Since 2017, Beijing has made no secret of its intention to build military installations abroad in order to project its influence and protect its economic interests and citizens.
Two Chinese SU-30 fighter jets take off from an unspecified location to patrol the South China Sea. China has sent a record number of military flights near Taiwan since last Friday. PA
The Kiribati Islands, Cambodia, Denmark, Tanzania, Seychelles and the United Arab Emirates. One could be forgiven for thinking that little connects these far, often far, corners of the globe. For the most part, few. All except one thing. Each of those countries was on China’s wishlist for establishing military bases as the East Asian giant tries to expand its global footprint.
More recently, headlines were flooded with rumors that the United Arab Emirates, a key United States partner in the Middle East, had started building a military installation for China. After prompt US intervention in the matter, construction of the facility was halted even as the UAE protested that it had no plans to host a Chinese military base. Observers of China’s military posture will be less than surprised by the drama unfolding in the Middle East. Since 2017, China has made no secret of its intention to build military installations abroad in order to project its influence and protect its economic interests and citizens.
For much of China’s history after the CCP’s establishment of power in 1949, its leaders avoided establishing military bases on foreign soil. Even during the boom years of Chinese growth in the 1990s and 2000s, the Chinese military and political elite continued to modernize defense while making it clear that “military expansion” in the form of foreign bases was not not possible.
However, this more reserved stance has started to change for a few key reasons. First, China’s rapid economic growth has necessitated the consumption of large amounts of fuel. While China was largely able to meet its energy needs through domestic supplies in the early years of its economic boom, it became an energy importer after 1993. Since then, China has become the most major world importer of crude oil and satisfies about 67% of its oil imports from abroad. For policymakers in Beijing, US dominance of strategically vital Middle East sea lanes, particularly near the Strait of Hormuz through which much of China’s oil imports pass, represents a strategically dangerous dependence on China. which will only get worse over time.
If an armed conflict between Beijing and Washington breaks out, the United States would be in a strong position to use its grip and deprive China of vital energy supplies. This scenario makes Beijing dream. China’s base in Djibouti, conveniently located near crucial Middle East choke points like the Bab Al Mandab Strait, aims to secure its strategic lifeline of energy imports. China’s foiled attempts to acquire military facilities from the United Arab Emirates and Denmark were closely linked to China’s search for secure energy pipelines.
Second, China’s increased investment in economic and human capital in often unstable parts of the world requires a strengthened military presence. China discovered this the hard way in 2011 when it had to scramble to evacuate its citizens from war-torn Libya. If it was able to do so, it was in large part thanks to the effort of non-military ships that participated in the evacuation effort.
However, China’s pursuit of bases on foreign soil cannot be dissociated from Beijing’s desire to establish a “world-class” army capable of undertaking global operations. In a worrying turn of events for the United States, the Kiribati Islands, located in the far South Pacific and home to just 1,10,000 souls, have moved closer to orbit with China. Since establishing official diplomatic ties with Beijing in 2019, the small island nation has reached an agreement with Beijing to modernize the facilities of a former US air base.
Details of the deal have been withheld from the Kiribati public, a fact that has contributed to a whirlwind of rumors about China’s intentions. The fact that the potential Chinese base is only 3,000 kilometers from Hawaii has only increased the concern of analysts and policymakers. China’s charm offensive has seen it knocking on the doors of many Pacific island countries with offers of economic aid.
India is well aware of the strategic consequences of Beijing’s diplomatic blitz after spending the past few years waging heartbreaking rearguard action against China which seeks to undermine India’s influence with its island neighbors like the Maldives and Seychelles. While Beijing asserts that its presence in these countries is largely economic and that key defense investments do not constitute full-fledged military reinforcements, China has worked hard to establish the political, economic, and defense relations it holds. it can tap into global military influence in 2049.
However, while Beijing’s deepening military ties in key strategic locations deserve concern and action, they do not justify hysteria. Indeed, some have questioned the strategic utility of some Beijing projects such as the Ream naval base in Cambodia. Moreover, China’s only confirmed military base in Djibouti compares somewhat unfavorably with the 800 US bases scattered around the world.
For the United States and its partners in the region, the playbook is clear. First, key players like the United States and Australia need to partner and reconnect diplomatically with Pacific island countries. Many observers have pointed out that China has maintained a fully equipped diplomatic presence in the Kiribati Islands while the closest US representative is thousands of miles away in Fiji. Resolving the main historical tensions between the great powers and small Pacific island nations while matching Chinese economic investments in the region is a good strategy.
Additionally, America would be well served to expand its own military readiness to counter China’s growing influence. The US Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which aims to invest in overhauling US military posture and capabilities to meet the Chinese challenge, remains chronically underfunded. Leveraging the capabilities of its allies in the Quad, all of whom have long-standing relationships in the region, should remain a key plan in U.S. Indo-Pacific policy.
The author is Associate Researcher, Strategic Studies Program, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. The opinions expressed are personal.