China denies building naval bases, but fears of its military reach are growing

Cambodia’s Defense Minister Thea Ban made great efforts this month to convince Western military officials and diplomats that China is not building a military base in his country. His remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum coincided with Beijing’s insistence that the People’s Liberation Army was not trying to build a global network of bases.

But the United States and its allies are not convinced. Derek Cholet, a senior US State Department official, said Washington was “convinced” that China was building a base in Ream on the Gulf of Cambodia. “We have indications that China is looking for an exclusive military facility,” Cholet said in an interview.

Over the past year, alarm bells have been 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 footprint, and China’s denial that it is building many bases, can be justified.

Just days before Tea Banh’s speech in Singapore, the minister attended a ceremony for the first sod of Chinese-funded construction at Cambodia’s existing naval base in Ream. In March, news of a draft agreement appeared between China and the Solomon Islands, which some Western governments believe could pave the way for Beijing to build a base in the Pacific. Last year, the United States suspected that China was building a secret military facility in the United Arab Emirates and could plan something similar in Equatorial Guinea.

As Beijing dismisses concerns about its intentions, its military has begun to build a network of what it calls strategic strengths on major maritime trade routes to protect China’s growing global interests.

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

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

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

“Even if Cambodia, the UAE and Equatorial Guinea were to go online in the next few years, the PLA is not on its way to a US-like global network of bases,” said Isaac Cardon, an assistant in China. Institute of Marine Research at the US Naval College.

“[Unlike] “The United States, a country that fought in World War II and then maintained that position in the Cold War, is just beginning to build a military presence abroad and is using its global economic footprint to do so,” Cardan said.

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

According to a report co-authored by Cardon 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 rapidly becoming the backbone of PLA operations in distant seas.

PLA Navy ships have visited one-third of these supply or naval diplomacy ports, maintained nine of them, visited 69 for exercises with host countries, and gone to dry docks to repair 47 of them. says the report.

This model of dual-use port infrastructure contrasts China’s strength in overseas economic infrastructure assets with a powerful network of US allies.

“The United States is used to building bases on the territory of its allies. We are not doing this because we are against building blocs against others, “said a Chinese military scientist, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

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

Chinese experts say the “civil-military merger” policy – boosting the assets and capabilities of civilian companies at the disposal of the armed forces or even integrating military and civilian companies and institutions – is helping the PLA protect Chinese investment and trade .

Laws passed in recent years require even overseas transport infrastructure to be built to military specifications, and a debate in military publications shows that PLA personnel are housed in some of the companies that own or operate ports abroad, such as China’s state-owned shipping company. Cosco.

Modern port facilities built in China can accommodate a wide range of naval ships, including the largest. However, dependence on Chinese dual-use ports abroad severely limits what the PLA can do.

“They will face restrictions quite quickly. Maintaining combat operations for extended periods of time or conducting other expeditionary operations would be very difficult with this model, “said Kristen Ganes, a PLA expert at Rand Corporation, a think tank in Washington.

Beijing’s decision to establish its first full military base suggests that the PLA is aware of the borders of dual-use ports. In 2017, he moved to open a base in the East African country of Djibouti, which already hosts a handful of other military personnel, 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, and the PLA navy learned what it takes to sustain long-range missions in distant seas.

“The establishment of the Djibouti base was an important policy change,” Cardon said, citing Beijing’s traditional caution about open military expansion, which could fuel fears of China’s rise as a global power. “Citizens’ leadership has a wider range of goals, but from the PLA’s point of view, having bases is certainly the best option,” he added. “Mistakes can move over time.”

Western officials remain skeptical of the denial of Chinese bases. “Beijing’s goal is to build a global network,” said a Western intelligence official, suggesting that China is moving gradually to avoid provoking too much reaction. “It’s a boiling frog situation.”

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