China refuses to build naval bases, but fears of its military reach are growing

This month, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh made great efforts to convince Western military officials and diplomats that China was not building a military base in his country. His remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum matched Beijing’s insistence that the People’s Liberation Army not try to build a global network of bases.

But the United States and its allies are not convinced. Derek Chollet, a top US State Department official, said Washington was “convinced” that China was building a base at Ream on Cambodia’s coast in the Gulf of Thailand. “We have indications that China is seeking an exclusive military facility,” Chollet said in an interview.

Over the past year, the alarm bells have rung every few months in the United States and among its allies over alleged Chinese plans for new military bases. But paradoxically, fears that the PLA will gain a global foothold and China’s denial that it is building many bases may both be justified.

Just a few days before Tea Banh’s Singapore speech, the Minister attended a groundbreaking ceremony for Chinese-funded construction at Cambodia’s existing naval base in Ream. In March, news broke of a draft agreement between China and the Solomon Islands that some Western governments believe could pave the way for Beijing to build a base in the Pacific. Last year, US suspicions were leaked that China was building a secret military facility in the United Arab Emirates and perhaps planning something similar in Equatorial Guinea.

While Beijing rejects concerns about its intentions, its military has begun to create a network of what it calls strategic strengths along key maritime trade routes to protect China’s growing global interests.

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh is swimming in the sea with Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian this month.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh swims in the sea with Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian this month to ‘strengthen closer brotherhood and cooperation’ © Gen Tea Banh / Facebook

China’s 2019 Defense White Paper states that the military’s tasks include protecting cargo ships and evacuating Chinese nationals abroad, and that the PLA will develop “overseas logistics facilities”.

But in stark contrast to the U.S. military, with its hundreds of dedicated bases around the world, the PLA relies heavily on facilities in overseas ports owned or operated by Chinese state-owned enterprises.

“Even if Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates and Equatorial Guinea were all to come online in the next few years, the PLA is not heading for a US-like global network of bases,” said Isaac Kardon, an assistant professor at China. Maritime Studies Institute at US Naval War College.

“[Unlike] “The United States, a country that fought in a world war and then maintained that position in the Cold War, China has only begun to build an overseas military presence, and it is using its global economic footprint for that,” Kardon said.

Map showing the global network of port terminals owned or operated by Chinese companies

According to a report co-authored by Kardon and published in April, Chinese companies own or operate at least one terminal in 96 ports in 53 countries, and this network of port infrastructure is fast becoming the backbone of the PLA’s long-range operations.

PLA naval ships called at a third of these ports for supplies or naval diplomacy, had maintenance performed on nine of them, visited 69 for exercises with their host nations, and went into dry docks for repairs on 47 of them, the report said.

This dual-use model of port infrastructure pits China’s strength in overseas economic infrastructure assets against the United States’ powerful network of allies.

“The United States is used to building bases on the territory of its allies. We do not do that because we are against building blocks against others,” said a Chinese military scholar, who asked not to be named because he had not been allowed to discuss the topic.

“Our model is focused on development. It has now become part of our military mission to protect that development abroad, but we can also use the fruits of that development to fulfill this mission, ”said the researcher.

Chinese experts say the “civil-military merger” policy – a push to make the assets and capabilities of civilian companies available to the armed forces or even to integrate military and civilian companies and institutions – helps the PLA protect Chinese investment and trade .

Laws passed in recent years require that even overseas transportation infrastructure be built to military specifications, and debate in military publications indicates that PLA personnel are being placed in some of the companies that own or operate ports abroad, such as the Chinese state-owned shipping company Cosco.

Chinese-built modern port facilities can accommodate a wide range of naval vessels, including the largest. Yet the reliance on Chinese-owned dual-use ports abroad strictly limits what the PLA can do.

“They will run up to borders pretty quickly. Maintaining combat operations over an extended period of time or performing other expeditionary operations would be a very difficult task with this model,” said Kristen Gunness, PLA expert at Rand Corporation, a think tank in Washington.

Beijing’s decision to set up its first full military base suggests the PLA is recognizing the boundaries of dual-use ports. In 2017, it moved to open a base in the East African country of Djibouti, which already hosted a handful of other military including the United States. The decision came after nearly a decade of escorts to protect Chinese and other civilian ships from pirates off the Horn of Africa, through which the PLA fleet learned what it took to sustain long-term missions on the far seas.

“The establishment of the Djibouti base was a significant change of policy,” Kardon said, pointing to Beijing’s traditional vigilance against open military expansion that could boost fears of China’s progress as a global power. “Civilian leadership has a broader set of goals, but from the PLA’s point of view, bases are certainly the best option,” he added. “The goal posts can move over time.”

Western officials hold on to their doubts about Chinese base denials. “Beijing’s goal is to build a global network,” a Western intelligence official said, suggesting that China moves gradually to avoid provoking too much reaction. “It’s a boiling seed situation.”

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