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“Not an Idea We Have to Shun”: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century

By Christopher D. Yung and Ross Rustici with Scott Devary and Jenny Lin China Strategic Perspectives 7

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Executive Summary

China’s expanding international economic interests are likely to generate increasing demands for its navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to operate out of area to protect Chinese citizens, investments, and sea lines of communication. The frequency, intensity, type, and location of such operations will determine the associated logistics support requirements, with distance from China, size and duration, and combat intensity being especially important drivers.

How will the PLAN employ overseas bases and facilities to support these expanding operational requirements? The assessment in this study is based on Chinese writings, comments by Chinese military officers and analysts, observations of PLAN operational patterns, analysis of the overseas military logistics models other countries have employed, and interviews with military logisticians. China’s rapidly expanding international interests are likely to produce a parallel expansion of PLAN operations, which would make the current PLAN tactic, exclusive reliance on commercial port access, untenable due to cost and capacity factors. This would certainly be true if China contemplated engaging in higher intensity combat operations.

This study considers six logistics models that might support expanded PLAN overseas operations: the Pit Stop Model, Lean Colonial Model, Dual Use Logistics Facility, String of Pearls Model, Warehouse Model, and Model USA. Each model is analyzed in terms of its ability to support likely future naval missions to advance China’s expanding overseas economic, political, and security interests and in light of longstanding Chinese foreign policy principles. This analysis concludes that the Dual Use Logistics Facility and String of Pearls models most closely align with China’s foreign policy principles and expanding global interests.

To assess which alternative China is likely to pursue, the study reviews current PLAN operational patterns in its Gulf of Aden counterpiracy operations1 to assess whether the PLAN is currently pursuing one model over the other and to provide clues about Chinese motives and potential future trajectories. To ensure that this study does not suffer from faulty assumptions, it also explicitly examines the strategic logic that Western analysts associate with the String of Pearls Model in light of the naval forces and logistics infrastructure that would be necessary to support PLAN major combat operations in the Indian Ocean. Both the contrasting inductive and deductive analytic approaches support the conclusion that China appears to be planning for a relatively modest set of missions to support its overseas interests, not building a covert logistics infrastructure to fight the United States or India in the Indian Ocean.

Key findings:

  • There is little physical evidence that China is constructing bases in the Indian Ocean to conduct major combat operations, to encircle India, or to dominate South Asia. 
  • China’s current operational patterns of behavior do not support the String of Pearls thesis. PLAN ships use different commercial ports for replenishment and liberty, and the ports and forces involved could not conduct major combat operations. 
  • China is unlikely to construct military facilities in the Indian Ocean to support major combat operations there. Bases in South Asia would be vulnerable to air and missile attack, the PLAN would require a much larger force structure to support this strategy, and the distances between home ports in China and PLAN ships stationed at the String of Pearls network of facilities along its sea lines of communication would make it difficult to defend Chinese home waters and simultaneously conduct major combat operations in the Indian Ocean.
  • The Dual Use Logistics Facility Model’s mixture of access to overseas commercial facilities and a limited number of military bases most closely aligns with China’s future naval mission requirements and will likely characterize its future arrangements. 
  • Pakistan’s status as a trusted strategic partner whose interests are closely aligned with China’s makes the country the most likely location for an overseas Chinese military base; the port at Karachi would be better able to satisfy PLAN requirements than the new port at Gwadar. 
  • The most efficient means of supporting more robust People’s Liberation Army (PLA) out of area military operations would be a limited network of facilities that distribute functional responsibilities geographically (for example, one facility handling air logistics support, one facility storing ordnance, another providing supplies for replenishment ships).
  • A future overseas Chinese military base probably would be characterized by a light footprint, with 100 to 500 military personnel conducting supply and logistics functions. Such a facility would likely support both civilian and military operations, with Chinese forces operating in a restrictive political and legal environment that might not include permission to conduct combat operations. 
  • Naval bases are much more likely than ground bases, but China might also seek to establish bases that could store ordnance, repair and maintain equipment, and provide medical/mortuary services to support future PLA ground force operations against terrorists and other nontraditional security threats in overseas areas such as Africa. 
  • A more active PLA overseas presence would provide opportunities as well as challenges for U.S.-China relations. Chinese operations in support of regional stability and to address nontraditional security threats would not necessarily conflict with U.S. interests and may provide new opportunities for bilateral and multilateral cooperation with China.
  • Long-term access to overseas military facilities would increase China’s strategic gravity and significantly advance China’s political interests in the region where the facilities are located. To the extent that U.S. and Chinese regional and global interests are not aligned, the United States would need to continue to use its own military presence and diplomatic efforts to solidify its regional interests.
  • A significantly expanded Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean would complicate U.S. relations with China and with the countries of the region, compel U.S. naval and military forces to operate in closer proximity with PLA forces, and increase competitive dynamics in U.S.-China and China-Indian relations. 
  • Finally, if some of the countries of the Indian Ocean region and elsewhere agree to host PLA forces over the long term, their decision will imply a shift in their relations with the United States, which may ultimately need to rethink how it engages and interacts with these countries.