As history shows, significant improvement of a country’s economic situation inevitably boosts its military ambitions. The world has been holding its breath for the last 30 years witnessing the rapid economic growth in China, waiting for the new developments. And China did not fail the expectations of the global community. Whereas before the mid-2000s the Chinese leadership was rejecting the very idea of expansion of its military presence abroad, now the situation has changed dramatically.
The global economic crisis of 2008 that shattered the faith in the sustainability of the US dollar and weakened the positions of the US opened up new opportunities for the Chinese yuan. Shortly thereafter, global mass media started talking about new Chinese military doctrine. Its new objectives included not only the reform of domestically stationed troops, but also the formation of an international contingent and establishment of Chinese military bases abroad.
A worrisome situation in the South China Sea, which has been deteriorating since 2009, revealed China’s indisputable dominance over its nearest neighbors in the region. It also became evident that the US could no longer order the now powerful China around and dictate how to deal with the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Chinese artificial islands with a 12-mile patrolled area exceeded the number of American destroyers present in the South China Sea. In addition, as recently as in February 2016, China installed air defense missile systems on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands contested by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. In May, Chinese military intercepted an American ship in the patrolled 12-mile area near one of the reefs of the Spratly Islands, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
This is when the world expressed its concerns realizing that China will go at any lengths to strengthen its position on the international scene by setting up foreign military bases.
Information about the first prospective Chinese outpost in Africa, the region most dependent on the yuan, was confirmed at the end of 2015. Then, at the beginning of February 2016, the construction of the first Chinese military base was commenced in the small port town of Obock in Djibouti. This tiny African country with a population of a little less than 1 million people is located at the “gate” to the Red Sea, in the Horn of Africa on the Gulf of Aden—a vital waterway for shipping and the best way to get to the Middle East. The US Navy held its drills in this region in 2002 before the invasion of Iraq. In 2014, the term of lease of the US permanent military base Camp Lemonnier with a contingent of 4 thousand American soldiers was extended until 2024.
That means that the construction of a Chinese military base in Djibouti where Beijing is planning to deploy 6 thousand soldiers will undermine geopolitical interests and hurt the national pride of the US (this issue is so important that it was submitted for review by the US Congress).
According to China, it is looking to establish a military base in Djibouti mostly to assure safety of the New Silk Road and protect it from the Somalian pirates attacking ships on the shores of Africa. The ground route of the New Silk Road will run from the town of Quanzhou pass the towns of Guangzhou, Beihai and Haikou, across the strait of Malacca, to Kuala Lumpur, across the Indian Ocean, pass the towns of Calcutta (India), Colombo (Sri Lanka), making a transit stop on the Maldives, and ending in Nairobi (Kenya). In the Red Sea region it will run through Djibouti, across the Suez Canal. Then the path will reach Athens (Greece) and Venice (Italy) where the New Maritime Silk Road will meet the New Silk Road stretching from China across Central Asia and Caucasus.
In view of the above, the appearance of Chinese armed forces in Africa looks quite logical, especially since this trade project, which is unprecedented in scale, promises alluring prospects for China, and since the political situation in the countries the Chinese trade route will run through remains unstable.
In 2008, for the first time ever, Chinese war ships were deployed to the Gulf of Aden to protect the country’s trade ships from attacks by Somalian pirates. In March-April 2015, China sent a war ship and its special forces to evacuate more than 500 Chinese citizens from Yemen. Earlier, in 2006, two thousand Chinese citizens had to be evacuated from the Solomon Islands because of safety issues. But in 2006, people were brought back home by passenger aircrafts. To cope with the incident in Yemen, China deployed its naval forces for the first time ever.
In March 2016, Beijing hosted high-level talks between representatives of the Chinese, Tajik and Pakistan military. China then continued the talks with the same agenda in Afghanistan. Since the most promising part of the ground route of the New Silk Road will run through these politically unstable states, Beijing is striving to establish its military presence in these regions to assure the safety of the trade flow. These circumstances suggest that in the near future these countries might have Chinese military bases.
Although China holds it as a priority to secure the New Silk Road routes, its military footprint might soon be seen in some countries of the Pacific Rim, specifically in those that have received a number of favors from the “Celestial Empire.” Papua New Guinea will be the most likely candidate, as this country owes almost 40% of its GDP to the Export Import Bank of China. Another country that borrowed almost 50% of its GDP from China is Tonga. China contacted the Tonganese government with a request to establish its naval base in the country back in 2014. And, if Tonga consents, this country, conveniently located in a close proximity to the French military bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia and to Guam—one of the key US military bases, close to the shores of Australia and New Zealand, “overlooking” Japan, will become the first military outpost of the Celestial Empire in the South Pacific Ocean.
In conclusion it should be noted that though China is currently challenging US military leadership, it has no plans to snatch the leadership from the US, as it would be too big of a burden for the Chinese budget. Rather, it is on the contrary: Beijing is trying hard to reduce its military expenditures, employing diplomacy to persuade the US to partially “foot the bill,” hinting that the money will be spent on a good cause — the protection of trade, the main driving force of global progress.
Sophia Pale, PhD, Research Fellow of the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”