Base Assumptions: Predicting China’s First Overseas Naval Base

Alright, I know that in my introspective post on international relations theory I discussed moving away from the idea of Great Power politics as a baseline for IR, and it’s true, there’s too many factors in this multilinear world to allow ourselves to get caught up on just one factor, states. But let’s be real here: Great Power politics are just more interesting. Period. I can’t go full-on realist ever, but if you try to tell me that the machinations of states as they struggle for primacy is anything less than fascinating, you will receive the coldest of shoulders from me. There’s a reason that Paul Kennedy is still one of my favorite historians, and that’s because his subject matter is intriguing. Besides, even in a world that is without poles in some areas, there are still concentrations of power that exists in the hands of a few select countries. So is the case with China, my second area of intellectual fascination after the UN.

In any case, over the last few months, there’s been a goodly amount of buzz on the blogosphere about the implications of China launching a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier under the flag of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Despite the chatter, it looks like the Pentagon doesn’t much care about the deployment, though keeping an eye on supposed carrier-killing missiles that China is developing, as actually being able to use these tools effectively is going to take many, many more years.

That doesn’t change the fact that China’s Navy is now able to be considered a blue water navy, to a certain extent, capable of operating far beyond China’s shores. Operations have been taking place in the Indian Ocean for years now to head off Somali piracy and protect key shipping lanes. As the map from Wired Magazine below shows, a huge amount of sea traffic follows well-established routes and a great deal of that cargo is going to and from Shanghai and other Chinese coastal cities.

Major Shipping Routes 2009

Overseas methods are still far cheaper than overland or flight when it comes to transporting goods and materials. Wars have been fought and most likely will be fought to either control these routes of trade or to ensure that they remain open for the world to use. China’s navy is going to have to do one or the other one day, much to the chagrin of the US Navy, which sees itself as the protector of the seas around the world.

To become a true global naval power on the level of the United States, if not to become the dominant force on the seas to at least ensure that encroachment by the US to shut off trade is unable to occur, China is going to need someplace to shore up, refuel, and project its power from, away from the Chinese shoreline. At present, the Chinese military has sought to protect its sea lines of communication along what has been dubbed the “String of Pearls” [PDF], a set of friendly and often Chinese-built ports along the most critical of China’s sea lines of communication. The pearls fall along the line between the Horn of Africa and Hong Kong, including the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca among other potential choke points and has been used by the Chinese government to illustrate the non-offensive nature of the PLAN. This message of non-interference has made up the core of Chinese foreign policy for decades, even as it shows double-digit increases to its military budget annually.

All of these ports are owned and operated by their host country however, and despite close ties remain out of Chinese control. Memorandums of understanding are all well and good, but in a time of extreme need what is to stop the attempt to deny entry into these safe harbors? Granted, it’s an unlikely scenario that any of these locations would have the naval capability of deflecting a Chinese fleet, but why take the risks? What’s more, none of these ports are military in nature, instead being for commercial use only. That begs the question: where will the first permanent Chinese overseas naval base be located?

I’m not concerned about when or if this is going to take place – the fact is that it will happen and most likely within the next ten to fifteen years (which I am well aware is the most comfortable of projections for anyone unsure of a date). As I said before, sea routes are arguably as important now as they were over a hundred years ago for enabling trade, barring some unforeseen increase in technology that makes the air domain cheaper than transport by sea. As the PRC continues to grow and interact more with Latin America and Africa, seeking new markets sell its finished products and access to greater and greater amounts of raw materials that the Chinese mainland doesn’t possess, the eventual need to begin to set up and maintain overseas bases is as apparent as America’s in the 19th Century. Where that base is built will be much more key and display more about China’s potential strategic outlook than the timing around it. As a caveat, I’m not speaking of establishing bases in the context of colonization of an entire area and population, but rather as leased land to provide an area to establish ports, much as the United States currently has in Guantanamo Bay, Bahrain, or Okinawa. Furthermore, this is not meant to be like so many other ominous “China is a threat” posts on the blogosphere; this doesn’t presume that China means to attack the United States or anything ridiculous like that, rather that China, like all states, has strategic interests and can and will use a forward-projection of force to protect them when within its capability. I don’t see China acting in the manner of the United States soon and projecting forces outside its strategic interests.

As far as I can tell, there are three serious potential locales for the first permanent base: in the Gulf of Aden, on one of the Spratly Islands, or on the Indian subcontinent. The last is much less likely than the first two, but I include it for reasons I’ll get into soon. A base in Latin America also came to mind but I’m ruling it out for three reasons. First, it’s a bridge too far, no matter the close ties between China and countries on the Pacific coast of the continent like Venezuela. The idea of placing your very first overseas base at the outer edges of your naval capacity sounds like a recipe for disaster; any additional trade benefits would be hampered by the amount of fuel-carrying ships that would be needed just to get to the base in the first place. Second, trade that current exists between China and Latin America would almost certainly improve from the addition of a Chinese naval base, it currently would not be worth the investment. Third, and almost more importantly, no matter what rhetorical sparring China and the US may get into from time to time, I am positive that China is in no hurry to provoke the United States in what would surely be labeled a gross violation of the Monroe Doctrine and inflame tensions to unheard of heights, especially in a Congress that is already spooked by China’s rise.

Bearing those things in mind, we’ll begin with the least likely candidate that is still in the running: the Indian subcontinent. The Financial Times back in May report that Pakistan was inviting China to go beyond a request to take over operations at a port in the southwest of the country but instead build a permanent base:

“We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s defence minister, told the Financial Times, confirming that the request was conveyed to China during a visit last week by Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister.

This request was then turned down by a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman two days later.

It’s easy to see why China would reject the offer. While a naval base in Pakistan would allow for easy projection into the Indian Ocean, the costs that would come from such a move would far outweigh the advantages. First, it can be pretty easily seen that the Pakistani offer was intended to be a message to the United States in the wake of the Osama bin Laden raid. Pakistan has been working over the past several months to show the United States that it could just as easily have China as its partner in military and strategic issues, hoping to lessen the pressure for changes in Pakistani strategy against terrorist cells that operate within its borders. This message, “we don’t need you, we can take our business elsewhere”, was muted by the Chinese in a setback to Pakistan’s tactics but it isn’t clear that Pakistan would have gone through with the plan should China have accepted.

Second, constructing a base out of Pakistan would cause India to be even more nervous about Pakistan than they currently are, which is no mean feat. Having India go from a competitor for markets to a full-scale adversary is absolutely nowhere on the Chinese plan for a peaceful rise. This in turn would force the United States to choose between supporting India as a counterweight to China and Pakistan’s somewhat shaky partnership in combating terrorism. Should the US choose India, this places pressure on the China/India border while destabilizing Pakistan further, just what you want when the naval bases that the host country owns are coming under attack, let alone a foreign controlled base. In fact, just today, China has cancelled what was supposed to be Pakistan’s largest foreign-investment deal, due to concerns about security. A naval base would be both more and less secure than a coal mining operation, more secure but a much more likely target for assault.

This takes us to the second choice in the Gulf of Aden, off Africa’s eastern coast. The Gulf acts as the bridge between the Horn of Africa and the greater Indian Ocean. This in turn makes it the prime hunting ground for Somalia based pirates. Indeed, the Gulf of Aden has been one of the most dangerous waterways in the world for the last half decade, even with naval forces from the United States, France, India and China all patrolling the waters. China’s eighth patrol and escort flotilla recently returned from the Gulf, with a ninth already deployed. These patrol fleets are currently allowed to refuel at a French naval base, after the initial wave kept at sea for 124 days without docking, a logistical challenge that is avoided with ownership of a base.

Despite the dangers, the area is extremely vital to international trade. As the map above shows, a huge amount of traffic flows through the Gulf, as ships pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean at-large on their way around the Arabian peninsula and towards East Asia. Oil tankers are frequent travelers in the Gulf of Aden and China is dependent on the crude and refined that makes its way through. Were the area to become fully crippled by pirates, or the strait were to be closed by force, it would be a crucial blow to China’s ability to support itself. Any attempt by any navy,  other than the United States for now, to attempt to close the Gulf of Aden or the Bab-el-Mandeb will quickly find itself facing China’s ire.

China’s continued presence in the area makes it a natural for speculation about potential permanent bases. In December 2009, Chinese Admiral Yin Zhou gave an interview that was subsequently posted to the defense ministry’s website, suggesting that a permanent base in the Gulf of Aden would be beneficial to Chinese patrols, saying “I think a permanent, stable base would be good for our operations”. The defense ministry website being as tightly controlled, if not more, than the rest of Chinese media, the interview was most certainly sanctioned by the PLA. But two days after the interview went live, an article was posted in the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper, quoting the Defense Ministry as saying that “Some countries have set up overseas supply bases (but) the Chinese fleet is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking”. The quick turnaround in this retraction is most likely due to international concern about the strategic meaning behind actually announcing its first base. In this particular instance, the test balloon was quickly shot down and avowed to have never existed.

The problem with a scenario where China breaks ground in the Horn of Africa or to the opposite side of the Bab-el-Mandeb is one of increasingly shrinking options for a proper host country with access to the Gulf of Aden. An option that came to mind was the former French colony of Djibouti, but it would seem that the Chinese have missed the proverbial boat there. Japan has instead opted to build its first overseas military base in this small country, for the very reasons that China would be wise to take up a stance in the Gulf: protecting trading ships from piracy. It’s worth noting that Japan’s decision to take this step was not met with nearly the same sort of intense speculation as China’s pondering. In any case, Djibouti is not likely to place host to two separate navies patrolling the same area. On the Arabian peninsula, Yemen has far too many problems for China to consider investing money and resources in building a naval base there. The payoff of constructing a stronghold would be far outweighed by increasing ties with President Saleh at a time where his regime is increasingly isolated and desperate. And so Yemen is duly ruled out.

This leaves the most likely location in this region as the relatively young state of Eritrea. After gaining its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has managed to stagnate in terms of growth and regress in human rights. Not that this matters to the People’s Republic, which maintains strong ties with Eritrea, serving as one of the impoverished state’s largest trading partners. The influx of money that would surely come with the construction of such a base and hosting of the Chinese navy would be a strong draw for Eritrea, as well as solidifying its link to China.

That brings us to the final option, the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. I can already hear some people saying that this should not count as an option, as in China’s view, the islands are part of Chinese territory anyway. We’ll come back to that argument, but for now we’ll treat it the others, as locating a naval base on any of the Spratly Islands would be far enough removed from mainland China to make an impact on force projection.

Compared to Pakistan and the Gulf of Aden, this could very easily be seen as the conventional choice. As mentioned briefly, the Chinese lay claim to the entirety of the island chain, making it not outside the realm of possibility that arming the islands and constructing bases would be forthcoming to protect its territory. Relatively close to China, the islands could serve as a forward point as Guantanamo Bay at Cuba did for the United States at the initiation of the lease.

Aside from shoring up Chinese claims to the South China sea, the strategic value of having ships launch from the Spratly islands is clear. Such a base could easily be used to ensure that the Malacca Strait, between Malaysia and Indonesia, remains open to commercial vessels at all times and free of piracy. The strait is extremely important to international trade, as 25% of the world’s oil moves through it every year, as well as the mind-boggling statistic of 40% of the world’s trade total, making it a strategic chokepoint. Currently, the area is patrolled by the Indian Navy to prevent piracy, as part of a partnership with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The litorral states are well aware of the fact that China would rather patrol the area itself, but have strove to keep the Malacca Strait from becoming a flashpoint for the big powers, namely China, India, Japan and the United States.

All of this leads neatly into the main problem with calling the Spratly Islands the most likely choice of the location of China’s first overseas base. The Spratly Islands, for all their desolation and unproven mineral resources, are in part or in whole claimed by several states in the region, including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. While People’s Liberation Army has issued several declarations of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the chain, others are not so easily convinced. Tensions have gotten even more tense over the last several years, with more aggressive Chinese claims being viewed warily by other states in the region, culminating in Chinese patrol boats clashing with Vietnamese oil and gas survey ships.

Moving so boldly in the region would be a near total reversal of China’s current foreign policy, which stresses its peaceful rise above all else. Any advantage that could be seen gained from constructing a base on the Spratlys would be outweighed could be counterbalanced by moving more neighbors into the camp of other powers in the region. At the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) meeting this summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on all parties in the conflict to back up their claims to the Islands with legal facts, veering off from the US’ historical preference of taking no sides whatsoever in the dispute. Vietnam is also partnering with India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to explore the areas around the islands it lays claim to, a move that has disturbed the Chinese, and lends credence to the fact that India is moving to take advantage of the fears a rising China stokes. In East Asia, as anywhere, when the beginnings of hegemony are seen, states who wish to preserve the status quo will band together to act as a counterweight to the rising state. It was true in Europe as Germany united, precipitating the alliance between the UK and France, and it can be seen here, though China is doing its very best to take as few actions as possible that push states into banding together in an anti-Chinese alliance. Militarizing the Spratly Islands would only inflame others in the region, and lead to even greater mistrust of Chinese intentions, and benefit India and the United States.

After weighing all of these options, I’m inclined to believe that Africa wins out in terms of the most strategic return on investment for China. The economic imperative of protecting the shipping lanes in and near the Gulf of Aden and the lack of geopolitical cost in setting up shop there makes it the ideal location, especially when compared to the other two. Constructing a base in Eritrea will serve the Chinese well, by allowing for the long-range missions necessary for keeping the commons open, and acting as a Western anchor to the range of the Chinese Navy, which will then have a vast swath of the Indian Ocean well within its reach. Will this actually come to pass anytime soon? I suppose that we will just have to wait and see, but I know that I, for one, will be ready to pull up this post at a moment’s notice when it’s finally proven or disproven. Your move, PLAN.


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