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China Trends #2 – Naval Bases: From Djibouti to a Global Network?

China Trends #2 – Naval Bases: From Djibouti to a Global Network?
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies

The Chinese discussion on overseas military bases has radically changed under Chinese President Xi Jinping, reflecting the policy change around the decision to build China’s first overseas naval facility in Djibouti. The absence of bases has long been a marker of the PRC’s strategic identity, differentiating the country’s security posture from the United States and other military powers. This was the result of an anti-hegemony ideological posture, but also serious limitations to the People’s Liberation Army’s power projection capabilities. But under Xi, the Chinese strategic community has turned its attention to the question how to build an international network of overseas facilities that will best protect the country’s "overseas interests" (海外利益).

China’s thinking on bases and their link to overseas interests is well captured by Xue Guifang and Zheng Hao, two academics from the Law Department of Shanghai Jiaotong University [1]. In Libya in 2011, the rushed evacuation of 36000 Chinese nationals also resulted in major economic losses given that projects valued at 20 billion USD were abandoned. This is a lesson in geopolitical risk learned in Beijing, especially as by 2030, China could have 10 million PRC nationals overseas (from around 5.5 million today), and 1000 billion USD in investment abroad.

Today, specialized publications in China discuss the practicalities of running networks of overseas bases. Wang Tianze, Qi Wenzhe, and Hai Jun, all analysts at the Institute of Military Transportation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Ground Forces (陆军军事交通学院), argue that: "to protect our ever-growing overseas interests, we will progressively establish in Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, Kenya and other countries a logistical network (后勤保障的网络体系) based on various means, buying, renting, cooperating, to construct our overseas bases or overseas protection hubs (海外保障支掌点)".[2]

China plans for more overseas bases, the country will not "walk the old road of Western great powers".

In their view, military facilities overseas have five functions: war, diplomatic signal, political change, building relationships and providing facilities for training. China’s facilities enable the conduct of several types of missions: logistical support for anti-piracy, peacekeeping troops deployment and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (these are the three official missions of Djibouti); conducting military operations other than war (MOOTW) such as international cooperation, non-combatant evacuation operations and emergency rescue; guarantee the security of sea lanes of communication and the Chinese supply chain.

But running bases represents a logistical challenge. The PLA transportation specialists note that maintaining and running the basic infrastructure (piers, airstrips, warehouses, oil depots), the military equipment and the life of the personnel implies coordinating the work of multiple administrations in China - ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Transportation, Customs, authorities in charge of safety inspection, banks – with different entities of the PLA: units in charge of overseas operations, the Central Military Commission and its Logistics Support Department (后勤保障部) and Joint Staff Department (联合参谋部), the headquarters of the PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force. The international part of the logistical support implies managing customs, border controls and safety inspections in several jurisdictions.

In terms of military equipment, the logistical challenge is best addressed by a number of naval systems enabling long-range power projection: the large amphibious transport docks (the authors do not name the 25,000 tons displacement 071-class, with currently 7 in service in the PLA Navy and with an amphibious assault capacity); multi-purpose supply ships (多功能综合补给舱) and fast combat support ships (快速战斗支援舱), the newest generation in service is the 901-class; with a displacement of 45,000 tons, it is primarily designed to supply fuel, ammunition, dry goods and other supplies to future aircraft carrier formations but can play a logistical role in China’s future network of overseas bases). What the PLAN misses yet is a dry cargo ship such as the 14 Lewis and Clark-class in service in the U.S. Navy, which can displace 41,000 tons.

The Navy currently plays a key role but according to the authors, China needs to work simultaneously in three areas in particular. First, continue to rely on the Navy and emphasize multi-purpose supply ships, fast combat support ships, large oil replenishment ships and dual-use semi-submersible ships, which can carry over 100,000 tons of cargo. Second, rely on the PLA Air Force and in particular the Y-20 heavy transport aircraft, which has already entered service but has yet to reach mass-production stage. The authors recommend accelerating their rate of delivery to the PLAAF. Third, there needs to be an effort of a mutual process of harmonization of military and civilian norms and standards, so that civilian ships can contribute to the supply effort.

Liu Dalei, Hu Yongmin, and Zhang Hao, military analysts from the Beijing Military Equipment Academy (武装学院), address the question of bases under the larger analytical framework of overseas operations in the "context of the go global military strategy" (军事力量走出去的战略背景).[3] Bases are "designated protection places" (定点保障) that support overseas operations, and as such they have to "radiate" (辐射) over an area where military operations are conducted. The key element from the perspective of overseas operations is the capability of the bases in terms of repair and maintenance so that they can fully play their support role. The political dimension – the relationship with the host country – is obviously essential according to the authors. This is a point also made by Xue Guifang and Zheng Hao, who argue that efforts are needed to "build an international environment that will accept China’s construction of overseas bases" (营造接受中国建设海外基地的国际环境).

To Li Qingsi and Chen Chunyu, international relations academics at China’s Renmin University in Beijing, "building bases on the key maritime transport hubs has already become a strategic choice that increasingly requires urgent action" (日益迫切的战略选择).[4] Their piece tries to contrast Chinese and U.S. approaches to military bases, starting from the judgment that U.S. bases "serve hegemonic policies", while China’s bases need to be built to "develop trade and realize the goal of win-win mutual benefits" (发展贸易实现互利共赢目标). They add, "defense capacities are needed at overseas bases to prevent terrorist attacks.'' But as China plans for more overseas bases, the country will not "walk the old road of Western great powers"(西方大国的老路).

China has learned from history that the "insufficiency of military power projection capability" (军事投送能力不足) results in the incapacity to protect overseas citizens and interests.

Currently, nine countries have overseas bases (by their number, the U.S., the UK, France, India, Italy, Russia, Germany and Japan). China has learned from history that the "insufficiency of military power projection capability" (军事投送能力不足) results in the incapacity to protect overseas citizens and interests. This explains in the view of the authors why military power is important to protect Chinese interests along the maritime trade routes to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. Since the 2016 reform, the Central Military Commission has established an "office for overseas operations" (海外行动处) which provides guidance and coordination and plays an important role in the development of overseas bases. 

The authors argue that China’s ports/bases strategy needs to progress on the basis of the "cultivation of the military by the civilian" (以民养军). On a strategic level, China must never depart from the political priority attached to bases, which is not military domination but protection of trade interests.

During the phase of expansion, China needs to "reduce the sensitivity" (減少敏感度) of its actions, and "stop before going too far" (适可而止) to avoid the "tragedy of great powers" (大国悲剧). In other words, the construction of bases needs to be linked to the exercise of international responsibilities. But beyond such operations, China has no choice since it faces international pressures constraining its rise, "bases are a necessity", and developing the capacity to exercise "sea control" (制海权) in the Western Pacific is essential to the growth of the country’s interests. 

In conclusion, it appears that the Chinese strategic community is already thinking in tactical terms with regard to the future bases to protect the country’s overseas interests. Djibouti provides a lesson: future bases will have to be justified in terms of the international responsibilities that they help China shoulder. No author advocates building bases to compete with the United States militarily and one author even warns against the risk of overstretch. At the same time, strategic competition with the U.S. is the central element of China’s military thinking. In sum, extra attention will be paid to avoid projecting the image of confrontation with the United States when making decisions on the location of China’s future bases.


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[1]  Xue Guifang, Zheng Hao,"Risk management and realistic needs for China’s construction of overseas bases in the 21st Century" (中国21世纪海外基地建设的现实需求与风险应对), Guoji Zhanwang, no. 4, 2017, pp. 104-121.

[2] Wang Tianze, Qi Wenzhe, Hai Jun, "An Exploration Into Logistical Support of Transportation and Projection for Military Bases Abroad" (海外军事基地运输投送保障探讨), Guofang Jiaotong Gongcheng yu Jishu (Defense Transportation Engineering and Techniques), no. 1, 2018, pp. 32-36.

[3]  Liu Dalei, Hu Yongmin, Zhang Hao, "Equipment Support in Overseas Military Actions" (我军海外军事行动装备保障问题研究), Junshi Jiaotong Xueyuan Xuebao – Journal of Military Transportation Academy, vol. 19, no. 9, September 2017.

[4] Li Qingsi, Chen Chunyu, "Analysis of Chinese Overseas Port String Bases Strategy" (试析中国的海外港链基地战略), Quyu yu Quanqiu Fazhan – Regional and Global Development, no. 2, 2019, pp. 123-137.

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