About a decade ago, it was all the fashion to speak of China’s “string of pearls”: a chain of bases, ports and even airfields stretching from the South China Sea, through the Singapore-Malacca Straits, across the Indian Ocean and to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. If not directly owned or controlled by China, this network-of-access would permit the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the naval arm of the Chinese military, to become a more or less permanent presence in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the PLAN could secure China’s access to some of its most important sea-lanes of communication, safeguarding the critical flow of energy supplies—and particularly crude oil—from the Middle East and protecting China’s trade routes to Europe.
There was, however, one thing wrong about this argument: There was no “string of pearls” strategy. In fact, it was mainly a Western invention—speculation about an intrigue on the part of the Chinese that did not exist and still doesn’t.
At least, not yet. While today China might not possess a coherent constellation of “bases and places” stretching across the Indian Ocean, it is increasing its global reach more than ever before. This is apparent in Beijing’s establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa. In conjunction with this event, an article in China Military, the official English-language news website for the PLA, explained that “the PLA’s responsibilities today have gone beyond the scale of guarding the Chinese territories,” requiring it to “protect China’s interests anywhere in the world. Overseas military bases will provide cutting edge support for China to guard its growing overseas interests.”
Given China’s emphasis not only on expanding international trade and commerce but on increasing its political clout globally, it is not surprising that Beijing is attempting to strengthen its ability to project sustainable power farther and farther beyond its territory.
The Fleet Follows the Flag
China’s growing global footprint is, if anything, largely the result of its expanding international economic and commercial interests. As John Holmes of the U.S. Naval War School asserted last year in World Politics Review, China is increasingly “taking its cue” from Alfred Thayer Mahan, the “pre-eminent sea-power theorist” of the late 19th century. For Mahan, Holmes wrote, “commerce was king”—a view that defines China’s current approach to sea power. Holmes added:
In concrete terms, Mahan declares that sea power rests on three pillars: industrial production at home and markets overseas; merchant and naval fleets; and naval stations scattered along important sea routes to support those fleets. Put in its simplest terms, that amounts to commerce, ships and bases.
This is evident in Beijing’s push for such China-centric initiatives as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt, One Road initiative. In particular, the sea-based aspect of this plan—the so-called Maritime Silk Road—depends heavily on a network of ports and other coastal infrastructure projects, stretching from “Quanzhou in the Fujian province and culminating in the northern Mediterranean Sea,” granting China improved access to the “strategic pathways of the Indian Ocean [and] alleviated access to Gulf oil.”
With Global Presence Comes New Vulnerabilities—and Demands
As China’s economic and security interests expand, so too does its vulnerability to foreign crises, demanding the ability to mobilize to protect its interests and its citizens abroad. Take, for example, China’s evacuation of its nationals from Libya during the 2011 civil war—its first military operational deployment to the Mediterranean, as well as its largest noncombatant evacuation. That entailed the deployment of the PLAN frigate Xuzhou, along with four PLA Air Force Il-76 long-range transport aircraft. Utilizing these military assets, along with chartered merchant vessels and aircraft, China removed 35,000 nationals from Libya over a period of about a week, in what was considered to be an intricate and well-coordinated operation involving not only the PLA but several Chinese government ministries and agencies. In 2015, a Chinese warship undertook a similar evacuation of 600 Chinese citizens and over 200 foreigners from Yemen. Obviously, honing the capacity to project military power in the case of such contingencies can be a compelling argument.
The “string of pearls” was mainly a Western invention—speculation about an intrigue on the part of the Chinese that did not exist and still doesn’t.
Non-war military operations have also provided Beijing—and therefore the Chinese military—with rationales for increasing their global presence. The PLA has greatly upped its contributions to U.N.-mandated peacekeeping operations, with over 2,600 personnel involved in missions in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Lebanon, Liberia and South Sudan. In addition, the PLA has engaged in joint security operations in Afghanistan and anti-crime riverine patrols on the Mekong River—both of which were non-U.N. peacekeeping or stabilization operations.
Beijing is also investing heavily in other types of military activities, including counterpiracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. For example, Chinese naval vessels patrol off the coast of Somalia as part of the international effort to contain piracy there, the PLAN dispatched its hospital ship Peace Arc to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. These kinds of non-war military operations will not only boost China’s global reputation but also help its military gain practical experience, mobilizing military and civilian assets to serve national interests. It’s a win-win.
An Increasingly Blue-Water PLAN
This global presence has, unsurprisingly, led to new responsibilities and new tasks for the PLA, and especially for the PLAN. As laid out in China’s 2015 white paper on defense, these include safeguarding “the security of China’s overseas interests,” as well as promoting “China’s security and interests in new domains.” The document characterizes the maritime space as critical for “enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China,” urging an end to “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea” and stressing the need for China to modernize its maritime military force structure to meet pressing national security and development interests.
Delegates from the PLA arrive at the Great Hall of the People to attend a plenary session, Beijing, March 4, 2017 (AP photo by Andy Wong).
Consequently, the white paper notes that, “in line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection,” the PLAN “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection,’ and build a combined, multifunctional and efficient marine combat force structure.”
Moreover, if the fleet truly follows the flag, then the impressive growth and development of the Chinese navy must be factored in. The PLAN is not yet a blue-water navy, but is certainly attempting to move in that direction. Fueled by expanded defense spending, it has been engaged in a concerted effort to replace and upgrade its military hardware since at least the late 1990s. From that point and into the early 2000s, China became a major customer for Russian naval systems, acquiring four Sovremennyy-class destroyers and 12 Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.
Since the turn of the century, however, the PLAN has increasingly relied upon Chinese shipyards to supply it with modern weaponry. Since 2000, China has constructed as least 22 modern destroyers of the Type-51 and Type-052 class, bolstering its efforts to stand out as a world-class navy. The most important of these are the Type-052C and Type-052D, which are outfitted with Aegis-type air-defense radar and fire-control systems, as well as HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), housed in vertical launch systems (VLS). These destroyers are also equipped with the indigenous YJ-83 or YJ-62 antiship cruise missile (ASCM) and the HQ-2 land-attack cruise missile, a variant of the Russian Kh-55 missile.
China has also added more than two dozen new frigates to its forces—particularly the Type-054A Jiangkai-class, which features a stealthy design and is armed with ASCMs and VLS-deployed SAMs—as well as the new-generation Type-022 Houbei-class catamaran-hulled missile fast attack craft, outfitted with YJ-83 ASCMs, of which at least 60 have been built.
China has also greatly expanded its submarine fleet over the past 15 years. Since the late 1990s, the PLAN has acquired at least 26 Type-039 Song-class and Type-41 Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines. These classes are the first Chinese-built submarines to feature a modern “Albacore” (teardrop) hull and a skewed propeller for improved quieting, and to carry an encapsulated ASCM capable of being fired while submerged through a regular torpedo tube, as well as an antisubmarine rocket. These submarines, along with the Kilos, can serve many functions, including anti-surface, anti-submarine, mine-laying and special operations, providing the PLAN with a versatile and stealthy capability for long-range power projection. Finally, the PLAN has begun deploying a new type of nuclear-powered attack submarines, the Type-093 Shang-class; at least five Shang-class submarines are believed to be in service.
The PLAN is not yet a blue-water navy, but is certainly attempting to move in that direction.
Particularly apropos to long-range force projection is the PLAN’s recent acquisition of large expeditionary warfare ships. In recent years, China has launched four Type-071 17,000- to 20,000-ton LPD (landing platform dock) amphibious warfare ships, equipped with two helicopters and two air-cushioned landing craft (LCAC), and capable of carrying up to 800 troops; up to six Type-071s are likely to be built. A larger LHD-type (landing helicopter dock) amphibious assault ship is reportedly under construction.
In perhaps its most dramatic development, the PLAN has recently taken delivery of China’s first aircraft carrier: the former, rebuilt Soviet carrier, Varyag. A casualty of the post-Cold War era, the Varyag was laid down in the early 1980s, but construction was halted in 1992 when the vessel was only 70 percent complete. Ukraine inherited it after the breakup of the Soviet Union and eventually sold it—a rusted shell, without engines, rudder, weapons systems or electronics—to China in 2001, ostensibly to be turned into a Macau casino. In mid-2005, however, the Chinese moved the Varyag to a dry dock at the Dalian shipyard in northeast China, where it underwent substantial repairs and reconstruction, along with the installation of new engines, radars and electrical systems. The rebuilt ex-Varyag carrier underwent its first sea trials under PLAN colors in August 2011, and was subsequently commissioned the Liaoning and accepted into service with the PLAN in 2012. The Liaoning is equipped with the J-15 fixed-wing fighter jet—reportedly reverse-engineered from a Su-33 acquired surreptitiously from Ukraine—along with anti-submarine warfare and airborne early-warning helicopters.
The ex-Varyag vessel will likely be used more as a research and training platform for future Chinese carrier designs and crews, rather than as a fully functioning carrier. At the same time, China is expected to begin construction of several indigenous carriers; a second, based on the Varyag, was launched for sea trials in late April and is scheduled to be officially commissioned in 2020. A fleet of aircraft carriers could provide the PLAN with an expanded offensive reach and give Beijing greater options in terms of sustainable long-range power projection.
China’s ability to gradually phase out its dependency on imported weapons systems in favor of domestically sourced arms has several implications. It is, in the first place, an indicator of how far the local arms industry has come in developing and producing advanced military equipment—that, in itself, is a sign of industrial and military prowess. The PLA is increasingly able to custom-design and manufacture systems that meet its specific needs. Finally, the types of military systems that China is acquiring indigenously are significantly contributing to the PLA’s growing global reach.
It Starts in the South China Sea
It all starts in the South China Sea—easily China’s most militarized maritime area and, accordingly, the jumping-off point for its new globalized ambitions. Beijing has already pretty much declared the maritime zone to be a Chinese lake, subject to its “indisputable sovereignty.” Moreover, a number of recent moves have made it increasingly clear that China intends to make the South China Sea its exclusive military operating area.
In the first place, the PLAN and paramilitary Chinese forces have been increasingly active in the area, often behaving aggressively toward other nations’ fleets, including the harassment of U.S. naval ships. In addition, China’s “militarized fisherman”—the so-called little blue men—have increasingly clashed with other countries’ ships, both commercial and naval, in the South China Sea. That has provided its naval and paramilitary forces, particularly the Chinese Coast Guard, with a pretext—protecting Chinese “civilians”—to intervene and thereby bolster Beijing’s military presence in the region. It is worth noting that these are not simply private fishermen engaged in “patriotic activities”; on the contrary, these vessels are part of a maritime militia subsidized by the government.
At the same time, China has expanded its military capacities in the South China Sea. Woody Island, one of China’s largest possessions in the region, has undergone a dramatic military expansion in recent years. Its 2,700-meter runway can now accommodate most Chinese fighter jets—in fact, Chinese Air Force J-11B fighters were recently spotted on the island. It has improved its harbor, and in early 2016 long-range surface-to-air missiles were reportedly deployed to the island.
Additionally, China has been engaged in a massive effort over the past few years to assemble a constellation of artificial islands in the Spratlys, in the eastern part of the South China Sea. This building program included the construction of runways on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs, as well as harbors and barracks, and is apparently entering a second phase: a full-scale militarization push, including the emplacement of radar stations, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns on these islands.
This amalgamation of increasing naval and para-naval force, combined with the rise of the “little blue men” and the growing militarization of the South China Sea, gives a new strategic foreboding to this body of water. According to researchers at the U.S. Naval War College, the waters are being increasingly dominated by China. The more or less permanent deployment of Chinese military power at both extreme ends of the South China Sea—Hainan and Woody Island in the west, and the new artificial islands in the east—means that China is basically trying to turn the South China Sea into a strait. In other words, Beijing seeks to transform the area from an international sea-lane into a Chinese-controlled waterway and strategic chokepoint for other countries.
China’s Expanding Footprint Across the Indian Ocean
For all its aggressive advances in the South China Sea, however, it is in the Indian Ocean region that China’s military footprint has been the most recent and far-reaching, and therefore the most disquieting. The third element of the Mahanian strategy requires a string of naval bases, or at least base access. Of course, it is in the Indian Ocean where China has established its first overseas base, in Djibouti—strategically located near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It serves as a key refueling and transshipment center, and is the principal maritime port for imports from and exports to neighboring Ethiopia.
Beijing has already pretty much declared the South China Sea to be a Chinese lake, subject to its “indisputable sovereignty.”
China does not call its Djibouti establishment a “naval base.” Rather, it is designated a “logistical support facility . . . not responsible for combat operations.” One of its declared functions, for example, is to service PLAN vessels conducting anti-piracy operations in and around the Horn of Africa. This base, capable of accommodating up to 6,000 personnel, will open this summer. Beijing will pay the government of Djibouti $20 million a year to keep it operational.
Other elements of China’s putative “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean are less impressive but potentially equally suitable. There are several deep-water ports along the Asian and African coastlines where the PLAN could gain access and succor. More to the point, many of these ports and harbors were built, and often are operated, by Chinese companies, some of them state-owned. China has built deep-water ports in Sri Lanka, in Colombo and Hambantota; Pakistan, in Gwadar and Karachi; Myanmar, in Sittwe; and the Seychelles, in Port Victoria.
In fact, there have already been cases where PLAN ships have used these commercial ports. Since 2014, a PLAN Song-class and a Han-class nuclear-powered submarine docked at the port of Colombo—which, incidentally, is constructed, run and controlled by China Merchants Holdings; other PLAN warships have also used this port. In 2015, a Yuan-class sub was spotted at the port at Karachi, which is controlled by Chinese Overseas Port Holdings. Incidentally, Pakistan is currently buying eight Yuan-class subs from China.
The list goes on. For instance, the PLAN intends to use the port in the Seychelles as a refueling point for anti-piracy operations. Other potential dual-use commercial ports include: Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; Koh Lanta, Thailand; Dhaka, Bangladesh; the Maldives; Lagos, Nigeria; Mombasa, Kenya; Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; Luanda, Angola; and Walvis Bay, Namibia. It is also worth noting that China controls one-fifth of the world’s container fleet, and that its shipyards have built approximately 40 percent, measured by tonnage, of all commercial ships. In addition, the Chinese shipping giant Cosco has stakes in shipping terminals in Antwerp, Suez, Singapore and Piraeus, Greece.
Consequently, the long-speculated—and, by some, feared—“string of pearls” may someday become a reality. China is gaining the expeditionary military capability, bases and access to dual-use seaports and deep-water harbors to sustain naval operations stretching from the South China Sea to the Horn of Africa.
On the other hand, it cannot be said that China currently possesses a global military presence like, for instance, the U.S. Navy. The PLAN is most definitely not a blue-water navy in the strictest sense. It has a long ways to go before it can create a sustainable open-ocean power-projection capability. And its footprint will likely remain confined to the Western Pacific and parts of the Indian Ocean region. That said, the combination of a more far-ranging Chinese navy, the PLA’s new base in Djibouti, its ability to access a string of ports along the Asian coastline, and a growing Chinese shipping industry underscore not only Chinese ambitions to become global naval power, but also its determination to make it happen.