China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, is shown at Dalian Port in Liaoning province. Photo: AFP
China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, is shown at Dalian Port in Liaoning province. Photo: AFP

Could China finally be getting its long-anticipated “string of pearls”? For years, people have been predicting that China will acquire a network of access – bases, ports, and even airfields – stretching from the South China Sea, through the Singapore-Malacca Straits, across the Indian Ocean and to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. If not directly owned or controlled by China, this chain would permit the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the naval arm of the Chinese military, to become a more or less permanent presence in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

As a result, the PLA Navy could secure China’s access to some of its most important sea lanes of communication, safeguarding the critical flow of energy supplies – particularly crude oil – from the Middle East and protecting China’s trade routes to Europe.

This is apparent in Beijing’s planned establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa, and in recent reports that China may establish a full-fledged naval base in Pakistan.

Given China’s emphasis not only on expanding international trade and commerce but on increasing its political clout globally, it is not surprising that Beijing is attempting to strengthen its ability to project sustainable power farther and farther beyond its territory.

The fleet follows the flag

China’s growing global footprint is, if anything, largely the result of its expanding international economic and commercial interests. According to John Holmes of the US Naval War School, China is increasingly “taking its cue” from Alfred Thayer Mahan, the “pre-eminent sea-power theorist” of the late 19th century. For Mahan, Holmes notes, “commerce was king” – a view that defines China’s current approach to sea power.

Holmes added: “In concrete terms, Mahan declares that sea power rests on three pillars: industrial production at home and markets overseas; merchant and naval fleets; and naval stations scattered along important sea routes to support those fleets. Put in its simplest terms, that amounts to commerce, ships and bases.”

This is evident in Beijing’s push for such China-centric initiatives as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. In particular, the sea-based aspect of this plan – the so-called Maritime Silk Road – depends heavily on a network of ports and other coastal infrastructure projects.

Increasingly blue-water Chinese navy

This global presence has, not surprisingly, led to new responsibilities and new tasks for the PLA, and especially for the PLA Navy. As laid out in China’s 2015 white paper on defense, these include safeguarding “the security of overseas interests”, as well as promoting China’s “security and interests in new domains”. The document characterizes the maritime space as critical for “enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China”, urging an end to “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea” and stressing the need for China to modernize its maritime military force structure to meet pressing national security and development interests.

Consequently, the white paper notes that “in line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection”, the PLA Navy “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection’, and build a combined, multifunctional and efficient marine combat force structure”.

Moreover, if the fleet truly follows the flag, then the impressive growth and development of the Chinese navy must be factored in. The PLA Navy is not yet a blue-water navy, but it is certainly attempting to move in that direction. Fueled by expanded defense spending, it has been engaged in a concerted effort to replace and upgrade its military hardware since at least the late 1990s.

China’s expanding maritime footprint

For all its aggressive advances in the South China Sea, however, it is in the Indian Ocean region that China’s military footprint has been the most recent and far-reaching, and therefore the most disquieting. The third element of the Mahanian strategy requires a string of naval bases, or at least base access. Of course, it is in the Indian Ocean where China has established its first overseas base, in Djibouti – strategically located near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It serves as a key refueling and transshipment center, and is the principal maritime port for imports from and exports to neighboring Ethiopia.

China does not call its Djibouti establishment a “naval base”. Rather, it is designated a “logistical support facility … not responsible for combat operations”. One of its declared functions, for example, is to service PLA Navy vessels conducting anti-piracy operations in and around the Horn of Africa. This base, capable of accommodating up to 6,000 personnel, will open this summer. Beijing will pay the government of Djibouti US$20 million a year to keep it operational.

Other elements of China’s putative “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean – including a possible base in Pakistan – are no less impressive. There are several deep-water ports along the Asian and African coastlines where the PLA Navy could gain access and succor.

A long way to go, but also coming a long way

Nevertheless, it cannot be said that China currently possesses a global military presence anything like the US Navy. China still does not possess a blue-water navy in the strictest sense.

The PLA Navy has a long way to go before it can call itself a open-ocean power-projection capability. And its footprint will likely remain confined to the western Pacific and parts of the Indian Ocean region. That said, the combination of a more far-ranging Chinese navy, the PLA’s new base in Djibouti, its ability to access a string of ports along the Asian coastline, and a growing Chinese shipping industry underscore not only Chinese ambitions to become global naval power, but also its determination to make it happen.

In conjunction with this event, an article in China Military, the official English-language news website for the PLA, explained that “the PLA’s responsibilities today have gone beyond the scale of guarding the Chinese territories”, requiring it to “protect China’s interests anywhere in the world. Overseas military bases will provide cutting‑edge support for China to guard its growing overseas interests.”

In short, China’s navy is increasingly long-range, blue-water, and expeditionary. It is no longer a matter of if it breaks out of the green waters of the far western Pacific, but when it becomes a full-fledged global force.

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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