The Maritime Silk Road and the PLA: Part Two

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 7

A PLA Navy vessel. (Credit: Xinhua)

In the previous issue, the first part of this article examined the various strategic and other motivations behind China’s desire for an increased military presence west of Singapore (see China Brief, March 19). Having laid out China’s basic purpose in building up a military presence and supporting bases along the Maritime Silk Road, it is incumbent to assess exactly what constraints China will face in achieving these objectives. This conclusion will examine these constraints and make broad predictions for the future.

Constraints on China’s Military Presence West of Singapore

The first set of constraints (and perhaps the most critical) is that which Chinese leaders place upon themselves. As many analysts have noted, China’s leaders have long made avoiding involvement in other countries’ affairs a key rhetorical and practical plank of their foreign policy, a plank that remains largely intact and would, at the very least, be complicated by efforts to obtain and maintain military facilities in countries lying along the Maritime Silk Road. [1] Moreover, the Chinese have generally shown that while they may be a revisionist power, they are not radically so, preferring to gradually, progressively and incrementally change the existing geopolitical order to more suit their own ends. Beyond this, they cannot help but be aware of the potential for conflict with India incumbent upon any rapid or forceful military expansion into the region, which would be almost certain to exacerbate the presently mild degree of strategic competition between the two (China News, February 12). A similar consideration would also have to be paid to the United States, which would certainly not sit diplomatically or politically idle as Chinese bases were built in the Indian Ocean or Middle East.

Beyond these self-imposed constraints, there must also be taken into account the possible (even likely) reluctance of states along the Maritime Silk Road to host any explicitly military facilities. As other Western analysts have pointed out, for more than a decade, leaders from a whole host of states have directly, forcefully and repeatedly denied any intention to allow China to build military facilities on their territory. And indeed, if China ever did have a strategic initiative along the lines of the “String of Pearls,” then it would certainly have to be considered an abject failure, having produced no real accomplishments in the past decade. [2] For its part, the Chinese government is certainly aware that most of the states in question are post-colonial in nature and, therefore, often prickly on points of national sovereignty and foreign intrusion (military or otherwise) (China News, February 12). Of course, China does have tools to overcome such resistance, especially in the form of its generous economic largesse and developmental aid, but it is still entirely possible that states in the region could closely cooperate with China in economic and transportation matters while still looking elsewhere (to the United States and India, among others) for cooperation on security affairs (The Diplomat, January 30).

A final constraint is imposed by the United States and, to a lesser extent, other powers by virtue of their own existing military presence in the region. Other Western analysts have noted that during the course of the approximately 20 People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) escort task forces dispatched to the Gulf of Aden since 2008, several ports (Aden, Djibouti and Salalah) have stood out as being most often used by those task forces for resupply and replenishment, implying that these ports would be the most likely locations for the PLAN to develop some sort of fixed support infrastructure in the region. [4] While this is likely the case, it should also be noted that those particular ports are the ones most commonly used by U.S. and other naval vessels in the region, making the development of explicitly military support facilities on the part of the Chinese practically inconceivable. [5] None of this is to say that China will not develop facilities at these (or other) locations to support and sustain PLA forces in the region, but rather that these facilities will likely not themselves be military in nature.

What to Expect in the Decade Ahead

In their recent detailed report on the issue of future Chinese overseas basing, Christopher Yung and other researchers from the U.S. National Defense University lay out six possible models from which the Chinese might choose, ranging from their existing dependence on ad hoc arrangements at local commercial facilities to a full-scale American-style network of combat support bases. In their analysis, Yung and his colleagues particularly point to what they call the “Dual-use Logistics Facility” model as that most likely to be adopted by the Chinese if they do not intend to engage in any sort of large-scale combat operations in the Indian Ocean. Under this model, a Chinese base in the region would provide “medical facilities, refrigerated storage space for fresh vegetables and fruit, rest and recreation sites, a communications station, and ship repair facilities to perform minor to intermediate repair and maintenance.” Such bases would be small and likely dispose of only 100 to 200 personnel. [6] This analysis is sound, as the “Dual-use” model most evenly balances the objectives, constraints, and capabilities discussed above.

One reasonable (and minor) divergence from this conclusion, however, would be the possibility that such a base would not necessarily be explicitly military in nature, especially early on. The fact that the PLAN uses the term “yizhan”—which in Chinese connotes the old-fashioned posting stations at which official couriers and mail carriers would once have changed to fresh horses in mid-journey—to describe the “sea posts” discussed earlier likely indicates the very limited purpose for the “sea posts.” [7] It is also potentially indicative of the degree to which the PLAN may be able to “piggy-back” on a network of Chinese-run overseas commercial port facilities, such as those built, developed and operated by the state-owned Chinese Overseas Shipping Corporation (COSCO). [8] It is in this context that China’s investment and development largesse could be best put to use, by first ensuring that there are commercial ports in the region that fit their requirements and secondly by ensuring that employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises (functionally equivalent to state officials, at least for our purposes) are directly involved in the day-to-day management of those facilities and thereby well-positioned to assure Chinese military access to the facilities on a more consistent and reliable basis. While this would perhaps represent a marginally less certain degree of access than if the facilities were explicitly military in nature, it would likely be balanced by the somewhat less fraught (and provocative) effort to obtain commercial port management rights, as opposed to even limited military basing rights. [9]

Based on both the basic objectives and general constraints discussed here and in Part One, it would seem reasonable to predict that in the next decade China’s military presence west of Singapore will expand, but only to the degree necessary to successfully carry-out the general sea lane protection missions currently envisaged. The facilities to support these forces and missions will be concomitantly limited in size and will likely not even be explicitly military in nature. Or, looked at from the opposite direction, China’s military presence west of Singapore cannot expand without a proportionate expansion in the infrastructure available to support it, and given the constraints discussed above, we can expect such an infrastructure expansion to happen only slowly, thereby dictating a gradually expanding military presence in general.

The one geographic area in which there is, perhaps, a lower probability of this prediction holding true is East Africa. The past decade has seen China slowly but steadily building-up a strategic and economic presence in places such as Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Madagascar and the Seychelles, and this region has yet to become the focus of a permanent, large-scale U.S. military presence or particularly strong American strategic relationships. [10] Thus, East Africa is perhaps the portion of the Maritime Silk Road along which China presently has the greatest degree of strategic freedom of action, being not yet constrained by an overwhelming degree of U.S. activity. Moreover, considering both the longstanding diplomatic (and even military) links China has with various East African states, as well as those states’ notable poverty (even in comparison to other states along the Maritime Silk Road), it would be likely that China would receive the best “bang for the buck” when using investment and development as tools for obtaining access to facilities. Thus, if China were to develop explicitly military bases for supporting forces anywhere along the Maritime Silk Route, then it would most likely be in East Africa, where there is the least probability of tension or confrontation (at least at present) with the United States, India or other regional powers (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, January 9, 2014; Defense Web [South Africa], November 18, 2014).

Looking Beyond 2025

As stated at the beginning, the present analysis is limited in scope to the decade ahead, but it is nonetheless pertinent to discuss at least briefly those factors that will influence China’s attitude toward overseas basing and military operations after that timeframe has passed. Making predictions beyond this point would be an exercise in futility, dependent upon a number of currently unknowable variables. First and foremost among these will be Chinese motivations, namely the Chinese leadership’s own perception of whether overseas bases and operations have been worth the political, diplomatic and fiscal expense involved. If so, then they will likely seek to expand them both geographically and quantitatively; if not, then we could expect to see retrenchment (or at least no further expansion). Next, assuming that China’s leaders continue to see net utility in overseas bases and operations, there would be the question of the country’s capability to sustain and expand them. Ultimately the maintenance of military power overseas is dependent upon basic, long-term economic vitality at home, and the decade ahead will almost certainly be critical in determining whether or not China’s historically rapid economic development can continue on a more sustainable path. Thus, the question of whether China will be able to continue expanding the military’s overseas presence in a decade’s time will depend in large part upon domestic policy decisions Chinese leaders will make between now and then. A final factor to consider is the actions of other major powers in the region, especially the United States and India. As noted previously, China will not spend the next ten years operating in a vacuum, and Chinese actions will almost certainly engender significant political, diplomatic and economic responses on the part of other powers. For instance, should the United States or India (or both) come to view any significant Chinese military presence west of Singapore as a serious problem, could very easily engage in a calculated policy to develop key ports and form strategic relationships with the key states in the region in order to limit Chinese opportunities to do so. [11] If such an eventuality came to pass, then in ten years’ time China’s leaders could well find themselves both willing and able to expand their military presence overseas, but without the necessary openings and opportunities.


As a final coda, it would be useful to emphasize that there is very little inevitability concerning the expansion of China’s military presence along the Maritime Silk Road. For any nation, obtaining actual military bases overseas is an expensive, time-consuming, politically and diplomatically fraught process involving real costs and risks. It may be easy for the United States to, today, look upon its own vast global network of well-developed military bases and think of them as just a part of the natural geopolitical order, but they are not. They are in fact the product (or perhaps the fruits) of abnormal conditions. Most of the major foreign military bases currently utilized by the United States were first obtained during a period of intense and near-permanent national mobilization, from approximately 1940 through the early 1970s. Facing grave existential threats during the Second World War and the first decades of the Cold War, the enormous political and fiscal costs associated with overseas bases were discounted, while the powers most likely to view such expansion as potentially threatening under normal circumstances (namely, Britain and France) were forced into acquiescence by dint of circumstance (namely the fact that they were U.S. allies). Thus, while U.S. overseas bases and military presence were not developed on the cheap, they did largely come into being by virtue of extremely favorable domestic and international political conditions. It should be always borne in mind that China does not currently benefit from such conditions (or anything even approaching them) and almost certainly will not in the decade ahead, barring some radical and unpredictable change in current international conditions. Thus, while China will likely seek an expanded military presence west of Singapore, the sheer number of strategic, political, and other potential obstacles is such that, over the course of the next decade, any expansion will certainly take place slowly and be qualitatively limited in nature.

This is the second part of a two-part series of articles examining the Chinese military’s thinking on the New Silk Road. Part One, published in China Brief Vol. 15, Iss. 6, addressed Chinese views and some predictions about how the PLA might approach the initiative over the next ten years.


  1. Daniel J. Kostecka, “Places and Bases: The Chinese Navy’s Emerging Support Network in the Indian Ocean,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2011), Vol. 64, No. 1.
  2. Christopher D. Yung, et al., “Not an Idea We Have to Shun”: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century, (Washington: National Defense University Press, November 2014), p. 27.
  3. Most recently, a change in government precipitated by a January 2015 presidential election in Sri Lanka appeared to derail (or at least complicate and make less certain) various Chinese efforts to develop port facilities in that country, and also threatened to prevent a repeat of the 2014 port call by a PLAN submarine (The Economic Times, March 5).
  4. Yung, et al., p.30–31.
  5. Djibouti actually hosts Franco-American military forces while Aden has long been a replenishing point for Western naval forces operating in the region. Even Salalah regularly hosts American naval vessels and has become the focus of American efforts to develop its port facilities (Mina Group, January 28, 2014; Times of Oman, February 4, 2014).
  6. Yung, et al., p.14, 43.
  7. Of course, the further fact that the term has also been applied to the plainly military facilities being built in disputed areas of the South China Sea does complicate this assertion, but it is reasonable to view the use of the term in the west of Singapore context as generally accurate and its use in the South China Sea as a sort of propaganda or convenient euphemism.
  8. While this possibility has occasionally been mentioned in the Chinese press, the author has yet to identify any authoritative Chinese military writings describing this as a definite intention, thus nit remains only a supposition, but a reasonable one considering COSCO’s longstanding role in the supply of PLAN vessels operating in the Gulf of Aden. COSCO presently has management stakes in four overseas ports: Antwerp, the Piraeus, Suez and Singapore. COSCO also operates individual terminal management companies in other overseas ports. The expansion of this presence remains stated company policy (COSCO, 2015; COSCO, 2015; COSCO, 2015; Port Finance International, March 26, 2014).
  9. This would not preclude the presence of any Chinese military personnel at such facilities, but they would likely be very few in number and mostly focused on providing direct liaison services between the facility and the ships, much as the attachés do now.
  10. In this context East Africa is taken to exclude the Horn of Africa (i.e. Somalia, Ethiopia, etc.).
  11. This should not be construed as either a recommendation or a prediction on the part of the author, but merely an observation.