The US Defense Department expects China to add military bases around the world to protect its investments in its ambitious One Belt, One Road global infrastructure programme, according to an official report released on Thursday.
Beijing currently has just one overseas military base, in Djibouti, but is believed to be planning others, including possibly in Pakistan, as it seeks to project itself as a global superpower.
“China’s advancement of projects such as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative (OBOR) will probably drive military overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security for OBOR projects,” the Pentagon said in its annual report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments.
“China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries,” the report said.
That effort could be constrained by other countries’ wariness of hosting a full-time presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the report noted.
But target locations for military basing could include the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific.
China has already established well-armed outposts on contested atolls it built up in the South China Sea.
Last year, there were reportedly discussions on a base in the Wakhan corridor of northwest Afghanistan.
In addition, the Washington Post recently identified an outpost hosting many Chinese troops in eastern Tajikistan, near the strategic junction of the Wakhan Corridor, China, and Pakistan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to project the country’s power beyond its immediate “back yard” in East and Southeast Asia.
This includes strengthening the country’s presence in international institutions, acquiring top-flight technology and establishing a strong economic presence worldwide.
It also includes projecting the country’s military force on land, sea and in space, the report notes.
“China’s leaders are leveraging China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military clout to establish regional pre-eminence and expand the country’s international influence,” the report said.
Beijing in particular increasingly sees the US as becoming more confrontational in an effort to contain China’s expanding power, it said.
China, meanwhile, has taken note of a growing suspicion in many countries of the OBOR programme, and has toned down its aggressive rhetoric in response.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon said Beijing’s leadership has not altered its fundamental strategic goals.
Although Beijing’s official defence budget for 2018 was $175bn, the Pentagon estimated that China’s budget actually topped $200bn, when including research, development and foreign weapons procurement.
It estimated that China’s official defence budget would likely grow to about $260bn by 2022.
Much of China’s military doctrine is focused on self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province.
On January 2, Xi said in a speech that China reserved the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control but would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”
The Pentagon report outlined a number of potential scenarios that China might take if Beijing decides to use military force on Taiwan, including a comprehensive campaign “designed to force Taiwan to capitulate to unification, or unification dialogue.”
But the US analysis appeared to downplay prospects for a large-scale amphibious Chinese invasion, saying that could strain its armed forces and invite international intervention. It also noted the possibility of limited missile attacks.
“China could use missile attacks and precision air raids against air defence systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities to degrade Taiwan’s defences, neutralise Taiwan’s leadership, or break the Taiwan people’s resolve,” the report said.