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.
China’s Traditional Approach to Overseas Bases
China has refrained from setting up overseas military bases as part of Beijing’s foreign policy emphasizing non-alignment and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Chinese security analysts frequently stated that forgoing overseas military bases was consistent with a defense policy that emphasized caution about entering into military alliances and deploying troops abroad. Several official documents published from the mid-1990s to 2000 highlighted this longstanding approach. For example, China’s 1995 White Paper on Arms Control and Disarmament states, “China does not station any troops or set up any military bases in any foreign country” . Similarly, China’s 1998 National Defense White Paper repeats this statement about refraining from establishing overseas bases . China’s 2000 National Defense White Paper also indicates that “China does not seek military expansion, nor does it station troops or set up military bases in any foreign country” .
Numerous statements by Chinese diplomats, scholars and military officers have echoed the positions expressed in these official documents. In particular, Chinese strategists have highlighted the PLA’s lack of overseas bases as a reflection of China’s broader approach to national security and defense policy, which they typically portray as inherently defensive. For example, in a 1997 address at the U.S. Army War College, Lieutenant General Li Jijun, then vice president of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science (AMS), cited China’s minimal overseas military presence and its lack of foreign military bases as evidence of China’s purely defensive military strategy. “China has not occupied a single square inch of foreign soil,” Li said, “nor has it possessed any overseas military bases” . Such statements have become less strident in recent years, however, and the PLA has begun to take incremental steps toward a more active global role, especially through China’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations. Nonetheless, China has continued to maintain a self-imposed prohibition on foreign basing.
Chinese Scholars Debate a New Approach to Overseas Basing
Notwithstanding China’s historical aversion to the establishment of permanent overseas bases, there are a number of indications that this longstanding policy may be the subject of vigorous debate among Chinese scholars and security specialists in the coming years. For example, in an article that appeared in Global Times—the offshoot of People’s Daily—PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Colonel Dai Xu openly advocated the development of overseas bases to “safeguard commercial interests and world peace” . Specifically, Dai argues that ‘support facilities’ are required not only to protect China’s growing global economic interests, but also to enable PLA participation in peacekeeping activities, ship escort deployments, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
Colonel Dai warns that “If we make things difficult for ourselves in this matter by maintaining a rigid understanding of the doctrines of nonalignment and the non-stationing of troops abroad, then it will place a lot of constraints on us across the board” . Moreover, Dai argues that overseas bases or support facilities are required if China is to “effectively shoulder its international responsibilities and develop a good image.” Perhaps anticipating the possibility that overseas bases would heighten international concerns about China’s growing power, however, Dai states that Chinese bases would not be part of a global military competition and “would not require long-term stationing of large military equipment or large-scale military units.”
As a first step, Dai advocates the establishment of a “test” base in the South China Sea. This follows Gen. Zhang Li’s recommendation at the 11th CPPCC that China should construct military support facilities on Mischief Reef . Dai states that the base should be “suitable for comprehensive replenishment” and suggests that it could be used to promote common development with neighboring countries. Future bases should then be established in other areas where China has important strategic interests; when possible, bases should be located in countries with which China already has “friendly, solid relationships” (e.g. Burma, Bangladesh, and Pakistan). Looking beyond China’s immediate neighborhood, Chinese analysts have also suggested establishing overseas bases or support facilities in Africa and the Indian Ocean.
The anti-piracy operations that the PLAN has been conducting since late last year off of Somalia are typically cited in discussions about the potential value of establishing logistical support facilities in Africa. On December 26, 2008, China dispatched destroyers Wuhan and Haikou as well as supply ship Weishanhu to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. After about three months, the destroyer Shenzhen and frigate Huangshan were deployed to replace Wuhan and Haikou, while the supply ship Weishanhu remained on station. The second escort fleet conducted operations for about 112 days before being relieved by a third escort fleet composed of the frigates Zhoushan and Xuzhou and another supply ship, Qiandaohu. The PLAN handled the logistics and supply requirements associated with these deployments through a combination of underway replenishment and port visits.
Although this mission was a major breakthrough for the PLAN, some Chinese strategists argue that it proves that the PLAN requires overseas support facilities to more effectively safeguard China’s growing maritime interests. According to Dai Xu, the deployment is burnishing China’s image, but logistics and supply constraints limit the amount of time each of the escort fleets can spend in the area . As such missions for the Chinese military become more common, however, China will need to carry them out in wider areas, at lower costs, and over longer periods of time. According to Dai, “moves toward establishing an overseas base are a logical extension of this line of thinking.” Similarly, Senior Captain Li Jie, a strategist at the PLAN’s Naval Research Institute, has recommended establishing a supply and support center in East Africa to facilitate PLAN operations in the region. Li argues that setting up a support center in the area is feasible since the PLAN has already conducted resupply and maintenance activities in African ports and China has friendly relationships with key countries in the region .
The other part of the world most often mentioned in discussions of future requirements for overseas support facilities is the Indian Ocean (i.e. Gwadar and Hambantota). Indeed, it is the Indian Ocean with its rich resources and busy energy sea lines of communications (SLOCs) that seems the most likely future area of Chinese naval power projection. Chinese analyses note that from ancient times through the Cold War, the Indian Ocean has been a critical theater for great power influence and rivalry . Some PLA analysts argue that China will need to advance to the Indian Ocean to protect its national interests . Another assessment in China’s official media suggests that China should develop several overseas bases and build three or four aircraft carriers . China’s growing maritime interests and energy dependency may gradually drive more long-ranging naval development; indeed, reports of imminent aircraft carrier development seem to represent an initial step in this direction. The PLAN’s capabilities in key areas are currently insufficient to support long-range SLOC defense missions, but it may gradually acquire the necessary assets, trained personnel and experience.
To sustain a serious naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the PLAN would need to expand its at-sea replenishment capacity and secure access privileges in locations such as Pakistan, Burma and perhaps Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Yet China remains far from having a naval base beyond Chinese waters. According to Indian Naval analyst Gurpreet Khurana, “China and the [Indian Ocean region] countries involved maintain that the transport infrastructure being built is purely for commercial use. There is no decisive evidence at this point to assert otherwise because these facilities are in nascent stages of development” .
Instead, in an effort to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean littoral, China has established a complex “soft power” web of diplomacy, trade, humanitarian assistance, arms sales, and strategic partnerships with countries in the region—including Pakistan and Bangladesh. One goal of this strategy is to maximize access to resource inputs and trade in peacetime, while making it politically difficult for hostile naval powers to sever seaborne energy supplies in times of crisis. Greater access to regional port facilities may be one outcome of China’s soft power initiatives. Indeed, for several years, China has been developing a number of what Kamphausen and Liang refer to as “access points,” or “friendly locations” that are intended to enhance the PLA’s ability to project power in Asia . Locations such as the ports at Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) as well as various other facilities in Burma and the South China Sea do not appear to amount to the supposed “string of pearls” envisioned by some analysts, but these facilities may offer some capability to support transiting PLA forces, and could be rapidly improved in the future.
There is virtually no reason to suspect that China intends to establish a worldwide network of military bases that would give the PLA a global presence even approaching that of the United States, but some Chinese analysts clearly support establishing at least a limited number of facilities capable of supporting Chinese forces in areas deemed vital to China’s expanding political and economic interests. It is unclear as yet whether their writings reflect the emergence of a school of thought that favors a change in policy or simply embody their personal views, but it appears that the anti-piracy deployment to the Gulf of Aden is sparking serious consideration of the support requirements associated with PLA missions outside of China’s immediate neighborhood. One alternative that may prove attractive to Chinese strategists could be an approach similar to the “places not bases” strategy put forward by the U.S. Pacific Command in the 1990s, in which China would have arrangements in place for access to key facilities in strategic locations while still refraining from establishing permanent military bases abroad.
The development of “places” would enable the PLAN to project power in key regions without necessitating a potentially controversial change in longstanding Chinese policy. Chinese analysts may also calculate that an approach centered on “places” would be less alarming to the United States, India, Japan, and other concerned regional powers. This is in part because support centers could presumably handle the requirements of non-war military operations—such as food, fuel, and maintenance and repair facilities—without the propositioned munitions and large-scale military presence typically associated with full-fledged overseas bases. For the same reasons, “places” would presumably be easier for host countries to accept, thus allowing China to more readily leverage its relationships with key countries in regions of strategic interest.
The extent to which China’s approach to overseas basing may be revised remains unclear, but one thing that seems certain is that a debate has begun. As recently as a few years ago, Chinese analysts were adamant that Beijing desired “no bases and no places.” Today that approach appears to be changing as a consequence of Beijing’s growing global interests and the expansion of the PLA’s roles to include missions well beyond China’s immediate neighborhood. Although “places” would not mark as dramatic a departure from the past as overseas military bases capable of supporting a full range of potential conflict scenarios, support facilities designed to enable non-war military operations in regions far from China would still represent an important step forward for the PLA as it begins to shoulder new missions in support of China’s growing global interests.
Andrew Erickson, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute, Naval War College (NWC). He is coeditor of the Naval Institute Press books China Goes to Sea (July 2009), China’s Energy Strategy (2008), and China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force (2007). Michael Chase, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in NWC’s Strategy and Policy Department. He is the author of Taiwan’s Security Policy: External Threats and Domestic Politics (Lynne Rienner, 2008).
1. Li Jie, as quoted in “Military Expert: China Should Consider Establishing a Land-based Support Center in East Africa,” Zhongping News Agency,May 21, 2009, http://gb.chinareviewnews.com/doc/4_16_100975224_1.html.
2. “China’s National Defense in 1998,” www.china.org.cn/e-white/5/5.2.htm.
3. “China: Arms Control and Disarmament” (Beijing: State Council Information Office, 1995), http://www.china.org.cn/e-white/army/index.htm.
4. “China’s National Defense in 2000,” http://www.china-un.ch/eng/bjzl/t176952.htm.
5. Lieutenant General Li Jijun, “Traditional Military Thinking and the Defensive Strategy of China: Address at the United States Army War College,” August 1, 1997, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=82.
6. “Colonel: China Must Establish Overseas Bases, Assume the Responsibility of a Great Power,” Global Times, February 5, 2009,
8. Russell Hsiao, “PLA General Advises Building Bases in the South China Sea,” China Brief, vol. 9, issue 13, June 24, 2009,
9. In Dai’s words, “The Chinese expeditionary force in Somalia has been attracting a lot of attention from around the world, but with only a single replenishment ship, how much escort time can two warships provide for commercial vessels from various countries?”
10. Li Jie is cited in “Military Expert: China Should Consider Establishing a Land-based Support Center in East Africa,” Zhongping News Agency, May 21, 2009, http://gb.chinareviewnews.com/doc/4_16_100975224_1.html.
11. Senior Captain Xu Qi, “Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the Early 21st Century,” China Military Science, (Vol. 17, No. 4) 2004, pp. 75-81.
12. Wang Nannan, ed., “Expert Says China’s Advancement toward the Indian Ocean Concerns National Interests and Gives No Cause for Criticism,” Xinhua, June 10, 2008, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2008-06/10/content_8338128.htm.
13. Sun Ruibo, ed., “The U.S. Military Strengthens Forces on Guam—For What Purpose?, Xinhua, July 4, 2008, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2008-07/04/content_8489422.htm.
14. G.S. Khurana, “China’s ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean and its Security Implications,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 32, No. 1, January 2008, p. 3.
15. Roy D. Kamphausen and Justin Liang, “PLA Power Projection,” in Michael D. Swaine, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Evan S. Medeiros, with Oriana Skylar Mastro, ed., Assessing the Threat (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007), pp. 111-50.