Chinese PLA plans new military bases in the Indo-Pacific

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On a small sandy atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a dilapidated airstrip that served as a supply and supply hub for the United States during World War II. Today, this 6,000-foot runway in the Pacific island country of Kiribati is once again at the forefront. This time, China has its eyes on this precious geopolitical real estate, located about 1,800 miles from sensitive US military installations in Hawaii.

Beijing is hardly content to limit its military base activities to the South Pacific. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is already making serious progress securing new bases in Cambodia, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Whether or not Washington can derail Beijing’s plans is a guess. Either way, US political and military decision-makers may soon wake up to a changed world, where the PLA can project its power far beyond the tense Taiwan Strait.

On a small sandy atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a dilapidated airstrip that served as a critical hub for supplies and supplies to the United States during World War II. Today, this 6,000-foot runway in the Pacific island country of Kiribati is once again at the forefront. This time, China has its eyes on this precious geopolitical real estate, located approximately 1,800 miles from sensitive US military installations in Hawaii.

Beijing is hardly content to limit its military base activities to the South Pacific. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is already making serious progress securing new bases in Cambodia, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Whether or not Washington can derail Beijing’s plans is a guess. Either way, US political and military decision-makers may soon wake up to a changed world, where the PLA can project its power far beyond the tense Taiwan Strait.

Although the U.S. Department of Defense’s Chinese task force recently called Beijing the “number one pace challenge,” the Pentagon’s 2022 budget continues a troubling trend of treating the PLA as a long-term threat. term “on the horizon”. Case in point: The Pentagon’s wishlist for its new Pacific deterrence initiative is coupled with costly, long-term, platform-centric investments at the expense of pressing priorities, such as aid funding. security to strengthen vital alliances and partnerships. It also lacks the initiative funds to reassess the regional position of the military due to the efforts of the PLA to secure an expanded presence in the Pacific.

The current push for a Chinese base in Kiribati is eerily reminiscent of Beijing’s efforts to secure its first (and so far only) overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. Just as then, China has leveraged a combination of skillful diplomacy, elite capture. , and strategically planned investments to convince the government of the host country. The resulting arrangement, details of which have been withheld from Kiribati’s public and political opposition, would call for Beijing to renovate and expand the remote airstrip. Future construction, carried out under the ostensible pretext of economic development and climate change adaptation, could provide Beijing with what amounts to a fixed aircraft carrier capable of supporting fighter deployments and a full range of unmanned operations, whether for reconnaissance or potential combat. And that’s just to start.

China’s ambitions in Cambodia are much closer to being realized. Since at least 2020, the US government has recognized China’s interest in establishing a military outpost at Cambodian Naval Base Ream in the Gulf of Thailand. Satellite imagery revealed rapid construction at Ream Naval Base, including the demolition of several US-funded buildings, ahead of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Phnom Penh in June. Subsequently, the U.S. defense attaché in Cambodia was denied full access to Ream Naval Base during a Cambodian government-sponsored trip to allay concerns about Chinese activities on the base. All in all, Cambodia’s lack of transparency has heightened suspicions that the improvements at Ream are part of an underground Chinese build-up that would allow Beijing to project electricity into the Indian Ocean.

Besides Cambodia, Washington has also long regarded the UAE as one of Beijing’s most desirable base locations. A base in the Emirates would significantly increase the PLA’s maritime footprint in and around critical maritime choke points, including the Strait of Hormuz and the southern entrance to the Red Sea. A base in the United Arab Emirates could also be part of a chain of other potential Chinese military locations in the Indian Ocean, including Pakistan and Myanmar. Although the UAE has traditionally been closer to the United States than to China, Abu Dhabi has insisted on deepening its ties with Beijing to protect itself from Washington’s diplomatic overtures to Tehran.

In 2018, for example, the United Arab Emirates and China signed a $ 300 million deal to upgrade the terminal at COSCO Shipping Ports Abu Dhabi, located near Al Dhafra Air Base, which houses 3,500 military personnel. Americans, and Jebel Ali, the port. in Dubai which sees the most visits by US Navy ships from any location outside of the United States. Since then, the UAE has elected Huawei as its 5G deployment partner over objections from the United States. The UAE’s court in Beijing also included its adherence to China’s vaccine diplomacy initiative, which resulted in the purchase of hundreds of thousands of faulty doses of the Sinopharm vaccine.

More recently, US spy agencies monitored two PLA planes traveling to the United Arab Emirates, where they unloaded unspecified cargo. Such contacts threaten to derail the planned sale of F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi as fears intensify in Washington that the Emirates could share sensitive combat technology with China.

All in all, China’s grassroots movements don’t tell us much about Beijing’s intentions that we haven’t known for years. What they expose are the flaws in Washington’s siled and self-defeating strategy to counter the PLA’s global goals. One of the main obstacles is that the issue of the transnational base does not fit directly into a single box on the organizational chart of the US Department of Defense. Moreover, China’s core businesses – whether in the Pacific, the Middle East, Africa or the Arctic – are not really at the heart of the Chinese challenge, and the success of the United States does not depend on not to change China’s intentions either. Instead, the key variable to undermine China’s grand strategy is to influence host governments and reduce their receptivity to Beijing’s grassroots overtures. It is on this front that the United States enjoys many advantages, of which the majority of these basic projects have not yet opened ground.

The US Department of Defense is, of course, only one stakeholder in what is shaping up to be a complicated whole-of-government endeavor to meet the Chinese challenge. But the Pentagon, as the global defense partner of choice, is arguably the most important. She has deep institutional relationships, past and present, with leaders in many of China’s grassroots targets. When it comes to Kiribati and the United Arab Emirates, for example, these military relations are more important than those of the US State Department.

Then there is the shared story. Kiribati, for example, was the site of the Battle of Tarawa, one of the bloodiest clashes in the US military during World War II, where around 1,000 Marines and Sailors perished. The battle is still viewed by the nationals of Kiribati as a signal of shared sacrifice and common commitment to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. And yet the country, which is grappling with the effects of climate change, received only $ 20,000 in US aid last year, up from $ 1.3 million in 2004. Although China has a large, fully-equipped embassy on the island, the closest American diplomat is stationed. over 1,300 miles away in Fiji. No wonder then that Kiribati’s rulers have turned their gaze to Beijing and its deep pockets.

The Pentagon’s ability to establish country-specific campaigns to influence elites in host countries would be greatly aided by the appointment of a single and empowered representative to coordinate strategy, resources, and intelligence gathering on Beijing’s relations with potential host countries, which increasingly include locations outside the Indo-Pacific. Another way to maximize the Pentagon’s efforts would be to dramatically step up its public and private diplomacy on the grassroots issue to capitalize on existing personal relationships with host nation elites up and down the chain of command. The Pentagon should also consider replacing foreign military officers and retired U.S. officials, including former defense secretaries and department heads, to constructively engage with the core targets, with which these officials have worked for decades.

Recognizing that many of China’s grassroots efforts are taking place under the guise of trade development – and in an attempt to expose port militarization plans – the US Department of Defense should also allow targeted countries to call the bluff of the China. This could include funding independent audits and legal reviews of potential Chinese port agreements, as well as working with host governments to insert specific clauses in contracts prohibiting the docking, disembarking or pre-positioning of any PLA assets. at these locations. More often than not, the Chinese balk, thus revealing their true intentions.

Finally, Washington does not need to throw in the towel on learning that Beijing has succeeded in securing its next base. Taking a page from the PLA gray area manual, the US Department of Defense is uniquely capable of undertaking a series of overt and covert steps to ensure that these bases and others never innovate, let alone. become fully operational. The Pentagon, in coordination with other U.S. government entities, is also well placed to organize, cultivate, and amplify local public opposition to China’s predatory behavior. Concerned citizens of potential host countries need look no further than Djibouti, where China now claims full territorial sovereignty over land that once belonged to Djiboutian tribes.

The ultimate success or failure of the Pentagon’s counterbase mission depends on a number of factors. Falling victim to institutional inertia or poor planning should not be one of them.



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