By Andrew Thornebrooke
For two decades, China’s communist regime has poured tens of billions of dollars into low- and middle-income nations, funding massive port projects in the name of global development.
However, experts and lawmakers are warning that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state, seeks to expand its global military presence by creating new overseas naval bases out of the commercial ports it has funded and built abroad.
According to a new report by AidData, a think tank that analyzes government aid expenditures on international development projects, the regime has spent nearly $30 billion on overseas port infrastructure since 2001.
For those in Congress who are tasked with countering the threat from a newly expansionist CCP, the regime’s pursuit of new basing opportunities is an alarming development that requires immediate action.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Select Committee on the CCP, believes that the only means of countering such an expansion is through increased military and diplomatic investments by the United States. Such investments in partner nations, he hopes, will counter the creeping influence of the CCP.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s expansion of its overseas naval presence is a blaring alarm, and we keep hitting snooze,” Mr. Gallagher told The Epoch Times.
“To counter the CCP’s malign influence and military aggression, the United States needs to both boost its own military-industrial capacity and be more present in the Indo-Pacific, expanding development and diplomacy with key partners to ensure they don’t succumb to debt-trap diplomacy.”
China Seeks Global Military Expansion
AidData’s report, “Harboring Global Ambitions,” analyzes more than 20 years of official investments by China’s state-owned entities into overseas seaport projects that might form the groundwork for a new naval base.
From 2000 to 2023, Beijing spent a staggering $29.9 billion through loans and grants for 123 different projects at 78 ports in 46 low- and middle-income nations, according to the report.
Each of these projects was funded directly by Beijing or state-owned companies.
This means that the report doesn’t even begin to look at the potential spending of shadow corporations without official ties to the regime, nor does it account for the regime’s policy of military-civil fusion, which demands that all private Chinese entities create a military advantage for the CCP.
Paul Crespo, president of the Center for American Defense Studies think tank, believes that the monumental effort is partly driven by the regime’s desire to hold the United States at threat anywhere in the world.
“China is rapidly creating a large, offensive, blue water navy capable of challenging the United States far beyond the western Pacific, especially during a war over Taiwan,” Mr. Crespo said.
“In addition to allowing it to threaten our supply lines, China has long wanted to make the United States feel the way it feels with a foreign superpower navy on its doorstep.”
The CCP currently only acknowledges one overseas military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. Chinese officials have long acknowledged a more global ambition for their military, however, and suggested that similar bases could be in the works.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in 2016 that China was amenable to working with partner nations to develop similar facilities to that in Djibouti.
Likewise, the 2020 edition of “Science of Military Strategy” (pdf), published by China’s National Defense University, suggested that a new network of long-range naval facilities was necessary to extend China’s reach.
“To improve the naval force’s ocean-going support capabilities, in addition to the development of large-scale accompanying support ships, we must also attach importance to the construction of long-distance maritime comprehensive replenishment points, and multi-channels to ensure naval forces carry out overseas military operations in the ocean,” the document reads.
Mr. Crespo, who previously served as a naval attache at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that such a network of bases would be a prerequisite for the long-term sustainment of China’s increasingly global military presence.
“To challenge the U.S. Navy globally, China needs bases for rearming, refueling, resupplying, and to repair its rapidly expanding fleet,” Mr. Crespo said.
Similarly, the AidData report places the regime’s many overseas investments within the broader context of a tug-of-war for global influence with the United States.
A man walks under a billboard showing the plan of a Beijing-backed multi-million dollar fishing port complex in James Town, Accra, on May 21, 2020. Demolition in parts of the James Town community in Accra to make way for a multi-million dollar fishing port complex. (Nipah Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
In contrast to Mr. Gallagher’s ironclad commitment to counter might with might anywhere in the world, the report suggests that such an approach may only worsen global tensions.
“The United States and allies must be vigilant and allocate resources wisely, fostering alliances and partnerships with countries considering moving toward China,” the report reads. “But Western coalitions should not overreact to news or rumors of China establishing a base here or there.
“A headlong rush by a Western country or alliance to establish new bases overseas as a means of counterbalancing might provide exactly the justification or cover China needs to site a naval base of its own.”
Whatever approach the United States takes, it remains an open question just where exactly the next CCP base will spring up.
By comparing total investments in individual port projects and weighing the strategic value of a geographic location, the strength of the CCP’s relations with the local elites, regional political stability, and the nation’s voting alignment with China on the world stage, the AidData report suggests a few countries as top contenders for new Chinese military infrastructure.
A Chinese Navy missile frigate is docked at Changi Naval Base during the IMDEX Asia warships display in Singapore on May 4, 2023. (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)
The choices stretch from the Indo-Pacific to the Atlantic, with each region offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
Indo-Pacific Base Most Likely
The Indo-Pacific is, perhaps, the most logical place for a new military base.
The CCP seeks to break out past the first island chain, thereby securing its commercial and military vessels’ free rein of the seas. Likewise, it seeks greater control of fishing territories and precious resources throughout the region, from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.
If the CCP is to hold the United States and its allies at immediate threat and gain unfettered control of the world’s most valuable trade routes, it needs greater control of the Indo-Pacific.
Sam Kessler, geopolitical analyst at risk management firm North Star Support Group, believes that a base in this region is the logical step for the regime in its ascent to global domination.
“At this current moment, it is realistic to see Beijing focusing on building future naval bases that are closer to their area of influence rather than be sprawled out on various continents,” Mr. Kessler said.
Likewise, the AidData report finds that “the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are China’s highest priority maritime environments.”
In particular, the report finds Hambantota in Sri Lanka the most likely contender for China’s next overseas base due to its strategic location off of India, the popularity enjoyed by the regime among local elites, and its track record of voting in line with CCP interests internationally.
Indeed, the CCP owns a 99-year lease on Hambantota Port. The agreement is a result of what some analysts dub China’s “debt trap” diplomacy: The lease was negotiated in exchange for relief of more than $1 billion in Chinese debt.
An illustration of the Hambantota Port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka on Nov. 15, 2018. Hambantota Port defaulted on its debts and the Sri Lankan government handed over control of the port to China on a 99-year lease. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Mr. Kessler agrees. The strategic and economic benefits of a Sri Lankan base are just too valuable to overlook.
“Like the Belt and Road Initiative, the CCP needs a networking web or a shield of protection that surrounds their main realm of control, which is mainland China,” Mr. Kessler said.
“Ports with high-level investments like Gwadar and Hambantota serve strategic value and enable the CCP to extend their power projection capabilities throughout the Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, and also Eurasia.”
Indeed, Beijing has invested more than $2 billion into the Hambantota International Port in the past two decades, making it the CCP’s single-largest port investment. The CCP has also invested more than $430 million into Sri Lanka’s nearby Port of Colombo, which could offer similar or support facilities. Both would allow China to rule the seas as a direct rival to India.
Chinese construction workers (top photo) at the site of a new shopping mall, which is part of a Chinese-managed retail and office complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Nov. 20, 2018. (bottom photo) Workers work at the construction site as part of a China-funded project for Port City in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Nov. 8, 2019. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images, Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images)
Sri Lanka, though an obvious choice, isn’t the only possibility. The AidData report and Mr. Kessler note the possibility of Gwadar in Pakistan and Port Luganville in Vanuatu, near Australia.
To that end, the regime has invested some $577 million into Gwadar and $97 million into Port Luganville, each offering its own benefits.
A Vanuatu base would allow the regime to break its apparent containment by U.S. and allied forces, according to the report, while one in Pakistan would further cement the regime’s expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative into the Middle East and allow it greater control of the vital Strait of Hormuz.
Notably, Pakistan’s navy is also the world’s largest foreign purchaser of Chinese arms. A naval base there, as such, would improve such a military-to-military relationship and possibly increase interoperability between the two nations’ forces.
The Cambodia Connection
There are other considerations to be made regarding the Indo-Pacific. Namely, how current military development may lessen or intensify future development.
“Cambodia with Ream port may play a role in this scenario as well,” Mr. Kessler said, referring to the CCP’s ongoing extension of the Ream military base in Cambodia, where the regime is building deepwater facilities for Cambodia’s largest naval base and is likely to benefit from access to the facility itself.
“While the official investment to date has been small, Ream, Cambodia, is very likely to be a Chinese naval facility in one form or another,” the AidData report states.
The U.S. national security community has issued warnings since 2019 that Cambodia and China drafted a secret pact that would guarantee China unfettered military access to the port on the Gulf of Thailand upon the completion of Ream’s expansion.
The expansion and modernization of the base will increase the size of the vessels serviced there five times over, from those with a displacement of 1,000 tons to those of 5,000 tons. That means that the port will still be too small to house China’s newest Type 055 guided missile cruisers but will be able to host its smaller frigates, including those equipped with anti-ship missiles and electronic warfare packages.
The port is also adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has continuously asserted illegal claims to expand its territory through invented “historical rights” and the creation of artificial islands, which it claims are part of its territory proper.
Members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army attend the opening ceremony of China’s military base in Djibouti. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
China has spent $6.9 billion in West African port projects across nine nations: Angola, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.
Flows of cash and other resources from China to West African nations could indicate that such an expansion is well in the works, according to Alexander Wooley, director of partnerships and communications at AidData, whose team compiled the report on China’s investments.
“They’re going to have a base somewhere in that region,” Mr. Wooley said during an Aug. 15 talk at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“Which [country] it might be, they’re not telling anyone.”
There are hints, however, and the AidData report suggests that Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon are likely contenders. China has already spent more than $659 million improving the port in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, and more than $1.3 billion in Kribi, Cameroon.
Both locations would offer the CCP unparalleled placement on the Gulf of Guinea, cementing China as the go-to nation for foreign investment throughout Africa’s rapidly expanding market while granting the regime a foothold on the Atlantic Ocean.
Workers from China and Burkina Faso employed by Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned hydropower engineering and construction company, return to their dormitories after a workday in Bata on Jan. 31, 2012. (Abdelhak Senna/AFP via Getty Images)
“A Chinese naval base in West or Central Africa would put the People’s Liberation Army Navy within easy striking distance of the US and NATO member nations,” the report states.
To that end, a top U.S. general said last year that Bata appeared to be where the regime had made the most traction in its efforts to expand its African military presence.
Likewise, Kribi now boasts deep enough waters and a large enough pier to accommodate the largest Chinese warships.
“Both Bata and Kribi ports have attractive conditions for Beijing to set up bases and long-term relationships with their leadership, too,” Mr. Kessler said.
“However, the primary goal of the CCP will always be about preserving their realm of influence in addition to expanding it. Regarding naval bases, they’re more likely to build from within and expand outward first.”
US–China Competition Takes Global Character
Wherever the CCP chooses to build next, the decision will not be without resistance of the kind that Mr. Gallagher and the Select Committee on the CCP intend to deliver.
The AidData report notes that wherever the United States catches wind of CCP investments, it will likely seek to sway the local government to its own ends.
Such efforts appear to be underway all over the world, including in the United States’ own backyard. The regime has reportedly secured an agreement with Cuba, for example, to build a spy base just 100 miles off the coast of Florida.
The entrance of a Chinese neighborhood in Havana on April 11, 2019. (Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)
To that end, the CCP needs to be cautious about maintaining a defensible position, especially if it intends to build a facility prior to an invasion of Taiwan.
“An important caveat for China is that none of the ports described above is currently militarily defensible,” the report states. “In a conflict situation, they would become high-value targets for an enemy.”
Still, the regime faces difficulties. The CCP lacks the many formal allies of the United States. That means that it can’t simply count on its military presence being welcomed anywhere in the world until it can construct its own bases to ensure their protection by force.
“China does not belong to a typical defense alliance like NATO or the relatively new AUKUS, so they don’t have relationships with countries where there’s some level playing field in terms of the relationship where they could base their ship, like the U.S. fleet in Naples for example,” Mr. Wooley said.
“If they want to deploy ships further afield, they don’t have those relationships with an ally with a host naval base. They don’t have as many replenishment ships as other modern navies might have, so it makes sense to be looking for a place to have a naval base.”
As for the United States, the leadership is currently stuck in the position of needing to guess where the next Chinese base will be while simultaneously preventing it from being built.
As such, Mr. Kessler said, U.S. leadership would need to adapt—and adapt quickly—to shifts in China’s strategic thinking and the options available to it.
“The U.S. and its allies will not only need to play catch up but to also adapt approaches, mindsets, strategies, and tactics in how to effectively minimize or prevent these patterns from becoming more successful and expansionary by the CCP in the long run,” Mr. Kessler said.