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article imageOp-Ed: China to create global military bases for Belt and Road, says DoD

By Paul Wallis     May 4, 2019 in World
Washington - The United States Department of Defense expects China to site international military bases to protect the Belt and Road infrastructure and assets. This is a very debatable issue.
According to the DoD, China may build a base in Pakistan, a country with close ties to China, South East Asia, and the Western Pacific. This is called “power projection”, and appears to be based on the same basic tenets as American global power projection.
This type of military deployment comes with some caveats. For the US, with a strong naval presence worldwide, it’s relatively straightforward. For China, it’s a very different ball game, and the military objectives of such a deployment are also very different.
In fairness to the DoD assessment, China’s South China Sea islands bases are a natural basis for expectations. Construction and deployment were very fast, and highly efficient. There was no sort of compromise or consultation with anyone else, either. This aggressive stance was planned, deliberate, and a fait accompli, leaving the world to bitch about it.
There’s a big difference, however, between global military strategy and deploying forces in the duck pond right next to China. The South China Sea bases were based on a very hot local issue. Spreading forces worldwide is a totally different proposition.
China's Belt and Road
China's Belt and Road
Laurence CHU, AFP
Defending the Belt and Road
The Belt and Road is a proposed contiguous trade infrastructure. It runs from China to Europe. “Defending” this massive collection of elements can’t be easy, if even possible. Classic modern complex warfare targets infrastructure the way a kid eats French fries. Everything is a target.
Against other states, defence would be easier for the modern Chinese military, but still very demanding. Maintaining forces worldwide may be relatively easy, in fact second nature, for America, but consider what China would have to do:
• Logistics for all of it, from construction and beyond
• The gigantic area
• Military upgrades
• Incredibly high ongoing costs
• Technical needs for overseas deployments for all services
• Combat capabilities requirements
• Local political relations between states (Pakistan and India, for example.)
• Terrain and boots on ground issues
• Air capacity needs
• Naval capacity needs
In military jargon, there’s a term called “over extension”. This refers to the ability of a military force in an extended deployment and its ability to maintain itself and its ability to fight. For modern military forces, which can be extremely high maintenance, this is a big issue.
On the strategic level, projecting power is about having the capacity to project at long ranges. Defending every kilometre of something the size of the Belt and Road, which also includes maritime routes and facilities, is a huge, and somewhat absurd, ask for any military force.
China’s military has been modernized to a considerable extent, but is still catching up with its own technical needs. A credible force is available, but at a rough guess, full combat capacity is only available to first line units. The Chinese had to basically dismantle the old structure and replace it with a modern force.
Extending these much smaller resources and sprinkling them around the world is hardly a good option. Even top quality forces can only do so much, and protecting a multi-dimensional target the size of the Belt and Road couldn’t be easy, even with more forces available.
Basic ground security could be done by less expensive and less agile units, but it’d still be a very high maintenance task. Actual combat effectiveness is another issue. It’s a thankless area for military asset needs evaluation when you consider how effective low-tech guerrillas can be.
Asset Protection - Money and the Belt and Road
The other problem is that the Belt and Road may be considered a New Silk Road by some of the old Silk Road’s biggest fans – Bandits. The original Silk Road was plagued at times by wholesale robbery and murder.
If modern law enforcement has many more tools, let’s not forget that big money is always a target. The Belt and Road is a money making machine, and trouble goes where the money goes. Protection will have to go far beyond military roles.
Power Projection, maybe
China does have other reasons for global bases, though. China’s very high level of interaction with the world on so many levels may well involve military assets. It’s doubtful whether China wants, or needs, a US-style global network, though. The two nations are hardly identical twins, geographically or economically.
Projection of power is also more likely to be in relation to specific needs, rather than a general thing. China’s stereotypical flash points are close to home, for one thing. Far-flung bases only make sense if you’ve got far-flung problems.
Strategically, whatever China’s objectives (or non-objectives) remember China isn’t the US. China has a very different perspective on almost everything. it doesn’t follow they’ll just naturally build a network of military bases “just in case”.
The US should be more worried about anything which is pointed at it than a nebulous network. A Chinese base in Pakistan may be a threat to Diego Garcia, obviously. Where else would be an actual threat to the US? There aren’t that many places which would. South America or Central America? Maybe, but what’s in it for the Chinese, except giving the US an easy target?
DoD may have a couple of points, but this strategic view lacks a lot of necessary depth. It’s a bit too two-dimensional, with too many cosmetic aspects and not enough practical applications for real Chinese needs.
That said, and again in fairness – The old PLA cadres tended to be more inclined to do things that looked like Cultural Revolution posters than practical. If the old PLA hardheads and their culture are involved, something half-ass like “bases everywhere” may be an option.
It could look good, it’s global PR, and as long as nobody looks at the military problems it can cause, it’d fly like a paper dart for a while. Even so, it’s still a lousy, over-generalized, and not well thought out strategy at best. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t challenged on the basis of military realities.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Chinese belt and road, Chinese international military bases, protecting the belt and road, Chinese military Pakistan, Chinese military modernization
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