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Why China is acquiring foreign military bases

C Raja Mohan writes: It is trying to assert its primacy in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region while pushing out the US and India.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: November 24, 2021 7:15:42 am
If China’s rejection of foreign military bases was political and contextual, India’s opposition was framed as an immutable ideological principle.

Reports that the United States has prevailed on the United Arab Emirates to stop China from secretly constructing a military facility at an Abu Dhabi port should not come as a surprise. China’s growing interest in acquiring foreign military bases has been reported for more than a decade. Beijing opened its first foreign military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017. It is said to be building its second foreign military base at Ream, Cambodia. Washington, however, has not been successful in getting Cambodia to stop its development.

As the world’s second-largest economy, a great trading power with a rapidly growing navy, and a massive geopolitical ambition, China is bound to get, sooner than later, a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean that will profoundly alter India’s security environment. The recent US annual report on Chinese military power cites several countries that are being targeted by the People’s Liberation Army for military bases. While Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka are candidates from the Bay of Bengal, there are many places to the west of India including Namibia, Seychelles, Tanzania, and the UAE. Pakistan, is of course, in a category of its own. With long-standing and deep political and military ties to China, Pakistan is likely to emerge as the most important vehicle for Chinese naval power projection in the Indian Ocean, with significant implications for India’s military planning.

In the past, Communist China claimed that it was quite different from the West and had no interest in projecting power to distant seas or foreign military bases. China also actively campaigned against foreign military presence in Asia. As a defensive power in the second half of the 20th century, China’s priority was to fend off external threats to its sovereignty and consolidate its communist revolution.

China’s attitudes to its own foreign military presence began to change as it rose rapidly to become a great power in the 21st century. That led to a systematic debate within the Chinese security establishment. The first step was to recognise that China had interests beyond its borders. In a series of reports through the 2000s, Beijing affirmed that its large, globalised economy and growing reliance on foreign markets and resources have created interests far from China’s borders. Once that proposition was established, Beijing began to debate a new question at the turn of the 2000s: Should China acquire foreign military bases to secure its regional and global interests? The debate was quickly clinched in favour of securing bases.

China went about cautiously in establishing foreign bases. For one, Beijing knows the term “military base” is politically loaded and is careful to avoid using it. It understood that the military imperative for bases, so necessary for power projection, must be balanced against the inevitable politics of nationalist resentment in the host countries. China’s focus, therefore, was on building dual-use facilities rather than explicit military bases on foreign soil. Djibouti has been an exception to this trend and welcomes foreign bases on its soil. Lacking any resources, Djibouti is simply leveraging its strategic location in the Horn of Africa.

China’s dual-use approach to gaining strategic access on distant shores benefited immensely from its expansive foreign port construction in the last two decades and the more recent Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific.

In Abu Dhabi, the Chinese contract was to build a civilian facility. But satellite imagery and other intelligence convinced US policymakers about China’s secret construction of a military facility. That is when the US formally took up the issue with the government in the UAE, which is one of its major military partners in the Gulf. The picture is not different in the subcontinent, where China’s focus has been on developing structures that are formally civilian but amenable to PLA’s future use.

Strategic location, of course, is one of the prime considerations for bases. But location does not automatically translate into military access just because China wants it. A lot depends on the nature of the overall relationship with the target nation. This, in turn, means cultivating special relationships with the political elites as well as strengthening ties with the military establishments in a potential host country. Arms transfers and military diplomacy, then, become an integral part of China’s quest for foreign bases.

Even as it seeks military bases and facilities around the Indo-Pacific, China continues to campaign against US military presence in Asia and its strategic partnerships. Expanding its own military reach while trying to push America out of its front yard is part of the effort to establish Chinese primacy in Asia and its waters.

China’s approach to the US is like its India strategy — seeking military access to the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean while undercutting Delhi’s strategic partnerships in the region.

That brings us to the similarities between Chinese and Indian positions on foreign military bases. In the second half of the 20th century, Delhi, like Beijing, opposed foreign military bases in Asia and the Indian Ocean. But here is the big difference. For China, opposition to foreign bases was rooted in an assessment of the direct security consequences of foreign military bases.

Mao Zedong, who founded Communist China, saw the US military presence in Asia in the 1950s as part of the American effort to roll back its communist revolution. But Mao was quite happy to live with US military bases in Asia, as its relations with Soviet Russia turned sour and ties with America improved. By the 1970s, China saw the value of US military presence in containing “Soviet social imperialism” and “latent Japanese militarism”. Today, as China’s military capabilities improve and its political ambitions rise, Beijing is trying to push America out of Asia once again.

If China’s rejection of foreign military bases was political and contextual, India’s opposition was framed as an immutable ideological principle. Opposing foreign military bases became an essential part of India’s non-aligned foreign policy. In fact, the absence of foreign military bases was long considered as the main criterion for admitting a nation to the non-aligned movement. Even more consequentially, independent India began to dismantle the expansive military network it had inherited from the British Raj. Military isolationism had become a conscious ideological choice for India through the 20th century.

In the 21st century, like Beijing, the security establishment began to note India’s growing strategic interests beyond borders. As the inevitability of China’s naval power projection into the Indian Ocean became clear, Delhi began to recognise the need for military access to strategic locations in the Indo-Pacific. But it was hard to wean the political class from the old shibboleths on foreign military bases. As a result, India lost much time in the first decade of the 21st century. In the last few years, India has stepped up its military diplomacy.

Delhi’s efforts to secure access involved negotiating arrangements with friendly states in the Indian Ocean as well as developing deeper strategic partnerships with the US and its regional allies. But Delhi is a long way from matching the speed and intensity of Chinese military diplomacy in its near and extended neighbourhood. And the growing gap could present serious problems to India in the not-too-distant future.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2021 under the title ‘A base away from home’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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