China and the small African nation of Djibouti reached an agreement in July to let the People’s Liberation Army establish up its first overseas military base there. The base on Africa’s east coast will help China ferry aid and peacekeeping personnel to other parts of the continent, per this China Daily news website report. It will also smooth joint military exercises and maintain “security of international strategic waterways,” the website says.
It’s just one base, and Beijing isn’t expected to follow the United States in opening bases in 16 countries around Asia, Europe and beyond. But we should expect a few more. China is most likely to put more military bases on the African east coast, as well as along the Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea. Those bases would do more of what China Daily talks about, especially protecting Chinese citizens offshore and ensuring that West Asian waterways stay open to facilitate trade in crucial goods such as crude oil.
Africa made sense for base No. 1 because China runs naval escort missions under a U.N. mandate in the Gulf of Aden off Djibouti’s coast. Africa happens to be a historic investment target for China, a place to extract resources such as minerals and sell Chinese goods such as super-cheap smartphones. “The location should have commercial implications and utilities,” says Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka
China has yet to announce any other foreign military bases. However, Beijing may now begin eyeing military presence at existing Chinese-run ports along the Indian Ocean, Sun said.
How about Sri Lanka? In July the South Asian country’s ports authority agreed to sell a 70% stake in its Hambantota facility to China Merchants Ports Holdings, Al Jazeera among other media outlets reported. Or consider Myanmar: A Chinese consortium is bidding to take an 85% share in the host country’s Indian Ocean port of with links to a pipeline that could send oil back to China, per media reports.
In April, the government of Pakistan said operations at its Gwadar Port had been leased for 40 years to China Overseas Port Holding Co. China already has an extra-close relationship with Pakistan as both countries fret over relations with their Western-backed neighbor India. In March this year, a People’s Liberation Army delegation took part in Pakistan’s annual Republic Day events. “China most likely will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries,” the U.S. Department of Defense said this year in a report to Congress.
The ports in Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all along the Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea, all started as commercial operations with “potential naval utilities,” Sun said.
U.N. peacekeeping missions
At least for now, China sends troops abroad except only in the name of United Nations peacekeeping. To that end, China led all other U.N. members in 2015 with a commitment of 8,000 troops — a fifth of the total offered that year — for the international body’s standby forces. China sends those personnel abroad for its own reasons, such as combating sea piracy and learning from other countries. “Like other countries, China’s decisions to deploy troops are motivated by its desire to protect national interests, gain operational experience, and secure a positive reputation and high status,” the research and training organization United States Institute of Peace says in this analysis.
“China still needs to square the circle on ‘no Chinese troops on foreign land,” Sun says. “So a U.N. mandate or commercial need, such as to protect Chinese assets, would be the more likely justification.”