The World’s a Stage for China’s Military Bases

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Ever since China announced establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017‭, ‬there has been considerable speculation about where its next base could be‭. ‬An easy assumption‭, ‬borrowing from English playwright William Shakespeare’s famous phrase‭, ‬would be‭: ‬“All the world’s a stage‭.‬”‭ ‬

Before delving into this or other suppositions‭, ‬it is important to view China’s security tactics by linking it to its flagship economic venture‭ ‬–‭ ‬the Belt and Road Initiative‭ (‬BRI‭), ‬which involves memoranda of understanding with 140‭ ‬countries and dubbed the‭ ‬‘project of the century’‭.‬

The BRI invokes historic memories of the Silk Road‭, ‬which facilitated communication‭, ‬trade and exchanges between civilizations‭. ‬In its current form‭, ‬the BRI is designed to further China’s economic and foreign policies‭. ‬It is rooted in China enjoying economic success through infrastructure development‭. ‬The plan is‭ ‬to replicate this economic strategy abroad‭. ‬By attempting to create land and maritime trade routes linking China with Europe‭, ‬through Asia‭ (‬including Middle East‭), ‬Africa and beyond‭, ‬Beijing intends to help its own growth‭, ‬especially in central and western China‭, ‬and that of other countries too‭.‬

While BRI 1.0‭ (‬2013-2018‭) ‬was predominantly an economic project‭, ‬BRI 2.0‭ ‬is increasingly assuming a security hue since it has coincided with‭ ‬‘diminishing’‭ ‬Western influence in all the three spheres of global power‭ ‬–‭ ‬economic‭, ‬diplomatic and defence‭. ‬It(the BRI‭) ‬is being viewed as a tool that China is using to challenge America’s global hegemony‭. ‬Chinese scholar Wang Jisi argued that the BRI was a‭ ‬“strategic necessity”‭ ‬because of the Barack Obama administration’s‭ ‬‘pivot’‭ ‬or‭ ‬‘rebalance’‭ ‬to Asia‭. ‬In addition‭, ‬the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee’s official journal Qiushi referred to the BRI as a‭ ‬“strategy‭.‬”

 

More importantly‭, ‬since several BRI routes are vulnerable to‭ ‬“political instability‭, ‬religious and ethnic tensions‭, ‬fragile legal environments‭, ‬criminality‭, ‬environmental degradation‭, ‬social‭ ‬strains‭,‬”‭ ‬and even transnational terrorism and anti-Chinese sentiments‭, ‬it is logical for Beijing to enhance its security presence to protect its interests‭. ‬While it is largely using the services of private security agencies‭, ‬which mostly employ retired People’s Liberation Army‭ (‬PLA‭) ‬and police personnel‭, ‬it is likely that the PLA Navy‭ (‬PLAN‭) ‬will resort to establishing more bases like‭ ‬the one in Djibouti‭. ‬

Unique strategic discourse

While dealing with projecting military power abroad‭, ‬Beijing uses a unique strategic concept‭. ‬Since‭ ‬‘overseas military base’‭ ‬is often associated with imperialists building it on foreign soil for exploitation‭, ‬Chinese military experts prefer the term‭ ‬“strategic strong point”‭. ‬It means locations that‭ ‬“provide support for overseas military operations or act as a forward base for deploying military forces overseas‭.‬”‭ ‬

Thus‭, ‬the Djibouti base is China’s first overseas strategic strong point‭. ‬It is interesting that China also promotes such bases as being helpful to the host countries’‭ ‬security and stresses that such sites will not be used to conduct offensive operations‭, ‬like it is mostly with the overseas bases of other countries‭.‬

Since the PLAN is the face of China’s military missions abroad‭, ‬it does two things‭: ‬one‭, ‬protects its sea lines of communication‭ (‬SLOCs‭), ‬which it fears the United‭ ‬States could disrupt in case of a conflict‭; ‬and two‭, ‬safeguards its overseas interests‭, ‬which brings the BRI to the fore‭. ‬Both tasks require‭ ‬“replenishment points”‭ ‬and‭ ‬“various forms of limited force presence‭,‬”‭ ‬which the overseas strategic strong point(s‭) ‬fulfills‭.‬

The PLAN’s plan is only one component of China’s larger plan‭. ‬Beijing is also keen to convert the PLA into a‭ ‬“world class military”‭ ‬by 2050‭ ‬“to safeguard China’s sovereignty‭, ‬security‭, ‬and development interests‭.‬”‭ ‬Among the PLA’s tasks‭, ‬the 2019‭ ‬defence white paper mentions‭ ‬“safeguarding China’s overseas interests”‭ ‬and specifies developing‭ ‬“overseas logistical facilities”‭. ‬The PLA’s‭ ‬“going out”‭ ‬strategy includes the PLAN’s new service strategy of‭ ‬“near seas defence‭ (‬South China Sea‭), ‬far seas protection‭ (‬Indian Ocean‭). ‬The other listed tasks include‭ ‬“vessel protection operations‭, ‬maintaining the security of SLOCs‭, ‬and carrying out overseas evacuation and maritime rights protection operations‭.‬”‮ ‬

For now‭, ‬PLAN has overtaken PLA in establishing China’s firs overseas base in Djibouti‭.‬

How many and where‭?‬

Whatever the term‭ ‬–‭ ‬base or strategic strong point‭ ‬–‭ ‬China is typically coy about its plans‭. ‬But its chief rival‭, ‬the United States‭, ‬has set the speculative ball rolling with its own assessment identifying potential targets in Southeast Asia‭, ‬Middle East‭, ‬Central Asia‭, ‬South Asia‭, ‬Africa‭, ‬and the western Pacific‭. ‬According to the Department of Defense’s 2020‭ ‬annual report‭: ‬“Beyond its current base in Djibouti‭, ‬China is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval‭, ‬air‭, ‬and ground forces”‭. ‬It then lists a host of countries that China‭ ‬“has likely considered‭,‬”‭ ‬including‭ ‬“Myanmar‭, ‬Thailand‭, ‬Singapore‭, ‬Indonesia‭, ‬Pakistan‭, ‬Sri Lanka‭, ‬United Arab Emirates‭, ‬Kenya‭, ‬Seychelles‭, ‬Tanzania‭, ‬Angola‭, ‬and Tajikistan‭.‬”

While most speculation revolves around Gwadar in Pakistan as the next destination for a Chinese base given the enormity of its BRI investments‭, ‬another that has not been included in the US list but equally important is Cambodia‭. ‬It was agreed between the two governments in July 2019‭ ‬that PLAN would set up a facility at Ream‭. ‬While Ream could meet its‭ ‬‘near seas defence’‭ ‬requirements‭, ‬Gwadar could strengthen its‭ ‬‘far seas protection’‭ ‬tactic‭. ‬

There have also been reports about a potential military base in the Wakhan corridor of northwest Afghanistan‭, ‬which ties in well‭ ‬with reports of an outpost with Chinese soldiers in eastern Tajikistan‭, ‬near the strategic junction of Afghanistan‭, ‬China‭, ‬and‭ ‬Pakistan‭.‬

According to a 2019‭ ‬Pentagon report‭, ‬Denmark is concerned about China’s‭ ‬‘Polar Silk Road’‭ ‬interest in the Arctic region‭, ‬which has included plans to set up a research station and a satellite ground station‭, ‬along with‭ ‬interest in airport renovation and mining expansion‭.‬

In exploring what factors may finally influence China’s future decisions the Djibouti case is instructive‭. ‬The first base in the Horn of Africa was a culmination of China’s first long-term foreign deployment‭, ‬as part of an anti-piracy task force‭, ‬in the Gulf of Aden that began in 2008‭. ‬Statistics point out that 31‭ ‬Chinese naval fleets escorted 6,600‭ ‬ships between 2008‭ ‬and 2018‭ ‬in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia‭. ‬Of‭ ‬these 3,400‭ ‬or 51.5‭ ‬percent was foreign vessels‭, ‬with over 70‭ ‬ships in danger being rescued‭. ‬This statistic should silence critics who argue that China is not bearing international responsibility‭.‬

Since the Gulf of Aden deployment occurred to protect economic interests‭, ‬it is likely that commercial factors would remain at the core of Chinese considerations in deciding future locations‭. ‬It is also noteworthy that some Chinese scholars have put forth‭ ‬the‭ ‬‘PEST’‭ ‬outline‭ ‬–‭ ‬political‭, ‬economic‭, ‬social‭, ‬and technological factors‭ ‬–‭ ‬to help decide potential bases‭. ‬The government has also stated that diplomatic opportunity and broader strategic requirements would be key issues in future decisions on the matter‭. ‬To achieve its objectives‭, ‬it is likely to resort to assorted means‭ ‬–‭ ‬“buying‭, ‬renting‭, ‬cooperating‭, ‬to constructing overseas bases or overseas protection hubs‭.‬”‮ ‬

In 2017‭, ‬a senior official from the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association said‭: ‬“China will build about ten more bases‮…‬Hopefully‭, ‬China could have bases in every continent‭, ‬but that depends on countries which‭ ‬would like to cooperate with China‭.‬”

Another functionary of the Academy of Military Sciences of the PLA said in 2019‭ ‬that China would open new bases under two conditions‭. ‬“This matter is primarily determined by whether a new base is needed to help China better fulfill missions given by the United Nations‮…‬Second‭, ‬it depends on the approval of the nation where a new base should be located‭.‬”‭ ‬The official further stressed that the main function of these sites is to provide logistical support to PLA units abroad‭, ‬and not to place Chinese military forces in other countries‭.‬

Amid lack of clarity about specific bases‭, ‬China’s current tactics suggest that it could target bases in countries where it is already involved in seaport development‭. ‬In 2018‭, ‬Chinese companies were involved in the building and maintenance of over 40‭ ‬ports in about 35‭ ‬countries‭, ‬including the Middle East and Gulf‭. ‬While Danish‭, ‬Swiss and UAE companies also build and operate ports in dozens of countries‭, ‬some more than the Chinese‭, ‬they operate purely on a commercial basis‭. ‬On the other hand‭, ‬going by the developments in Djibouti‭, ‬Cambodia and Pakistan‭, ‬China foresees an important economic-political-security linkage through development of ports‭.‬

Beyond defending its own economic supply chain interests‭, ‬Chinese experts have identified five other functions for overseas military facilities‭: ‬war‭, ‬diplomacy‭, ‬political change‭, ‬building relationships and training‭.‬‮ ‬These could be achieved through missions‭ ‬involving logistical support for anti-piracy‭, ‬peacekeeping operations‭, ‬humanitarian assistance and disaster relief‭, ‬as well as‭ ‬military operations other than war‭, ‬which include non-combatant evacuation and emergency rescue‭.‬

Beijing also deems defence expansion important because it feels the United States is becoming more confrontational in its bid to‭ ‬curb China’s expanding influence and power‭. ‬The 2019‭ ‬white paper clearly articulates that China and the United States are now competing superpowers‭. ‬It points out that though the PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries‭, ‬China’s expanding defence capabilities will be able to challenge the United States‭. ‬However‭, ‬one thing the white paper categorically states is that China will never seek hegemony‭, ‬expansion or spheres of influence in pursuing its national defence‭, ‬indicating that it will not follow in the footsteps of Western colonial powers‭.‬

Conclusion

Supporting the above assertion‭, ‬Chinese scholars are suggesting diplomatic tactics‭, ‬particularly in the Middle East‭, ‬that could‭ ‬help strengthen Beijing’s developing global security policy‭. ‬These tactics include mediation to defend commercial rather than security interests‭; ‬conflict‭ ‬“management”‭ ‬instead of‭ ‬“resolution”‭; ‬and promoting a harmonious relationship among China’s strategic partners‭, ‬many of whom are deeply divided and involved on conflicting sides of proxy wars‭.‬

These ideas serve two purposes‭. ‬First‭, ‬they dilute criticism about Beijing being uninterested and punching below its weight in contributing to the stability of the Middle East and elsewhere‭. ‬Instead‭, ‬they portray Beijing as seriously considering various options for greater engagement in regional and global affairs‭. ‬Second‭, ‬they promote the Chinese notion of a balanced diplomatic approach that relies more on deft mediation rather than any form of aggressive diplomatic or military intervention‭.‬

Overall‭, ‬the discussions in China reflect Beijing’s bid to rebalance from the West’s‭ ‬“politics among nations”‭ ‬to Beijing’s‭ ‬“politics among networks‭,‬”‭ ‬focusing on‭ ‬“connectivity”‭ (‬BRI‭) ‬rather than‭ ‬“control‭ (‬hegemony‭).‬”‭ ‬Such a nuanced approach‭, ‬involving‭ ‬“maximum diplomacy”‭ ‬instead of‭ ‬“maximum pressure‭,‬”‭ ‬may help calm tensions in the Middle East and the world at large‭.‬

‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Dr N‭. ‬Janardhan
‭(‬Senior Research Fellow‭, ‬Gulf-Asia Programme‭, ‬Emirates Diplomatic Academy‭, ‬and author‭, ‬most recently‭, ‬of The Arab Gulf’s Pivot to Asia‭: ‬From Transactional to Strategic Partnerships‭)‬

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