China’s overseas bases aren’t a big threat—yet: RAND

China’s growing interest in opening more military bases abroad does not pose a big threat to U.S. forces in the next six years, RAND concludes in a new report out Monday. China is not well positioned to build foreign bases or run them in a way that will improve their ability to contest U.S. naval power.  

In 2017, China established a logistics support base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. “Houthi militants’ current attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and a renewed attack by pirates on shipping in the waters off Somalia have once again validated the strategic value of Djibouti and ensuring adjacent sea lines of communication such as the Bab al Mandab Strait remain navigable,” Henry Tugendhat of the United States Institute of Peace noted in January. 

But according to a 2021 Defense Department assessment, the Djibouti pier China is building is large enough to support vessels like submarines and even aircraft carriers, which are not the sorts of vessels used for counter-piracy or humanitarian assistance. 

Instead, the effort is likely part of an effort by China to expand its overseas basing—the Chinese government has been looking to ink agreements in Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia, the Solomon Islands, the United Arab Emirates, and Vanuatu, among other locations, according to RAND. 

“Recent PLA research on overseas bases describes the ability to project power and win potentially protracted wars in distant theaters as a vital but likely still-distant capability. PLA researchers note the ‘leading premise’ of military construction in general is ensuring victory in war by providing strong supports that enable PLA combat effectiveness,” notes RAND. 

Considering China’s navy is already larger than that of the United States and is expected to reach 435 ships in 2030, an increase in overseas basing could–in theory–allow China to contest U.S. naval power virtually anywhere. But according to RAND, China has a ways to go before it can build or use such bases in a way that will really challenge U.S. dominance. 

One reason is that China doesn’t have the same sort of sophisticated command and control structures overseas that the United States does. 

“PLA researchers describe current overseas command structures as piecemeal and uncoordinated. As of this writing, overseas operations, such as the PLA Navy’s anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, appear to be under the command of individual service headquarters, not a joint command structure,” the report authors write. 

China also isn’t good at building bases outside of China. Chinese researchers themselves have determined that “existing Chinese base-building and hardening techniques, which developed from constructing domestic bases in China, are overly dependent on China’s geological features; locally plentiful resources, such as concrete and steel; and sweeping government permissions to harden structures by building deeper underground.”

China’s external relations with host countries are also more limited than those of the United States with partners abroad, as China’s are based largely on loans and less on deep military-to-military relationships. That would be problematic if China needs to use foreign bases for sustained combat operations, since it’s often a challenge for the United States, even with good existing relationships with the host country. 

“U.S. military access to its overseas bases was easier for noncontroversial operations, such as [humanitarian assistance / disaster recovery], but became particularly fraught when access was requested to conduct combat operations. There is no reason to expect that China will not face similar challenges,” according to the report. 

Perhaps for that reason, the researchers didn’t find any PLA writing that describes conducting military operations from overseas bases aimed at the United States. But, the report notes, “This gap in the literature may arise from the PLA’s recognition of the political challenge of gaining host country support for basing offensive fires abroad.”

That may be reassuring as the U.S.struggles to rebuild its fleet to better counter China across the globe. But the report’s authors caution against complacency on the issue. The threat of Chinese foreign bases is “unlikely to manifest into a significant wartime threat to U.S. operations through at least 2030. Still, a network of overseas bases could pose indirect security challenges to the United States by complicating U.S. defense planning in the highly insecure and conflict-prone countries,” they note. 

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