24 September 2009

Changes in Beijing’s Approach to Overseas Basing?

Michael S. Chase and Andrew S. Erickson, “Changing Beijing’s Approach to Overseas Basing?” Jamestown China Brief 9.19 (24 September 2009).

Although China has traditionally avoided basing its troops abroad, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) growing global interests and its military’s evolving missions are leading some Chinese analysts to suggest that Beijing may need to reconsider its traditional aversion to establishing overseas military facilities. In particular, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) experience with anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden that began in December 2008 appears to have sparked a debate over the efficacy of continuing to adhere to China’s oft-stated and longstanding policy of refraining from establishing any overseas military bases or other dedicated facilities capable of supporting military operations in distant regions. As the PRC’s global interests rapidly expand, Chinese security analysts are debating the potential value of such new steps as “establishing land-based supply and support facilities” with increased frequency and intensity. This suggests China may be on the verge of moving beyond its traditional approach. Indeed, some Chinese scholars and military officers are now calling for the establishment of such overseas support facilities to handle the logistics required by a more active role abroad for the Chinese military.

A radical departure from previous Chinese policy seems premature. Instead, statements by some Chinese scholars suggest that China may adopt a relatively cautious approach, which allows the PLA to more effectively carry out its new missions without requiring the formal alteration of Beijing’s longstanding approach to foreign basing. The most likely outcome is one in which China would follow an approach analogous to the “places not bases” strategy put forward by the U.S. Pacific Command in the 1990s: establish facilities capable of supporting expanded PLA participation in non-traditional security missions such as anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, rather than developing a network of traditional military bases, which would be extremely expensive, politically and diplomatically controversial and highly vulnerable in the event of a crisis or conflict.