Economic Statecraft
Does China Need Military Bases Abroad?

The leadership of the PRC will not give up further attempts to spread influence on a global scale, and Chinese ships, aircraft, ground equipment, military personnel and civilian specialists will inevitably appear in the countries of East and South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Oceania, as well as South and Central America. However, such activity is possible only as a result of bilateral negotiations, with the consent of the respective sovereign states, based on mutual interests and the principle of indivisible security, writes Valdai Club expert Andrey Gubin.

Strategic string of pearls

The topic of China’s construction of military bases simultaneously in several points of the globe and far from each other has not subsided in the Western media over the past few years. The recent surge of interest in a “highly secret” base in Cambodia and a potential base in the Solomon Islands actually preceded a meeting between Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore. Such a coincidence is explained by the extreme tension in US-Chinese relations and the obvious interest of some circles in the demonization of Beijing in order to justify the colossal military spending of the United States and its allies.

Even at an early stage of the Cold War, the US military and politicians developed the concept of “island chains”. The authors intended to block the access of the USSR and the PRC to the western part of the Pacific Ocean using military bases. At the same time, despite their rather impressive practical implementation in the form of the deployment of large formations of the US Armed Forces in Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Guam and the Hawaiian Islands, the Navy and long-range aviation of the Soviet Union felt quite comfortable in the Pacific Ocean and above it. The containment of communist China for the Americans was for a long time a secondary task, especially in the context of the detente that began in the early 1970s.

Only 30 years later, Washington updated its views on the strategic encirclement of perceived adversaries. First, in the form of the idea of a “string of pearls”, where “pearls” are Chinese military and commercial facilities in the Pacific and Indian Oceans from Sudan through Somalia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to Hainan Island, and “strings” are communication routes. Then, as the concept of “island chains”, control over which will determine zones of influence in the so-called Indo-Pacific region. According to CSIS experts, to date five such chains have already formed, the last of which runs from the Gulf of Aden to South Africa. The Americans consider the first one to be the most critical for containing the PRC — from Kamchatka to the north of the Malay Peninsula through the Kuriles, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and Borneo.

Who’s at the first base?

The Chinese leadership is well aware that the implementation of the large-scale Belt and Road Initiative is impossible without the appropriate embodiment of strongholds in the most important regions, as well as ensuring the free movement of resources and goods between them. To protect its long sea lines of communication, China already has a fleet of 360 surface ships and submarines, and by 2030 the country is expected to have up to 460 ships. By 2022, Chinese military forces have gained experience in long-range campaigns (to Alaska, West Africa, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Caribbean). It also has large naval formations, including two aircraft carrier strike groups which can be deployed at the same time, as well as joint patrols with the Russian Navy. Obviously, with the growing activity of the PLA Navy, the issue of opening basing points outside the territory of the PRC has become relevant.In 2013, President Xi Jinping approved the construction of a “logistics centre” in Djibouti to provide peacekeeping operations in Africa, as well as ensure the safety of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and humanitarian missions. On the territory of Djibouti, the military facilities of seven states are located, and the Chinese contingent is the second largest after the American one (2,000 versus 4,500 people). After the centre was opened in 2017, the tasks gradually transformed into providing support to the PLA for non-military operations. The facility in Djibouti can be considered a basing point, although its close proximity to the military from the United States, Japan and EU countries can hardly be called a strategic advantage.

In 2021, a number of publications appeared on the construction by Chinese companies of a military base at the port of Bata in Equatorial Guinea. There is the risk of a pirate attack in the Gulf of Guinea, which, given the significant economic presence of the PRC in West Africa, may require protective measures. However, there is no reliable data on the activities of the PLA in the country, and the message is rather the reasoning of some American experts, based on their own logic. In the 2021 report of the US Department of Defense “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”, Equatorial Guinea is not listed as a potential location for military infrastructure.

Similar stories are observed with Gwadar, Pakistan, the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. Alarming news about the construction of bases by the Chinese has not yet properly manifested in the form of facilities actually operated by the PLA.

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Expert Opinions


Is everything OK in the Kingdom of Cambodia?

The US military claims that Beijing is preparing to create various military centres and bases in the territories of such states as Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, Namibia and Tajikistan. Among the key lines of sea communications that are planned to be protected are the shipping routes China — the Strait of Hormuz, China — Africa and China — the South Pacific Ocean.

According to The Washington Post, citing “official sources”, the most likely place to find China’s second overseas base is Cambodia. Presumably, in the northern part of the Ream naval base of the Royal Navy in the Gulf of Thailand, infrastructure facilities are being secretly built on behalf of the PLA and Chinese military personnel have already been deployed. A WP source noted that the Chinese leadership sees the country’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific as a necessary condition for building a multipolar world. If it acquires the ability to independently maintain large naval vessels and warships west of the South China Sea, China will be able to project power throughout Southeast Asia and control long maritime lines of communication. 

The Wall Street Journal reported, citing the US military, that back in 2019 Beijing entered into a secret agreement with Phnom Penh on the PLA’s use of the infrastructure of the Cambodian armed forces. Then the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen denied this message as fake news, and a representative of the PRC Ministry of Defense called the information rumours, confirming only the holding of joint exercises with the Cambodian side and the provision of mutual logistical support.

In May 2022, the Cambodian authorities announced that country is committed “to strictly abide by the provisions of the Constitution of Cambodia which does not permit any foreign military base on Cambodia’s territory”. The renovation of the base in Ream is necessary solely to strengthen the country’s Navy, protect maritime borders and prevent illegal activity at sea. The Chinese military declined to comment.

However, according to the Pentagon, over the past few years, only the Chinese have been involved in the development of the Ream base’s infrastructure; the activities of American and Vietnamese companies have been curtailed. The veil of secrecy, according to experts from the United States, is explained by the unwillingness of the Cambodian authorities to make the presence of foreign military personnel in the country public for fear of possible mass protests. In addition, as the ASEAN chair in 2022, Cambodia would not want to be labelled a “China satellite”, which could negatively affect the image of the Kingdom.

The WSJ believes that China’s participation in the renovation of the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia does not correspond to American interests and can be regarded as a unilateral attempt to change the status quo, which Washington opposes. At the same time, the possible deployment of a Baidu satellite communication station and early warning radar systems at this facility is of particular concern, which will significantly complicate the activities of the US Armed Forces in the region.

Tea house in the global village

Over the past few years, China has also deployed air defence systems, anti-ship missiles, radar stations, airfields and moorings on natural and artificial islands of the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea. The US fears that this practice may be repeated in the small island states of the Pacific Ocean. In particular, the Americans emphasise that the authorities of the Solomon Islands have already concluded an agreement with Beijing on security cooperation, and earlier there were similar negotiations with Vanuatu and Kiribati.

At the same time, supporters of the alarmist perception of China’s policy forget about 1,000 US military installations abroad, where more than 260,000 employees of the Defense Department and other departments are constantly present. Perhaps, to protect democratic values and “a rules-based order”. At the same time, the very possibility of the world’s second-largest economy protecting its own security and development interests by expanding the presence of the PLA is viewed by American strategists as a direct and obvious threat to national security. Here it must be remembered that Beijing openly proclaims its readiness to use military force against other states, including the United States, only in the event of “attempts to tear Taiwan away from China”. 

Undoubtedly, the leadership of the PRC will not give up further attempts to spread influence on a global scale, and Chinese ships, aircraft, ground equipment, military personnel and civilian specialists will inevitably appear in the countries of East and South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Oceania, as well as South and Central America. However, such activity is possible only as a result of bilateral negotiations, with the consent of the respective sovereign states, based on mutual interests and the principle of indivisible security.

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Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.