An ambitious Chinese initiative to build a series of strategic maritime distribution centres, west to Africa and beyond, has been revealed. This is an extension of the Maritime Silk Road, which in turn complements a plan to revive the terrestrial Silk Road through central Asia.

China's strategic maritime distribution centers  (Courtesy of East by Southeast.)

A 'string of pearls' — bases through the Indian Ocean — has long been denied by Beijing, possibly in deference to India. Recent naval deployments suggest Beijing is less obliging now. 'China's growing investment and its international prestige associated with the Maritime Silk Road must be protected which will in turn demand presence', notes one China watcher. Formal alliances and bases are unlikely for now, but 'fighting terrorism' and guarding African oil overseas has been authorised.

The term 'string of pearls' invokes the British coaling stations of olden times. The Chinese maps today, showing railways and shipping lanes spanning the globe, remind an English friend of mine of the British Empire on which the sun never set: 'This move from China is straight out of the playbook of Queen Elizabeth (the First), who granted a charter to the East India Company to take the City of London's excess savings and "go out." The Company did this until 1857, when some fairly serious corporate governance issues in one of its key assets (the Indian Rebellion) led to the Company's ruin and nationalisation.'

That's a provocative analogy for China, especially given the Company's heinous record as a state-sponsored drug pusher. But it raises fair questions about how nations recycle surplus savings, and also the conduct of their corporate-state-security complexes overseas.

Jacob Zuma says China can 'help cast off Africa's colonial shackles'. In the Congo, Chinese companies are everywhere, but so discreet behind their ubiquitous ten-foot walled compounds that locals puzzle about their activities. A Peruvian economist marvels at the cohesion of the new conquistadores: 'behind Chinese investment lies the strategy of an entire country.' Elsewhere policies to 'build influence' and 'deploy overcapacity' may meet resistance.

A hundred years ago, after its Civil War, America was in an expansive mood, rough-riding its way to Manifest Destiny. Supposedly Britain acquired empire in 'a fit of absent-mindedness', but as Mark Twain witnessed in the Philippines, the American empire was anything but absent-minded. If there remains an American empire today, as some argue, China might seek something similar. Of course China remains ideologically committed to Marxism, for which 'imperialism' is anathema. But then again, Marx's Bolshevik followers were as keen on territory as the Romanov empire they overthrew.

'Europeans waged a Five Hundred Years War on the rest of the world' writes Ian Morris of the period 1415 to 1915. By then 'they had conquered 84% of the earth's surface', including chunks of China. Notably, it was only halfway through this onslaught, following the Thirty Years War, that they could establish — at least among themselves — how the Westphalia Treaty rules operate. Andrew Phillips at ANU reckons 1915 in turn marked the start of Asia's own Thirty Years War, at which time China made its own transition from celestial kingdom to nation-state. China today is a strong proponent of 'Westphalian sovereignty', yet Westphalia's signatories only respected 'non-interference' at home; arguably it fueled imperial expansion abroad.

Phillips predicts that 'much like the post-Vienna Congress period (another grand intra-European agreement in 1815), the world will be multipolar in its essential form, but informally underwritten by the dual hegemony of the two preponderant powers.' From 1815 to 1915, these were Russia and Britain. The 20th century ultimately saw both diminished. In 2015, Phillips reckons, America and China 'will serve respectively as the maritime liberal and continental autocratic anchors of an uneasy but relatively stable international order. Globally these great powers will compete for influence in major energy producing regions.'

A Chinese historian demurs: 'Westerners fear China dominating the world because they think China will act just like they did. But traditional Chinese civilization never acted that way.' Its tributaries were comfortable in the Sinosphere. Would Tibetans and Uighurs and Mongols agree today, though? 'That's the problem', the historian admits: 'China today is not traditional.' It more resembles the hard-edged Western nation-states which emerged after 1648, the ones who professed sovereignty and non-interference at home but pursued colonialism abroad.