The Kiribati islands, Cambodia, Denmark, Tanzania, the Seychelles and the UAE. One might be forgiven for thinking that little connects these distant, often far-flung, corners of the globe. For the most part, little does. All except for one thing. Each of these countries has been on China’s wish list for the establishment of military bases as the East Asian giant attempts to expand its global footprint.
Most recently, headlines were awash with rumours that the UAE, a key US partner in the Middle East, had begun building a military installation for China. After a swift US intervention in the matter, construction on the facility was brought to a halt even as the UAE protested that it had no plans to host a Chinese military base. Observers of China’s military posture will be less than surprised by the drama unfolding in the Middle East. Since 2017, China has made no bones about its intention to build overseas military facilities in a bid to project influence as well as safeguard its economic interests and citizenry.
For much of China’s history post the establishment of CCP rule in 1949, its leaders eschewed the establishment of military bases on foreign soil. Even in the boom years of Chinese growth in the 1990s and 2000s, China’s military and political elite pursued defence modernisation while making clear that “military expansion” in the form of foreign bases was off the table.
However, this more reserved stance began to shift for a few key reasons. First, China’s breakneck economic growth necessitated the consumption of large quantities of fuel. While China was largely able to meet its energy needs through domestic supplies in the early years of its economic boom, it became an energy importer after 1993. Since then, China has become the world’s largest importer of crude oil and meets around 67 per cent of its oil imports from abroad. To policymakers in Beijing, US domination of strategically vital sea lanes in the Middle East, especially near the Straits of Hormuz through which much of China’s oil imports travel, represents a strategically dangerous dependence for China that is only likely to get worse over time.
Should an armed conflict between Beijing and Washington break out, the United States would be in a strong position to utilise its stranglehold and starve China of vital energy supplies. This scenario is the stuff of nightmares for Beijing. China’s base in Djibouti, conveniently positioned near crucial Middle Eastern chokepoints like the Bab Al Mandab Strait, is aimed at securing its strategic lifeline of energy imports. China’s thwarted attempts to acquire military installations from the UAE and Denmark were closely linked to China’s search for secure energy pipelines.
Second, China’s expanded economic and human capital investments in often unstable regions of the world require an enhanced military presence. China discovered this to its cost in 2011 when it had to scramble to evacuate its citizens from war-torn Libya. That it was able to do so was largely thanks to the effort of non-military vessels that assisted in the evacuation effort.
However, China's pursuit of bases on foreign soil cannot be divorced from Beijing’s desire to establish a “world class” military that is capable of undertaking global operations. In a worrying turn of events for the United States, the Kiribati islands, located in the distant South Pacific and home to just 1,10,000 souls, have lurched towards China’s orbit. Since establishing formal diplomatic ties with Beijing in 2019, the tiny island nation has concluded an agreement with Beijing to upgrade facilities on a former US aircraft base.
The details of the agreement have been kept from the Kiribati public, a fact that has contributed to a swirl of rumours about China’s intentions. That the prospective Chinese base is just 3,000 kilometres from Hawaii has only deepened alarm among analysts and policymakers. China’s charm offensive has led it to knock on the doors of numerous Pacific island nations with offers of economic aid.
India is well acquainted with the strategic consequences of Beijing’s diplomatic blitz after spending the last few years waging a harrowing rearguard action against China that seeks to undercut India’s influence with island neighbours like the Maldives and Seychelles. While Beijing claims its presence in these countries is largely economic and that key defence investments do not amount to full-fledged military build ups, China has been hard at work building the political and economic and defence relationships that it can leverage into global military influence by 2049.
However, while Beijing’s deepening military ties in key strategic locations merit concern and action, they do not warrant hysteria. Indeed, some have questioned the strategic utility of a few of Beijing’s projects like the Ream naval base in Cambodia. Further, China’s one confirmed military base in Djibouti compares somewhat unfavourably to the 800 American bases scattered around the globe.
For the United States and its partners in the region, the playbook is clear. First, key players like the United States and Australia must partner with each other and re-engage diplomatically with Pacific Island countries. Numerous observers have pointed out that China has maintained a fully kitted out diplomatic presence in the Kiribati islands while the closest US representative sits thousands of kilometres away in Fiji. Resolving key historical tensions between major powers and smaller Pacific Islander nations while matching Chinese economic investments in the region is a sound strategy.
Further, America would be well served to expand its own military readiness to counter China’s growing influence. America’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which aims to invest in reshaping America’s military posture and capabilities to meet the China challenge, remains chronically underfunded. Leveraging the capabilities of its allies in the Quad, all of whom have long-standing relationships in the region, should remain a key plan of America’s Indo-Pacific policy.
The author is a research associate, strategic studies programme, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.