China is set to expand its military capabilities across the globe, with new overseas bases in countries like Pakistan, as the world’s largest army seeks an increased role in defending China’s interest abroad, a report by the Pentagon has said.
The report said China was building 24 hangars, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communication facilities on three outposts, Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs.
The Pentagon report flagged Chinese military advances, including in space and at sea.
The prediction came in a 97-page annual report to Congress that saw advances throughout the Chinese military in 2016, funded by robust defence spending that the Pentagon estimated exceeded $180 billion. That is higher than China’s official defence budget figure of 954.35 billion yuan ($140.4 billion).
China’s construction of a military outpost in Djibouti is just the first of what will likely be an ongoing expansion in friendly foreign ports around the world to support distant deployments, a new Pentagon report concludes, predicting that Pakistan may be another potential location.
The report repeatedly cited China’s construction of its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, which is already home to a key US military base and is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.
Djibouti’s position on the north western edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled worries in India that it would become another of China’s string of pearls of military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
“In February 2016, China began construction of a military base in Djibouti and probably will complete it within the next year,” it said, adding China claims that this facility is designed to help the navy and army further participate in UN peacekeeping operations, carry out escort missions in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and provide humanitarian assistance.
The Djibouti base construction is near Camp Lemonnier, the US base in the Horn of Africa nation. But American military leaders have said they don’t see it as a threat that will interfere with US operations there.
This initiative, along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China’s growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces.
China has cited anti-piracy patrolling as one of the reasons for developing what it calls a naval logistics centre in Djibouti.
China is expanding its access to foreign ports to pre- position the necessary logistics support to regularise and sustain deployments in the far seas, waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
The report noted, Pakistan was already the primary market in the Asian-Pacific region for Chinese arms exports. That region accounted for $9 billion of the more than $20 billion in Chinese arms exports from 2011 to 2015. Last year, China signed an agreement with Pakistan for the sale of eight submarines.
China sold armed UAVs to several states in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, the Pentagon said. Other major Asia-Pacific customers of Chinese military equipment include Bangladesh and Burma, it said.
The new base is frequently cited in the Pentagon report along with wider ambitions for additional installations. Pakistan was singled out as a likely location and it is already the largest buyer of Chinese-made arms.
China faces little competition for sale of such systems, as most countries that produce them are restricted in selling the technology as signatories of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies, as well as subjecting exports of this technology to greater scrutiny than China, the Pentagon said.
The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a multilateral export control regime. It is an informal and voluntary partnership among 35 countries to prevent the proliferation of missile and unmanned aerial vehicle technology capable of carrying above 500 kg payload for more than 300 km.
Notably, China is developing the strategically located Gwadar port in Balochistan, which many experts in the US say is aimed towards having a military presence.
China’s ambitions remain regional, but it is becoming clear China has broader global aspirations, and while they are still in the early stages, they beginning to take shape.
The military expansion ties into a broader Chinese initiative to build a “new Silk Road” of ports, railways and roads to expand trade across an arc of countries through Asia, Africa and Europe. And countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan welcome it as a path out of poverty.
But India and others would be unhappy with additional Chinese development in Pakistan, particularly anything linked to the military.
In a section discussing China’s Navy, the report predicted that Beijing’s first domestically designed and produced aircraft carrier would likely reach initial operating capability in 2020.
The Pentagon said computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be targeted by China-based intrusions through 2016.
China uses its cyber capabilities to support intelligence collection against U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defence industrial base sectors, as per the report. Targeted information could inform People’s Liberation Army planners’ work to build a picture of U.S. defence networks, logistics, and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.