Regional powers take steps as China’s military eyes global reach

China is in the process of setting up military bases or deep-water ports in Asia and Africa to expand its influence. This is creating a geo-strategic situation that may lead to increased militarization of the less developed and politically unstable areas in the region

Despite its ‘non-interference’ rhetoric, China is planning to set up own military bases in Asia and Africa to expand its sphere of influence as a world power.

the United States, France and Japan, have military forces positioned in Djibouti

The U.S., France and Japan, have already military forces positioned in Djibouti

Pakistan, its old ally, is basking in China’s glory by allowing it indirect reach into political and strategic policy-making circles (read: Pakistan to deploy additional force in Baluchistan to provide security to Chinese establishments).

Moving one step forward from its traditional ‘investment only’ programs, China’s top political leadership has decided to introduce China’s military globally through overseas deployments as a means to protect the billion-dollar investments it has been making for the past three decades.

While this is how Chinese officials explain the prospective and under-construction overseas military bases, some — especially  its competitors — see in it a basic policy shift towards projecting China as a global military power, capable of quickly responding to any security threat.

While the official terminology being used for the base under-construction in Djibouti is “support facilities”, this establishment, which has clear strategic underpinnings, is likely to transform the region’s geo-politics.

With the U.S. and Japan already having their military presence in Djibouti, China’s entry is likely to increase the competition for control over resources and intensify the ‘battle’ for control over waterways leading into Europe.

The construction of a Chinese base in Djibouti, where Beijing is planning to deploy 6,000 soldiers, will undermine the U.S.’ geopolitical interests. The issue is so important for the US that it was submitted for review by the US Congress.

While China is set to pay $20 million annually to Djibouti as rent for the establishment — much less than what the U.S. pays ($63 million) – it is not the only benefit the country is going to get.  China is set to lend more than $1bn at non-concessional rates for other infrastructure projects — including a water pipeline and a new railway link with landlocked and populous Ethiopia — to help transform Djibouti’s $1.5bn economy.

Chinese officials explain the emerging base in Djibouti as China’s contribution to “anti-piracy” initiative. But Djibouti is not the only country that is going to have China’s military base.

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 is to run through these politically unstable states, Beijing is striving to establish its military presence in these regions to ensure the safety of the trade flow.

Countries in the Pacific Rim – especially those that have received favors from the East’s “rising empire” – may become the targets of China’s such establishments. Papua New Guinea may be one among them as it owes almost 40% of its GDP to the Export Import Bank of China.

Another is Tonga that has borrowed almost 50% of its GDP from China.  China had contacted the Tonganese government with a request to establish its naval base in the country in 2014. If Tonga consents, the country will become the first military outpost of the “Empire” in the South Pacific Ocean.

China’s global reach, a central part of which is its Navy, is a cause of concern for the U.S. This is evident from the amount of attention paid to China’s naval modernization in the Pentagon’s 2016 report on China’s military development.

The report offers deep insight into the U.S. government’s threat perception of China’s military and the U.S.’ primary concern with China’s naval modernization. In fact, such is the emphasis on China’s navy, its maritime activities, and modernization, the People’s Liberation Army’s ground forces receive little mention, relegated to a few scattered paragraphs here and there.

The report says China is broadening the geographic reach of its military activities, particularly in the Indian Ocean Region. It confirms that China’s nuclear powered Shang-class and Song-class submarines have been deployed in the Indian Ocean (the latter drew attention in late 2014 when it was spotted at a dock in Colombo, Sri Lanka).

While all these indicate China’s expanding global reach, it would be an exaggeration to state that China is all set to “oust” the U.S. from the region or level the scale of the U.S.’ global military reach. Such an ambitious goal requires huge financial commitments that China is yet to make to its overseas military establishment policy.

China is certainly carving out some space for itself in the region that was previously under the military domination of the U.S. and its allies. It is creating a geo-strategic situation that many powerful countries in the region such as India (read: India to develop Iran’s Chahbahar port to counter the Gwadar port of Pakistan) are forced to take steps to counter-balance it. This trend will lead to increased militarization of the “less developed” and “politically unstable” areas of Asia and Africa.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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