The People’s Daily, China’s flagship party mouthpiece, ran a two-page feature on Sunday under the headline “Time is ripe for a maritime great power”, detailing the country’s naval buildup since 2012, the year that Xi Jinping took control of the Communist Party and the military.
Liu Jixian, former head of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, noted in a commentary that the PLA Navy now sails into waters way beyond its maritime territory as Beijing starts to project its heft and interest on other continents.
Some of the countries in Africa and South Asia that are part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative are plagued with turmoil and terrorism, which means they require a greater PLA presence to safeguard Chinese personnel, interests, plus vital corridors that are planned or set to be built in more turbulent regions.
But state media outlets have been discreet and usually avoid direct reference to overseas bases for the navy. Wu Qian, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Defense, has sought to rectify foreign journalists’ choice of words in reports about the Chinese naval base in Djibouti.
“It’s a non-military, logistic entrepôt for both PLA ships and other civilian vessels and it has no military role, none whatsoever,” Wu said.
The Chinese Navy leased land in the small east African country near the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to set up a base that it says will supply and replenish its vessels conducting anti-piracy patrols in the region.
But some former PLA generals revealed that the force will build more bases and ports on foreign soil to boost its presence around the globe, just like the US Navy does.
“More overseas bases will be built in the future to assist the navy to conduct operations globally,” former PLA admiral Xu Guangyu was quoted as saying in the Global Times. Xu is also a senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
“There is no need to conceal the ambition. China has every jurisdiction to boost its navy now that it’s already a global power and the Djibouti base won’t be the only one.”
Indeed, the next country tipped to host a new PLA base is Pakistan, which has been providing strategic defense facilities to the PLA for some time to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a multi-billion-dollar development.
The Chinese have helped to build a sizable deepwater port at Gwadar in the strategic Arabian Sea, and Chinese submarines have already been spotted in the port of Karachi. These outposts will help the PLA beef up patrols in the Indian Ocean to counter India and the US, as well as protect routes plied by Chinese vessels.
Meanwhile, there has been a commotion since rumors started to swirl that the Philippines may allow a Chinese state-funded think tank to conduct “scientific” research at Benham Rise on its eastern shore following the thaw in relations between the two countries over islands in the South China Sea.
Although there is little likelihood of Manila agreeing to a PLA base at Benham Rise, astride the strait between Luzon in the north of the Philippines and southern Taiwan, is one of the main passageways for naval ships out of the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
It is also situated in the center of the Second Island Chain and allows ships to potentially reach crucial US air and navy bases at Guam.