10 December 2010

Places and Bases: The Chinese Navy’s Emerging Support Network in the Indian Ocean

Daniel J. Kostecka,Places and Bases: The Chinese Navy’s Emerging Support Network in the Indian Ocean,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Winter 2011), pp. 59-78.

Due to self-imposed policy, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not base military forces in foreign countries, and PRC officials have used this as evidence of China’s peaceful development. However, China’s growing global economic and political interests are causing Beijing to take a more nuanced approach to its policies regarding the deployment and employment of military force. Specifically, the ongoing deployment of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships to the Gulf of Aden, now in the sixth rotation of combatants, to guard international shipping against pirates operating from the Horn of Africa has highlighted the need for shore-based logistics support for PLAN forces operating in the Indian Ocean. Over the past year, public statements by Chinese academics and government officials have indicated that there is a debate going on in China over the need to establish some sort of overseas infrastructure to support deployed naval forces. Rear Admiral Yin Zhou (Retired), chairman of the Chinese Navy Informatization Experts Advisory Committee, opined during an interview on China National Radio in December 2009 that China requires a “stable and permanent supply and repair base.” Rear Admiral Yin’s interview was picked up by the international press circuit and has generated a great deal of excitement, although in reality he did not say anything that has not already been said by other Chinese government officials and academics. Despite an immediate retraction by the Ministry of Defense, it is even possible that Rear Admiral Yin’s statements and similar statements by other officials are indications that Beijing is preparing to announce that it has reached an agreement with a nation or nations in and around the Gulf of Aden to provide logistics support to PLAN forces deployed to the area. Public statements from Chinese officials regarding this issue suggest an effort to “test the waters,” to gauge and shape international reaction to such a move prior to announcement. Chinese officials and academics made similar statements during the fall of 2008 prior to the announcement by Beijing that PLAN ships were deploying to the Gulf of Aden to participate in counterpiracy operations.

Despite public statements indicating that the issue of shore-based logistics support is being debated in China, port calls for rest and replenishment by PLAN ships deployed for counterpiracy operations, negotiation of defense agreements, and military engagement through goodwill cruises and exercises show that a regional support network is already taking shape. It can even be argued that it is no longer an issue of whether China will seek out friendly ports from which to support its forces, because those locations are already being used by the PLAN. For example, Salalah in Oman is serving as a regular supply port for Chinese warships operating in the Gulf of Aden; every ship in the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rotations called into Salalah for resupply between June 2009 and August 2010.

At the same time, statements by Chinese officials do not indicate that Beijing is considering building financially and politically costly American-style military bases, with the attendant infrastructure to support thousands of deployed and in some cases permanently assigned personnel. Much of the discussion outside of China regarding future support infrastructure for Chinese forces in the Indian Ocean has revolved around the “string of pearls” strategy that Beijing is alleged to be pursuing. This theory, a creation of a 2004 U.S. Department of Defense contractor study entitled Energy Futures in Asia, has since become popular, particularly in the United States and India, and is accepted as fact by many in official and unofficial circles. However, while the study in its entirety is not baseless, certain elements of it have been selectively quoted as evidence of Beijing’s strategic intent. This has led to an interpretation of Chinese grand strategy that is often presented with dark overtones hinting at an aggressive reading on Beijing’s part of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s writings. As part of this strategic construct it is claimed that Beijing is building a comprehensive network of naval bases stretching from southern China to Pakistan. The past several years have seen rampant speculation in the press and even some U.S. government publications regarding future Chinese naval bases at such locations as Gwadar in Pakistan, Sittwe in Burma, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Chittagong in Bangladesh, with only superficial evidence to support such claims.

Despite the furor it has generated, the “string of pearls” does not represent a coordinated strategy on the part of China, and there is no substantive evidence in Chinese sources or elsewhere to support the contentions of commentators, academics, and officials who use it as a baseline for explaining Beijing’s intentions in the Indian Ocean. Reality is shaping up to be quite different. The current debate in China is revolving around the establishment of what are commonly referred to in the U.S. military as “places,” as opposed to bases. This type of strategy involves securing with friendly governments diplomatic agreements allowing access to those nations’ facilities in order to obtain essential supplies, such as fuel, food, and freshwater, for deployed forces. Such agreements can also involve reciprocal guarantees of military support in such areas as training, equipment, and education. One example is the United States–Singapore Memorandum of Understanding, which permits the U.S. Navy access to Changi Naval Base while providing the use of Air Force bases and airspace in the continental United States for training by the Republic of Singapore Air Force. What the Chinese are currently debating is whether deployed PLAN forces need places to which regular access is guaranteed by formal diplomatic agreements, or whether the current ad hoc system of calling in friendly ports when necessary is sufficient for the accomplishment of current and future missions. …