The US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday said Beijing is diligently building an “international network of coercion through predatory economics”, as he made a scathing criticism of the ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) project, which is aimed at enhancing China’s global influence by financing and building huge infrastructure projects. At a Congressional hearing, Shanahan also told the lawmakers that to achieve hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region in the near term and shape a world consistent with its authoritarian model, China is aggressively modernising its military and seeking advantage through a strategy of “military-civil fusion”.

“China is diligently building an international network of coercion through predatory economics to expand its sphere of influence. Sovereign nations around the globe are discovering the hard way that China’s economic ‘friendship’ via One Belt, One Road can come at a steep cost when promises of investment go unfulfilled and international standards and safeguards are ignored,” he said. Citing examples, he said saddled with predatory Chinese loans, Sri Lanka handed over its southern port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease as well as 70 per cent stake in its deep-water port. Also, Maldives owes China roughly USD 1.5 billion debt, about 30 per cent of its GDP, as construction costs.

“Pakistan will owe China at least USD 10 billion in debt for the construction of Gwadar Port and other projects,” Shanahan said. He further said Djibouti owes China more than 80 per cent of its GDP and in 2017, became host to China’s first overseas military base. In Latin America, Ecuador agreed to sell 80 to 90 per cent of its exportable crude oil to China through 2024 in exchange for USD 6.5 billion Chinese loans.

“After leasing land tax-free to China for 50 years, Argentina is denied access and oversight to a Chinese satellite tracking station on its sovereign territory, unwittingly allowing the facility’s use for military purposes,” he said. The list of nations, the Defense Secretary said, entrapped by China’s predatory debt tactics runs long.

“Under the guise of good-intentioned development, Beijing continues to leverage debt for economic or political concessions — a practice we expect will intensify as more nations prove unable to pay China back,” he said. Shanahan also expressed concern over massive jump in Chinese militaryspending from USD 20 billion to USD 170 billion in the last two decades.

He also said China is building up its inventory of missiles to circumvent US and allied defences and deny America critical military access to the Indo-Pacific. “Within the past five years alone, China has successfully tested hypersonic cruise and boost glide weapons concepts for these purposes,” Shanahan said.

“The US cannot ignore China’s ability to target US and allied space capabilities. We also cannot ignore China’s ambitions in the cyber domain, which it recognises as the battlefield’s ‘nerve centre’,” he said. Shanahan said Beijing’s increasingly provocative behaviour in the Indo-Pacific, particularly the South China Sea (SCS), should concern all.

“Between 2013 and 2018, China increased its air and sea incursions into the SCS twelve-fold. Within those five years, it also increased deployments of offensive and defensive weapons systems to the SCS by the same order of magnitude,” he said.