaining access to the Sea of Japan/East Sea? OK. Then what? Without adequate support which the Chinese will not receive in Rason, the Chinese fleets based off of Rason will be completely exposed to and outnumbered by no just the South Korean navy, but the mighty JMSDF and the invincible US navy. So what’s the point of gaining access to the Sea of Japan/East Sea, can you remind me again? Giving the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Americans something to shoot at?

    And the notion of Chinese military “hegemony” in Asia is just not just exaggerated, it is completely ludicrous. China is far, far away from even having an adequate and competent military that is suited to defend itself and its interests, given that it is surrounded by potentially hostile countries (the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Australia etc.). When China spends merely 2% of its GDP on the PLA while the US spends almost 5% of its, when the PLAN can’t even get far out of China’s surrounding waters, when the Chinese land army and PLAA are widely regarded as the world’s largest military museum (for employing large number of antiquated and obsolete artifacts), the talk of Chinese military “hegemony” is silly.

  6. juchechosunmanse, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your references to the military capacities of the relevant nations involved are very valuable. I really appreciate the constructive comments. However, I would like to emphasise that I am addressing a discussion, rather than take a side within it. PLAN access to the East Sea through the Rason port and Chinese regional hegemony remain scenarios to be evaluated and at no point am I claiming these to be inevitable future situations. We continue to read on analyses and speculations on the ‘rise of China’ and future ‘Chinese hegemony in Asia’. Therefore I am of the opinion that we should not dismiss talk of these ideas to be silly, but continue to have an open dialogue on this topic.

  7. I would second that, furthermore noting that in terms of China’s press response and treatment of Rason, that the notion of access to the East Sea/Sea of Japan (I believe China still uses the term 日本海) has played heavily in justifying to the Chinese public the expense that Rason development represents for the PRC.

    It is very easy to overplay any analysis of something like Huanqiu Shibao (whose editor has something of a [very much state-supported and -encouraged] mania for words like “Great Power”) and tropes of restorationism, but the very idea of China getting its just deserts after the treaties of 1689 and 1860 which essentially decapitated northern Manchuria and boxed the Qing out from what is today the long Russian Far East coastline leading down to Vladivostok, is completely compatible with the state narrative.

    Such narratives don’t of course drive policy in themselves, but they are very helpful in solidifying support at home for any PLA adventure abroad. Zheng He meets Mahan, or something like that.

    Incidentally, has anyone found or written a book in English specifically focusing on China’s contemporary Mahan obsession? Xinhua bookstores are full of his works (along with Clausewitz, Machiavelli, etc.) and discussion, but it would be an interesting project for a dissertation to look into this trope and what specific roles it plays in the PRC public and policy discussions. Is Mahan really window dressing for China doing what it wants to do anyway, or is there actual study of the doctrines and a view of the PRC as (as Kissinger says) a rising Wilhemine Germany in the early 20th century? — Adam Cathcart (in Hamburg, facing the sea)

  8. JCM, sorry not to attack this in great depth, but I think the answer about China’s regional hegemony is “yes and no.” You’re absolutely right that the PRC is heavily constrained by its neighbors — and the antipodes to this essay exist IN SPADES in Chinese examination of Japanese/US naval capabilities in the region — but part of what we are seeing here is how much China can leverage its “adversarial ally” North Korea into helping the PRC with a very tangible part of its rise.

  9. Scott, a very belated thanks for the comment!

  10. Adam,

    Can you point out any clear evidence or indication in the Chinese official documents, press release or official media narrative that there are military elements/considerations in China’s interests in gaining access to the Sea of Japan/East Sea? So far everything I have read indicates that the reasons behind the move of developing Rason are purely commercial. Plus, I don’t think the Chinese government needs to sell it to the Chinese public at all, since the amount of money it pours in is just peanuts compared to some other Chinese government projects. How many people in China are watching Rason as closely as we do here? Outside of the Chinese government, very few, I’d argue.

  11. Great piece!!!!

  12. Juche,

    I wrote about this, with reference to specific Chinese documents in every case, often by Huanqiu reporter Cheng Gang, on:

    July 17, 2011 http://adamcathcart.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/border-narratives/

    June 12, 2011 http://adamcathcart.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/scopin-nk-trade-zones-with-china/

    January 11, 2011 http://adamcathcart.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/get-ready-for-the-new-borderland-status-quo/

    December 24, 2010 http://adamcathcart.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/chinese-reportage-from-rajin-north-korea/

    March 11, 2010 http://adamcathcart.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/leasing-of-north-korean-port-arouses-suspicion-huanqiu-shibao-on-chinas-ten-year-lease-on-dprk-rajin/

    the last listed is probably the key evidence as to the great power question, but there should be some food for thought here, hope it helps.

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