Cambodian Defense Minister Thiban this month painstakingly persuaded Western military officials and diplomats that China has no military bases in Cambodia. His remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum dovetail with Beijing’s insistence that the People’s Liberation Army is not trying to build a global network of bases.
But the United States and its allies were not persuaded. Derek Chollet, a senior U.S. State Department official, said Washington was “convinced” that China was building a base in Yunling, on Cambodia’s Gulf of Thailand coast. “We have indications that China is seeking exclusive military facilities,” Cholet said in an interview.
Over the past year, the United States and its allies have sounded alarm bells every few months as China allegedly plans to build new military bases. But paradoxically, concerns about the PLA gaining global influence and China’s denials that many bases are under construction may be justified.
Just days before Tea Banh’s speech in Singapore, the minister attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Chinese-funded construction at the existing Ream naval base in Cambodia. March, News of the draft agreement comes out Some Western governments believe that the relationship between China and the Solomon Islands could pave the way for Beijing to establish a base in the Pacific nation. Last year, the United States suspected that China was building a secret military facility in the United Arab Emirates and may be planning something similar in Equatorial Guinea.
While Beijing has dismissed its intentions, its military has begun to build so-called networks of strategic advantage along key maritime trade routes to protect China’s growing global interests.
China’s 2019 defense white paper states that the military’s tasks include protecting cargo ships and evacuating Chinese citizens overseas, and the PLA will develop “overseas logistics facilities.”
But in stark contrast to the U.S. military’s hundreds of dedicated bases around the world, the PLA relies heavily on overseas port facilities owned or operated by Chinese state-owned companies.
“Even if Cambodia, the United Arab Emirates and Equatorial Guinea will all come online in the next few years, the PLA will not be moving toward a U.S.-style global network of bases,” said China Assistant Professor Isaac Carden. U.S. Naval War College Maritime Institute.
“[Unlike] The United States, a country that fought in world wars and then maintained that status in the Cold War, China is just beginning to build a military presence overseas, and it is using its global economic footprint for that,” Carden said.
According to a report Kardon co-authored and released in April, Chinese companies own or operate at least one terminal in 96 ports in 53 countries, and that network of port infrastructure is fast becoming the backbone of the PLA’s far-sea operations.
The report said PLA Navy ships docked at one-third of the ports for resupply or naval diplomacy, nine of them were maintained, 69 were visited for exercises with host countries, and 47 of them were in dry dock for repairs.
This dual-use model of port infrastructure pits China’s strength in overseas economic infrastructure assets against America’s powerful network of allies.
“The U.S. is accustomed to building bases on the territory of its allies. We don’t do this because we are against forming alliances with others,” said a Chinese military scholar who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the topic.
“Our model is focused on development. Protecting development overseas is now part of our military’s mission, but we can also use the fruits of this development to accomplish this mission,” the scholar said.
Chinese experts say the policy of “military-civilian integration” — promoting the provision of assets and capabilities of civilian companies to the armed forces, and even integrating military-civilian companies and institutions — helps the PLA protect Chinese investment and trade.
Laws passed in recent years even require overseas transport infrastructure to be built to military specifications, and debates in military publications suggest that PLA personnel are housed in companies that own or operate overseas ports, such as China’s state-owned shipping company Cosco.
Modern port facilities built by China can accommodate all types of naval vessels, including the largest. Still, the reliance on Chinese-owned dual-use ports overseas severely limits the PLA’s capabilities.
“They’re going to run into limitations very quickly. Using this model, sustaining combat operations or conducting other expeditionary operations for extended periods of time would be very difficult,” said Kristin Gunnis, an PLA expert at the RAND Corporation, a Washington-based think tank. question.
Beijing’s decision to build its first full-fledged military base shows the PLA is aware of the limitations of dual-use ports. In 2017, it began opening a base in the East African country of Djibouti, which has hosted a handful of other troops, including the United States. The decision comes after nearly a decade of protecting Chinese and other civilian ships from pirates in the Horn of Africa, and the PLA Navy has learned through the escort what it takes to maintain long-term, high-seas missions.
“Building a base in Djibouti is a major policy change,” Carden said, noting that Beijing has traditionally been wary of overt military expansion, which could fuel concerns about China’s rise as a global power. “Civilian leadership has broader goals, but from the PLA’s point of view, having bases is definitely the best option,” he added. “The goalposts may move over time.”
Western officials maintain their skepticism about the denial of the Chinese base. “Beijing’s goal is to build a global network,” said one Western intelligence official, suggesting China was moving gradually to avoid causing too much reaction. “It’s a boiling frog situation.”