After establishing its first overseas naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in August 2017, which now also hosts marines, infantry combat vehicles and helicopters, China is now looking at Pakistan, Cambodia, Vanuatu and other countries for additional military bases to enhance its strategic footprint and emerge as the pre-eminent power in the crucial Indo-Pacific region.
Sounding this warning in its latest report on “China’s global expansion by military and non-military means”, the US Pentagon says Beijing also “completed” over $20 billion of military sales and transfers as a component of its foreign policy just between 2012 and 2016 to become the world’s fifth largest arms supplier.
This included $8 billion worth of arms to Indo-Pacific countries, primarily Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China’s second-largest arms sales, which included armed drones, were to the Middle East and North Africa. Pakistan, on its part, is getting eight Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines, two Type-054A multi-role frigates and other weapon platforms from China.
The Djibouti base, where China is now constructing a 450-meter pier capable of berthing at four warships by mid-2019, and “probable follow-on bases at other locations” signal “a turning point” in the expansion of operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond, warns the Pentagon report.
“These bases, and other improvements to the PLA’s ability to project power during the next decade, will increase China’s ability to deter the use of conventional military force, sustain operations abroad, and hold strategic economic corridors at risk,” it says.
The US, of course, is alarmed at the prospect of losing its military and economic supremacy over China in the ongoing shadow-boxing in the Indo-Pacific, where Beijing is also assiduously using its multi-billion-dollar One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and Digital Silk Road initiatives to make deep strategic inroads and shape interests.
“China’s military strategy remains focused on developing the capability to dissuade, deter, and if ordered, defeat a potential third-party intervention in regional conflicts,” says the report.
Though India cannot hope to match China’s ever-expanding military and economic clout, even as it remains opposed to “any militarization” of the so-called “Quad” with the US, Japan and Australia to not antagonize a prickly Beijing, New Delhi certainly needs to get its act together in the IOR. “India continues to suffer due to its tendency to over-promise and under-deliver to IOR countries,” said a senior official.
There is also great concern that India’s annual defence budget has not registered any concrete hike and just about catered for inflation over the last several years. India has indeed stitched up military logistics pacts to allow its warships access to US bases in Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Guam and Subic Bay as well as French ones in the Reunion Islands (near Madagascar) and Djibouti, but they are not fully operational as of now.
Moreover, the plan to set up concrete turnaround military facilities at places like Duqm (Oman), Changi (Singapore), Assumption Island (Seychelles) and Sabang (Indonesia) is still some distance away from being realized.