Chinese officials must recognize that stable long-term relationships with hosts are critical for ongoing access as the host nation's willingness to allow PLA forces on their soil will constrain overseas military basing.
Hong Kong: There are recurring claims that China is building, or attempting to create, a string of military bases worldwide. To date, only one has been officially confirmed, but that is doing nothing to reduce speculation that more are on the way.
The US Department of Defense is on record as saying that China "is pursuing additional military facilities to support naval, air, ground, cyber and space power projection."
Indeed, Pentagon officials added that Beijing is "very likely already considering and planning for additional military bases and logistics facilities to support naval, air and ground forces projection."
With two million members, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is the world's largest military. Yet, for most of its existence, the PLA has had an inward and landward focus. It is only in the past eight or so years since Chairman Xi Jinping took over the reins, the country has become more extrovert in its military aspirations.
Recent media coverage has focused on Equatorial Guinea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as sites for potential Chinese military installations. In early December, media reports alleged that China was trying to build its first Atlantic military base in Equatorial Guinea. The likely site is Bata, a Chinese-built deep-water commercial port.
General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US military's Africa Command, testified in April that the "most significant threat" from China would be "a militarily useful naval facility on the Atlantic coast of Africa … I'm talking about a port where they can rearm with munitions and repair naval vessels."
As for the UAE, after stern warnings from the USA, construction at the cargo port of Khalifa, 80km north of Abu Dhabi, was halted. There were allegations that secret military facilities were being developed there, unbeknownst to the UAE. In 2018, the UAE and China had signed a USD300 million deal to upgrade the COSCO Shipping Ports Abu Dhabi Terminal. This port is located near both Al Dhafra Air Base and Jebel Ali; the latter in Dubai is the busiest port outside the USA for US Navy ship visits.
Cambodia is another potential location. In September-October 2020, Cambodia demolished two USA-funded buildings at Ream Naval Base. Later, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh confirmed that China was helping expand base infrastructure. "We want to develop a suitable place … Cambodia alone can't do it. It is moderately costly as well, but I don't know how much. They are helping with no strings attached." Satellite imagery published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that expansion work has added three buildings, plus land and trees were cleared for a road. China's support at Ream is an interesting development, for it demonstrates how Beijing might use military capacity building as an avenue to gain strategic footholds in foreign territory.
The Wall Street Journal alleged a secret 30-year agreement to let the Chinese military use the naval facility. However, the Cambodian government, which is in Beijing's pocket, has strenuously denied it. The other concern is a Chinese development at Koh Kong that includes an unusually large airport.
The USA slapped arms and a dual-use-item embargo on Cambodia on 8 December, although this will probably push Cambodia closer to China's bosom. Phnom Penh will take over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022, where it has previously proved an effective disruptor and strong supporter of Chinese interests.
There is concern about China setting up dual-use facilities in the Pacific too. In 2018 there was an alarm that China was attempting to do so in Vanuatu. More recently, Chinese involvement in the Solomon Islands has been highlighted, with the late-November riots resulting in large parts of Honiara's Chinatown being burned down.
Doctor Anna Powles, senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, told ANI that "local dynamics and grievances have intersected over the past three years with the geopolitical competition. Geopolitical manoeuvring was a trigger behind the riots, but it isn't the whole picture. It is, however, a prescient warning that strategic competition can undermine national and social resilience and tap into local anti-Chinese sentiments."
In 2019, the Solomon authorities proposed to lease Tulagi Island to a Chinese developer for a special economic zone. The Central Province agreement, signed 22 September 2019 but never concluded, would have given Beijing-based Sam Group an exclusive five-year development lease for Tulagi and surrounding islands. The whole deal was suspicious, and Powles identified China Jing An, one of Sam Group's subsidiaries for this project, as previously being part of China's Public Security Ministry.
Doctor Powles concluded: "The rumours about Chinese interests in Tulagi reflected the nexus between geopolitics and local dynamics. There were concerns that the proposed infrastructure could be dual-use – both civilian and military. There's little doubt that Chinese commercial efforts were an opportunistic fishing exercise. However, the concern is always how these arrangements could be exploited later by the Chinese state for strategic reasons."
China has also been exerting influence in Kiribati, the site of World War II's bloody Tarawa campaign. China has an embassy in Kiribati, but the nearest American one is some 2,000km away in Fiji.
A seminal moment was doubtlessly August 2017, when the PLA established its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Strategically located in the Horn of Africa adjacent to the Gulf of Aden, China euphemistically called it a logistics base. About 10km from Camp Lemonnier (home to 4,500 American troops), this sizeable facility has helicopter pads and its own pier large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, Type 055 destroyers, large supply ships or submarines.
PLA Marines are stationed at this Djibouti base, and they possess 8×8 armoured vehicles and even artillery. Washington DC has accused PLA personnel of interfering with US military flights landing at Djibouti by lasing pilots and flying drones. Furthermore, China has sought to restrict Djiboutian sovereign airspace over the base.
The setting up of this Djibouti base was ostensible to support the PLA Navy's (PLAN) anti-the piracy task force, at a time when Somalia-based pirates were creating havoc with commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden. China dispatched its first anti-piracy task force in December 2008. The piracy threat has receded to almost nothing, but the PLAN shows no indication of reducing its naval presence there.
Interestingly, PLAN ships had docked in Djibouti more than 50 times from 2008 to 12, before it was invited to establish a base there. This illustrates how regular warship port calls can eventually pay off with a more permanent presence.
China's 2019 Defense White Paper said the PLA must develop "overseas logistical facilities" and that the military is tasked with "safeguarding China's overseas interests".
Chinese academics have listed numerous advantages of overseas bases, such as enabling the forward deployment of PLA forces, supporting a military conflict, diplomatic signalling, political change, bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and training. A wider logistics network would also assist in improved intelligence monitoring of the US military.
Chinese analysts speak of overseas "strategic strongpoints", and the "string of pearls" theory has been circulating for years. The latter postulates that China will create a network of bases across the Indian Ocean to protect Chinese interests such as oil and natural-resource imports from regions like the Middle East and Africa.
The Pentagon's most recent annual report on China's military shed light on PLA basing. It summarized, "The PRC is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances.
Beijing may assess that a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to commercial infrastructure abroad, exclusive PLA logistics facilities with prepositioned supplies co-located with commercial infrastructure, and bases with stationed forces, most closely aligns with the PRC's overseas military logistics needs."
The Pentagon noted that China currently uses commercial infrastructure to support all its overseas military operations, including its Djibouti base. It warned, "Some of the PRC's One Belt, One Road projects could create potential military advantages, such as PLA access to selected foreign ports to preposition the necessary logistics support to sustain naval deployments in waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to protect its growing interests. As a means of creating numerous options, the PRC is attempting to develop access in multiple African countries on the continent's Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts."
The USA even went so far as to list potential locations for new bases: Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, UAE, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan. It said overtures have probably already been made to Namibia too.
Incidentally, China has a security presence in Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan, but these are likely to be People's Armed Police troops.
Given that most trade occurs by sea and that naval ships can linger for long periods in international waters, it is only natural that the PLAN will take the lead in finding suitable new bases. Thus, the US stated, "Known focus areas of PLA planning are along the sea lines of communication from China to the Strait of Hormuz, Africa and the Pacific Islands."
China puts a benign gloss on the idea of foreign bases, saying they contribute to the international public good since they can support United Nations operations and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions.
While China is legally entitled to forge agreements with sovereign nations, the USA warned, "Regardless, a global PLA military logistics network could both interfere with US military operations and support offensive operations against the United States as the PRC's global military objectives evolve."
As the Pentagon noted, "The PLA's approach likely includes consideration of many different sites and outreach to many countries, but only some will advance to negotiations for an infrastructure agreement, status of forces or visiting forces agreement, and/or basing agreement." China would need a combination of deft diplomacy, elite capture and strategically timed investments to win support.
Building or running an overseas base is not just a military matter either, for it encompasses the whole spectrum of politics, diplomacy, culture and religion. China has minimal experience in this realm, so it must tread carefully, and trust cannot be created overnight. It needs host nations to side with it in times of tension or conflict. Furthermore, host nations would presumably require clear legal foundations for any basing agreement.
China enjoys working in the gloomy shade of secrecy as with its economic deals. Thus, when potential deals for military access are exposed publicly, it often scuttles any progress made.
Overseas military basing will be constrained by the host nation's willingness to allow PLA forces on their soil. Chinese officials must recognize that stable long-term relationships with hosts are critical for ongoing access. That being said, China is adept at throwing its weight around and is not hesitant to lean on smaller nations.
For site selections, considerations include geographic position, a port's natural conditions, overall local support infrastructure, sustainable development, politics and foreign policy, onshore natural conditions, economic conditions, security conditions and human factors. The PLA would need to ensure lines of communication from Mainland China to overseas bases are unmolested.
Beijing, therefore, needs quality hosts, not ones that will unexpectedly turn around and restrict access. That is perhaps one reason why little has come of Gwadar in Pakistan so far. Gwadar was once the poster child of potential Chinese military bases, but Pakistan is replete with security threats like terrorism and separatist activities in Balochistan, in addition to its weak economy, poor infrastructure and political instability.
Saudi Arabia, for example, is shifting a proposed USD10 billion oil refinery from Gwadar to near Karachi. It makes no sense economically to site a refinery in Gwadar, as this would require a 600km pipeline heading east. The much-touted Gwadar – the "Singapore of Pakistan" – is looking increasingly fraught, although China may not have given up hope entirely on a base at such a choice location on the edge of the Arabian Sea.