Beijing has undertaken the largest naval expansion in the history of modern China, as well as the largest naval expansion of the post-Cold War era. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently operates two aircraft carriers while two more are under construction, and the goal is to have six carrier strike groups operational by the mid-2030s.
This would truly transform the PLAN into a blue water fighting force, but there is still an issue that Beijing will need to address – namely overseas bases from which its global force can operate.
Lots of Ships, No Bases to Send Them To
As the South China Morning Post reported this week, China's navy may be closing the gap with that of the United States Navy, but to date, the PLAN has just one overseas naval base. The United States currently maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories.
Beijing thus has found itself in a tight spot. Its sole overseas naval base is in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa at the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea, which is crucial to protecting the approaches to the Suez Canal. Chinese policy has largely run counter to establishing such an overseas presence. Now China has reversed course on that policy, which could require a greater overseas presence to protect Chinese maritime interests.
Having the world's largest fleet, which China has achieved, also requires overseas infrastructure to protect and maintain the warships. Or even to project much of the power beyond China's shores and to protect the so-called maritime "Silk Road."
"Lacking overseas bases is a problem for China because China is so dependent on markets, energy and natural resources in distant locations, such as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America … [and Belt and Road Initiative] projects are very vulnerable to damage and disruption, which could have a tremendous impact on the economy of China and the world," Timothy Heath, a senior security analyst at the Rand Corp., told the South China Morning Post.
However, it isn't as easy as just planting a flag, and China's policies haven't followed the U.S. model of forming partnerships Heath added. Beijing hasn't been open to the alliance-like commitments that are part of maintaining a presence in a foreign land.
The other issue is that as Chinese commercial companies have gained ports worldwide that has, in turn, worried many other countries. The concern is how much presence China would maintain, and many nations have expressed a reluctance to allow Beijing to gain dominance in those regions.
Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, also told the South China Morning Post that Beijing's defense policy has largely been defensive in nature, and until recently there was little need for China to build overseas bases.
"China's expanding navy is mainly used to counter the threats in its adjacent seas," Zhou noted. "The US sent many aircraft carriers and warplanes to the South China Sea, and they sometimes passed through the Taiwan Strait, a place so close to the Chinese mainland that it made Beijing feel threatened."
Yet, as China continues to expand its navy and overseas presence it will likely seek new ways to establish military bases, or else the PLAN will remain only a sizable regional force.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.