China’s Global Basing Ambitions

Defense Implications for the United States

RAND Corporation

by Cristina L. GarafolaStephen WattsKristin J. Leuschner

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Research Questions

  1. Why might China pursue an overseas basing network?
  2. Where is China most likely to pursue bases and why?
  3. What are the historical strategic implications of overseas military bases?
  4. What can the United States do about competitors’ overseas bases?

While China’s growing power has reshaped the global economy and international order, the future global role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remains unclear. However, Chinese leaders have articulated Beijing’s determination to become a leading global military power, with overseas military access and bases as one component of this vision. Historical cases suggest that China could develop a global basing network within the next 20 years if it is determined to do so.

In this short report, the authors synthesize insights from two longer RAND Arroyo Center reports to examine China’s growing overseas interests, valuable attributes of potential host nations from Beijing’s perspective, and potential power projection operations that the PLA may carry out. The authors also draw several lessons from three countries’ experience with overseas access and basing — Gaullist France, the Soviet Union in the late Cold War era, and contemporary Russia in Syria — and discuss the implications for U.S. responses to China’s growing global military presence.

Key Findings

  • Beijing’s primary motivation for expanding PLA presence abroad is rooted in the desire to protect its own interests, particularly to pursue continued economic growth as the foundation of Communist Party legitimacy. Its motives are thus fundamentally based on achieving domestic priorities to sustain the regime’s legitimacy and are, at most, only secondarily about imposing costs on the United States or any other country.
  • After evaluating 108 countries across 17 indicators, the authors identified 24 countries that may be especially well suited to Beijing’s pursuit of basing and access. The four countries that scored the highest across these indicators are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
  • If China gains rights for large-scale overseas military bases, historical cases suggest that it is most likely to be among countries facing acute security requirements that they cannot meet without foreign support. Such host nations pose many risks to China, including loss of its bases because of domestic instability or getting drawn into unwanted conflicts.. Such host nations pose many risks to China, including loss of its bases because of domestic instability or getting drawn into unwanted conflicts.
  • The United States can do little to prevent competitors from obtaining lesser forms of military access, and destabilization could result from contesting access too intensively. But the United States may also be able to take advantage of regional reactions against an expanding PLA presence to develop new partnerships and access.
  • New large-scale overseas military bases disrupt local balances of power and risk triggering both internal and interstate wars. In the longer-term future, China’s global basing ambitions might touch off peripheral wars with the potential to draw in China and the United States.

Recommendations

  • Develop indications and warning for new overseas PLA locations.
  • Carefully prioritize efforts to slow or impose costs on China’s quest for overseas basing, as some options are counterproductive.
  • Leverage nonmilitary means to slow or minimize the PLA’s growing reach.
  • Retain capabilities and posture to protect threatened allies and partners.
  • Prioritize, via risk assessments, countries of concern for U.S. Army and joint force missions.
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