Mahan Over the Tumen Delta: China’s Naval Ambitions for Rason
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.
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]
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.
[i] Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (New York: Random House, Inc., 2010), 282.