Call for China to set up naval bases abroad

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2009, 12:00am

China's anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden has presented Beijing with a strong case to set up naval bases abroad, according to a PLA rear admiral interviewed on a government website.

Calls for foreign bases have been growing in China, but they have been limited to internet chat rooms and media columns. This time, the comments were on the Ministry of National Defence's official website.

The report by the Broadcasting Corporation of China carries an interview with Yin Zhuo , a senior researcher at the People's Liberation Army Navy Equipment Research Centre in Beijing. It explains in detail why the PLA needs the bases and why now is a good time.

While the report does not represent the official view, it is normal practice for the authorities to test outside responses and garner support by posting articles on its own website.

Yin, a PLA rear admiral who has taken part in the anti-piracy mission off Somalia, said the experience showed the navy needed the bases to provide logistical support to its fleet.

He said the first escort fleet Beijing sent to Somalia had spent 124 days at sea without docking, which added challenges to the operation.

'We didn't want to arouse unnecessary suspicion from some Western countries. So we did not ask for any docking permit [from other naval bases] in the beginning. Gradually, everyone saw we are there to carry out legitimate international duties and we are helping ships from other countries as well. Foreign [naval bases] have started to welcome us,' he said.

Yin said that when his vessel had docked at a French base on the Horn of Africa his crew had been warmly welcomed. He said the experience had taught the PLA a lot about logistics, operations and maintenance work at sea and in foreign waters.

He said it was time for the Central Military Commission to consider building PLA naval bases in foreign countries - such as in the waters off Somalia - to support its naval operation. 'The Americans, the French and European countries all have naval bases in the Persian Gulf. Japan also applied for a base in Djibouti. I think a permanent, stable base is good for our operation. I think such a request is reasonable and foreign countries will understand China's need to have a long-term supply base.'

Many military experts said the call for the bases was expected and was in line with PLA navy's aspirations to transform itself from a costal defence force into a 'blue-water navy force'.

Dr Arthur Ding, a PLA expert at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, said the report was clearly a step for Beijing to complete its so-called 'String of Pearls' defence strategy. The strategy refers to a document circulated in military circles several years ago. It stated that China should gradually establish military footholds in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, the South China Sea and Pakistan to build up a protection network for its oil lifeline. China is now the world's largest crude oil importer.

Many Western military experts say it is a question of when, rather than if, China has foreign military bases. 'There is no doubt that China has blue-water naval ambitions,' said one veteran Western defence attache, who did not want to be named. 'And those ambitions will carry a practical price ... A China with aircraft carriers will need bases and good friendly ports to use them effectively.'

One of the most closely watched questions is how Beijing will reconcile the need for bases and its more traditional doctrines of non-alignment with other nations and non-interference in their internal affairs.

'China's military diplomacy is going to have to catch up fast,' said one Asian diplomat based in Beijing, reflecting on growing suspicion of China's naval ambitions across East Asia and beyond. 'They are really going to have to make lots of new friends to develop any kind of hard network.'

Sam Bateman, a maritime scholar at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, recently echoed the view, saying China's military had yet to match the nuance and openness shown by other parts of its government in dealing with foreign agencies.

'It will take something of a charm offensive ... and I think increased transparency is one area where we might start to see progress.'

Bases, as the US has found to its cost, raise political and diplomatic problems, even among allies such as Japan.

Over the years, it has developed an extensive network of friendly ports it can regularly visit while maintaining a core network of bases.

In one recent commentary, US-based military scholars Andrew Erickson and Michael Chase noted that China may learn from US experiences and opt for a network of places, rather than bases. They noted a shifting internal debate away from the long-standing Chinese notion of 'no bases and no places', the pair wrote in a commentary for the Jamestown Foundation.