The Pentagon disclosed last week that China is incrementally moving toward becoming an expansionist military power, seeking bases overseas along with a new doctrine to support power projection around the world.
Chinese global military aspirations were revealed in the latest annual report on the Chinese arms forces and follows decades of earlier reports that insisted China’s main military focus is limited to preparing to fight a regional war with the United States over Taiwan.
The theme behind the Taiwan focus of the past was that China’s large-scale military buildup is not global in scope because Beijing was only seeking modernized forces designed for conflict across the 100 mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
China as global superpower
Critics dismissed the Taiwan focus of earlier reports as the result of intelligence “groupthink” that sought to play down China’s real ambition: To ultimately replace the United States as the world’s superpower and promote what Chinese Xi Jinping has dubbed the “Chinese Dream” — a world where China is not just a regional hegemon, but a global superpower.
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, notes that a decade ago it was clear to many observers that China harbored global military ambitions beyond Taiwan contingencies. The Pentagon, he said, lost a decade during which it could have provided real warning about the growing threat.
“China’s pursuit of global military ambitions will generate new threats to the US by the mid-2020s,” he said. “For the last 15 years China has been building global economic and political power that it is now translating into military access and influence. The Pentagon is really late in warning policymakers about China’s global strategic ambitions.”
The latest report reveals what appears to be an incremental, covert effort by Chinese leaders to set up support facilities for its military around the world.
“China is expanding its access to foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support to regularize and sustain deployments in the ‘far seas,’ waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean,” the report says.
Of particular concern to US military planners is Beijing’s confirmation last year that it will build military support facilities at Djibouti, a small state located on the Horn of Africa strategically located at the critical chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The Pentagon report says the Chinese military claims the facility will be used by its navy and army for UN peacekeeping missions, escort operations near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden and for providing humanitarian assistance. “This Chinese initiative both reflects and amplifies China’s growing geopolitical clout, extending the reach of its influence and armed forces,” the report says.
In addition to protecting Chinese businesses, the overseas bases will be used to protect critical sea-lanes of communications, based on China’s increasing reliance on foreign sources of oil to fuel its modernization. The report notes that China currently is reliant on foreign oil imports for 60% of its energy, and the dependence will increase to 80% by 2020.
“China most likely will seek to establish additional naval logistics hubs in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and a precedent for hosting foreign militaries,” the report states.
In Pakistan, China has built the port of Gwadar, strategically located near the Arabian Sea not far from the shipping lanes used by oil tankers exiting the Persian Gulf. The port could be used for Chinese warships in the future.
The Pentagon noted that setting up naval bases will not be easy for the Chinese as some states may not support a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) military presence.
To date, China has not set up US-style overseas military bases in the Indian Ocean. The report suggests Chinese leaders are seeking a lower-profile combination of foreign state-authorized access to overseas commercial ports, along with a number of dedicated PLAN logistics bases co-located at commercial ports.
Currently, China’s naval logistics capabilities in the Indian Ocean are “unable to support major combat operations in South Asia,” the Pentagon report said. However, more naval bases would position the Chinese navy to expand its activities to support sea-lane security, the report said.
The report appears to play down the planned use of overseas bases for non-controversial missions such as counter-piracy and counter-terrorism missions.
But other sections note China’s strategy of employing coercion, both military and diplomatic, to achieve international goals, notably in its high-profile maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
As PLA forces become stronger, “Chinese leaders are increasingly leveraging tactics short of armed conflict to advance China’s interests,” the report says, noting the increased global military presence is the result of a change in doctrine from “offshore waters defense” to a mix of offshore defense and “open seas protection” reflecting the PLA’s “expanding interest in wider operational reach.”
Current military doctrine also is called “active defense” defined as a commitment “not to attack” but to respond aggressively, and preemptively “once an adversary decides to attack — a defense that counterattacks in order to disrupt an adversary’s preparations or offensive rather than a defense that reacts passively,” the Pentagon says.
‘String of Pearls’ strategy
The report outlining increasing military expansion by China reflects an internal 2005 study done by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the futurist think tank, that predicted China would embark on a network of bases along sea lanes around the world that was dubbed the “string of pearls” strategy.
The future bases included facilities in Gwadar, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and the South China Sea. In the Western hemisphere, China could use its Chinese-owned port facilities at either end of the Panama Canal, and in the Caribbean for coercion, military logistics or operations in a conflict.
The driving force for China’s military expansion is likely Chinese insecurity over access to energy supplies.
Pentagon officials have said Chinese military leaders understand that US precision-guided strike weapons, combined with the developing, long-range, rapid attack capability known as Prompt Global Strike – weapons that can strike any target on earth within 30 minutes — means the United States could cripple China in a conflict by knocking out its oil and energy facilities and supply lines.
By highlighting increasing Chinese global military expansion, the latest Pentagon report appears to be signaling that China is positioning its forces to be able to try and keep those supply lines open in a crisis or conflict.