China’s Overseas Military Bases: Mapping Global Strategy

China - People Liberation Army (PLA)- China

China is securing international military base access agreements to expand the global reach of its armed forces, countering America’s extended deterrence strategy for Taiwan while threatening India with encirclement. This month, the RAND Corporation released a report detailing how China is advancing its global military reach by negotiating base access agreements to expand its security footprint and enable overseas operations for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP).

The RAND report identifies several target countries where China is seeking to establish military bases, including Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia, the Solomon Islands, the UAE, and Vanuatu. Additionally, China already operates a logistics base in Djibouti and a paramilitary outpost in Tajikistan. Apart from those countries, Newsweek reported in March 2024 that China is also seeking base access in Cuba, Pakistan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar.

While these bases support peacetime operations like noncombatant evacuations and intelligence-gathering, their potential wartime utility remains uncertain, according to the RAND report. The primary kinetic mission for the PLA from these bases will likely involve protecting sea lines of communication (SLOC) through 2030. China’s military writings indicate a lack of plans or ability to utilize foreign bases for offensive actions against US forces by 2030. The priority for China appears to be the protection of maritime trade routes and response to possible US blockades.

The RAND report also highlights significant challenges the PLA faces in developing and sustaining these bases, including the political reliability of host nations, logistical support issues, and base security. The PLA relies heavily on mobilized civilian assets for logistics, raising concerns about the effectiveness and resilience of this approach in wartime. Despite efforts to build a network of strategic strongpoints and logistics support bases, including in commercial ports, the PLA’s capacity for higher-end combat operations from these locations is limited.

The report suggests that increased PLA naval and air defense activities in overseas bases could indicate a shift to a more aggressive stance. However, logistical and political challenges make it unlikely for PLA bases to pose a significant threat to US military interests over the next decade. This assessment might underestimate the rapid advancements in Chinese military technology and strategic planning. In a June 2024 article for The National Interest, Brandon Weichert notes that China is set to possess the biggest fleet of aircraft carriers worldwide, underscoring its massive shipbuilding advantage vis-a-vis the US.

Weichert asserts that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) aims to use these assets to prevent US forces from entering the Indo-Pacific, thereby asserting regional dominance. He suggests that the PLA-N envisions its carriers as floating command centers in any potential conflict, such as an invasion or blockade of Taiwan. Furthermore, the US must adapt to a new era of contested regional waters and Chinese warships deployed in the Western Hemisphere.

China may be seeking base access in the Western Hemisphere to challenge the US’s extended deterrence in a Taiwan conflict by leveraging the threat of a direct attack on the US mainland. In a 2023 article for the Peruvian Army Center for Strategic Studies, Robert Ellis points out that with base access in Cuba, China could conduct special operations, disrupt the US military, and attack the US mainland to snap key defense supply chains in a conflict scenario. Moreover, Gordon Chang warns in a June 2023 Gatestone Institute article that China could deploy long-range missiles in Cuba to hit US Navy bases in Florida, block the movement of US vessels, and shoot down planes over the southeastern US.

India is concerned that China will use its economic clout to gain base access at Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, bolstering its lone overseas military base at Djibouti. This situation would challenge India’s dominance of the Indian Ocean and raise fears of encirclement. Isaac Kardon notes in a February 2023 Foreign Policy at Brookings briefing that while China’s base at Djibouti can support its naval operations in the Indian Ocean, it lies at the end of tenuous supply lines. Kardon says that China’s Djibouti facility is isolated and operationally limited because it does not receive mutual support from other Chinese military facilities in the Indian Ocean. However, Kardon points out that China’s dual-use commercial facilities at Gwadar and Hambantota have nonetheless become important nodes for its naval operations.

As for Gwadar, Kardon and other authors mention in an August 2020 China Maritime Studies Institute report that the facility can become a long-term rest and replenishment location for the PLA-N, noting its geographic location, military importance, and Chinese port operator. Kardon and others also say that some circles in the PLA believe that Chinese base access to Gwadar is already as good as established, quoting a PLA officer saying, “The food is already on the plate; we’ll eat it whenever we want to.” Likewise, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in July 2023 that Hambantota will most likely be China’s next military base in the Indian Ocean, pointing out that China has direct control of the facility and represents its single largest port investment.

In a military sense, Gwadar and Hambantota can support a more persistent Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, which could eventually threaten India’s sea-based nuclear deterrent. This month, India may be planning to turn the Bay of Bengal into a bastion for its nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), with the area’s deep waters providing better cover than the congested waters of the Arabian Sea. Operating from a massive submarine base at Rambilli, India’s SSBNs would patrol the Bay of Bengal with the area protected by surface assets such as aircraft carriers and destroyers. Such a strategy would allow India to launch nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) at Pakistan and China undetected.

However, China-India nuclear tensions are most likely to result from mutual penetrations of each other’s bastions using conventional assets. In that scenario, Chinese warships operating from Gwadar and Hambantota may track the movement of India’s SSBNs. At the same time, India is considering boosting its South China Sea naval presence, where China intends to establish a bastion for its SSBNs, mirroring India’s intentions in the Bay of Bengal.

China’s global military base strategy is taking shape, with implications for regional and global security dynamics. The RAND report highlights the complexities and challenges of China’s approach, emphasizing the focus on protecting maritime trade routes and responding to potential US blockades. While the immediate threat to US military interests may be limited, the rapid advancements in Chinese military technology and strategic planning cannot be ignored. China’s efforts to secure base access in the Western Hemisphere and the Indian Ocean signify its broader ambitions to challenge US influence and regional dominance.

For India, the potential encirclement by Chinese bases poses a significant strategic challenge. The development of bases at Gwadar and Hambantota could undermine India’s naval capabilities and its sea-based nuclear deterrent. In response, India may need to bolster its own strategic presence in critical regions such as the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea to counter China’s expanding influence.

As China continues to negotiate and establish military bases worldwide, the geopolitical landscape will undoubtedly shift. The US and its allies must remain vigilant and adapt to the changing dynamics, ensuring that their strategic interests are protected while navigating the complexities of international relations in an increasingly multipolar world.

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