China will challenge the US Navy for global dominance

China has set its sights on global naval dominance
Chinese fleet exercises - Li Gang/Xinhua

As China’s global ambitions grow, so too does speculation as to where Beijing might establish permanent overseas naval bases, and what the implications will be for everyone else.

Commercially, China dominates the world’s seas. It is in the top three builders annually of new merchant ship construction; has the second-largest merchant fleet in the world; hosts 7 of the 10 busiest civilian ports in the world; boasts an overseas fishing fleet numbering perhaps 17,000 vessels; and builds most of the world’s commercial shoreside infrastructure, including 96 percent of all shipping containers and more than 80 percent of port cranes. In addition to all the commercial advantages, China now also has the world’s largest navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Yet China has just one overseas naval base: a facility in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. Where will it go next? China is loath to reveal its plans, so a team at AidData tried to make some educated guesses. A starting assumption is that China will choose base locations where it has already poured in money, and where it has built not just harbors but the kind of necessary long-term relationships with host country elites that would permit this kind of cooperation.

While the Indian and Pacific Oceans are China’s stated geostrategic priority, Chinese-financed ports are located all over the world. There is an astonishing concentration in West and Central Africa, as well as places generally unfamiliar to Americans or Europeans and not often focused on by the national security establishment – think Lomé in Togo, Posorja in Ecuador, and Luganville in Vanuatu. This may be part of the point: we find China likes to put its ports in out-of-the-way places.

Comparatively massive investments in developing countries also give Beijing extraordinary leverage. China’s state-owned banks have lent $499 million for the port of Nouakchott, Mauritania, a nation where total GDP is around $10 billion. Freetown’s harbor, in Sierra Leone, has been financed to the tune of $759 million, in a country where total GDP is $4 billion.

But factors beyond just financing will influence where China chooses bases. China will likely lean towards establishing a base in a country where there is less turnover of elites, or where regimes have been in power for some time and are expected to remain in office. The voting patterns of UN General Assembly members also give us some clues – take Cambodia, which votes in lockstep with Beijing. As was widely reported last week, commercial satellite imagery shows China is close to completing a pier in the Cambodian port of Ream that would be large enough to host a PLAN aircraft carrier, and that almost exactly mirrors a similar Chinese jetty at its base in Djibouti. Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen is a long-time ally of Beijing and the elites of Cambodia have done well under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Stepping back, China’s port construction effort has the appearance of a coherent global strategy. But the US does not appear willing to compete at anything like this scale economically, meaning it will have to rely on other tools. After more than twenty years of the War on Terror, the West led by the America has been left to play catch-up on aid, trade, security and diplomacy.

Djibouti provides the template for how China might turn a commercial investment into a military facility. China financed construction of Djibouti’s multipurpose Doraleh port, and once the commercial port and associated infrastructure were firmly established, the naval facility followed. There were repeated denials from China about any such intentions for Djibouti, right up until the time an announcement was made that a base was coming.

Beijing makes no secret that it wants the PLAN to operate further afield in order to protect China’s global interests and sea lines of communications, counter the US, and be position itself as a global power. A publication from China’s National Defense University provides a window into the CCP’s thinking, calling for the “construction of long-distance marine comprehensive supply points.”

This is important on several counts. First, any potential conflict between the US and China is likely to have a strong maritime component. The South China Sea is the obvious flashpoint, but China also wants to break out of the Pacific Ocean island chains it perceives constrain it, and to project its force in the Indian Ocean too.

Second, China’s engagement with the world is still heavily – though not exclusively – commercial and trade-driven, and most goods still travel by sea. In turn, out of all branches of the military, navies are the most closely associated with trade. This is as true today as it was during the era of mercantilism.

Tensions or outright conflict at sea between China and the US would have an outsized effect on the world’s intertwined economies. If the world’s ‘Great Powers’ cannot agree on much, they do agree on which commercial sea lanes and maritime choke points are the most critical to lives and livelihoods: the Malacca Straits, and the Straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar.

More than a decade after the Obama Administration proclaimed the Indo-Pacific to be a priority region, a shift in foreign policy to match is finally occurring. The AUKUS security partnership, the recent announcements of light-footprint US military “sites” in the Philippines, a new defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea, and a possible ship repair/logistics arrangement with India all speak to the US leading a two-step to outflank China’s moves in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Perhaps most critically, China’s desire for overseas naval bases is becoming a test of how far the country has come, and how far it still has to go, vis-à-vis other world powers. It is a proxy for a broader game of high stakes playing out to see whose model – development, economic, governing, and ideological – is the more potent and popular. Increasingly China is translating its superior trade position into the geopolitical realm.

If China’s economic clout and open-handedness in developing countries cannot be turned into hard geopolitical gains, that may give Beijing pause as to the long-term, strategic merits of global infrastructure programs like the BRI, or its public diplomacy efforts like Confucius Institutes and student exchanges. Or, if Beijing meets sustained headwinds because of preemptive Western efforts to lure away countries sitting on the fence, China may feel it has no choice but to seek bases in countries that the West has already deemed problematic. Say, for example, in Russia, or Iran.

There is nothing wrong with wanting bases. The US has 750 bases of all types in 80 countries and territories. Navies need bases from which to operate, re-fuel and take on supplies, and conduct repairs. So far, China has been remarkably restrained, perhaps in part because it must thread a needle. Its proposition to the world’s developing and non-aligned countries is that it is upending the liberal international order of the past few centuries, founded by the European and American colonial powers. Beijing’s narrative is that just a few decades ago, China was in their shoes.

Though not entirely credible, it often claims a policy of non-interference in foreign countries’ internal affairs. But building a base on another sovereign country’s territory will strike many as meddling, if not as outright colonial. This is why China’s narrative has spoken of ‘overseas supply points’ or ‘logistics facilities’, as opposed to ‘naval bases’. Of course, such terms describe precisely what a naval base actually is.

China may also be hesitating because of spillover from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The US and its allies are now more vigilant, and Western analysts will likely increasingly conflate the two powers in terms of assessing intentions and responses. China may have fewer options to consider for bases, even at the discussion and development stage, before the US would push back through economic and diplomatic corridors.

There are sensitive national egos at play. For China, a ‘blue water’ navy that includes aircraft carriers is profoundly symbolic, signaling it has at last assumed its rightful, respected place as a global power. The Century of Humiliation included periods into the 1930s when a number of foreign navies had bases on the Chinese mainland coast and patrolled its rivers far inland, as if they were the Mississippi or Thames. China feels that acts of disrespect on the high seas have continued into our own time.

America is also twitchy, having had a Navy that has been dominant at sea – any sea – for the past century. Throw in Britain, and the Anglosphere has ruled and policed the waves continuously since the late 1700s. That China’s expanding navy is now larger than the US’s has been a rude, unsettling awakening.

It is fanciful to imagine the US can match or counter China everywhere, especially if Beijing determinedly pursues the building of one or more major overseas naval bases. Not every new base can be treated like the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US and its allies need measured responses, and to allocate scarce resources wisely. They should assess where potential PLAN bases would be a serious threat, requiring some form of countermove – be it diplomatic, trade, or a disposition of forces – versus those that would be merely unpalatable.

The jury is still out on what kind of maritime power China will be. Its views on the Taiwan Strait, its building of artificial islands, and its use of a ‘distant water fishing fleet’ that disregards territorial norms, pose serious challenges to neighbors and to Western powers. But there are reasons for some optimism. China has shown a willingness to engage in multilateral sea operations, and there is potential for mutual cooperation in some key areas such as anti-piracy and humanitarian missions. While the US and China have clear, conflicting flashpoints on the high seas, they also share a vital interest, not least of which is their intertwined economies. The major international sea lanes are a shared and shareable resource. Incentives are well-aligned to protect the free flow of trade on the high seas. They are a global public good and should be treated as such.

Alexander Wooley is the head of communications at AidData at the US university William & Mary, and a writer-journalist on naval issues. He is a former Royal Navy officer

Sheng Zhang is a Research Analyst at AidData’s Chinese Development Finance Program, specializing in geospatial data collection and analysis to uncover underreported financial flows

Rory Fedorochko is a junior program manager at AidData at William & Mary, studying and managing data collection on Chinese overseas official finance

Sarina Patterson is communications manager at AidData at William & Mary

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