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article imageOp-Ed: China building bases in Pacific nations

By Paul Wallis     Apr 9, 2018 in World
Sydney - China is discussing building a military base with the government of Vanuatu. This is seen as a further move by China to expand its global and regional projection of power. The question is exactly where this strategy is going.
The current state of play is that China is holding discussions with Vanuatu, and possibly Tonga, for military bases in the south west Pacific. Australia, the United States and New Zealand are monitoring these moves closely.
China has been providing a lot of money for nations in this region. (To be fair, the rest of the world hasn’t been too obliging in this regard, even for practical things like much needed infrastructure.) This funding, naturally, is a strong positive for the nations concerned.
The basics:
• The proposal is in line with China’s Indian Ocean and South China Sea bases strategy.
• In purely functional terms, these bases are limited in size but do create capacity for supporting Chinese military operations.
• These bases do not, of themselves, seem to have much offensive or defensive capability. (There’s only so much you can fit in to X amount of space, hidden or not.)
• The ability of the extended bases in the Indian and Pacific oceans to provide mutual support or be resupplied in wartime is questionable at best.
• These bases are not major commitments. They’re low risk. If bases are lost, the loss is minimal to China.
• The bases could, in theory, if adequately equipped, be used for staging military operations. On what scale isn’t clear.
• It’s been theorized that these bases may also have economic benefits, like access to fishing grounds, undersea oil, etc. (Which means they may also pay for the potentially large upkeep costs of a global net of bases.)
• The current layout of existing and proposed bases isn’t anything like a major military presence.
• The south west Pacific bases would be effectively indefensible against modern navies, missiles and air power.
On what strategy are these bases, well, based?
One of the problems from the rest of the world’s view of China’s bases is a perceived lack of sensitivity, rather than military issues. Base building has been a sore point with China’s neighbors for some time. Adding more bases is a virtual snub to their concerns, as well as a military move.
That said - To enter the Pacific with a standing physical military presence does make sense if China is attempting to boost its ability to realistically confront US sea power. At the moment, China’s navy is hemmed in against the Chinese coast, with the US and Japanese navies literally on the doorstep as serious issues if a conflict occurs. Spreading the net, and the emerging capabilities of the Chinese navy, notably its large submarine fleet, is a logical move.
Another valid point – As a superpower, China may well see good reasons for creating global bases on the same basic rationale as US bases around the world. A global power protecting its global interests with bases offshore isn’t exactly an unknown strategy.
There are some other, much less appealing, and potentially far more dangerous, issues. The mix of China’s Very Big Money capital with military power and global power projection is hardly likely to reassure anyone. The Fear Factor could also be an own goal for the Chinese, causing more hostility and knee-jerk reactions. The more places conflict can arise, the more likely conflict becomes, particularly with a lot of existing flash points.
Is there a real threat?
The short answer is currently No, if limited to a few bases dotted around the Pacific. With current capabilities, the threat can be more realistically seen as distribution of assets, and creation of logistic assets, rather than an actual threat.
The possible risk, in fact, is more likely to be based on military game changers in years to come. Hypersonic missiles and other weapons, micro nukes, effective missile defensive capacity and other emerging weapons systems may turn these bases in to hard targets with strike capacity. In context, China’s rapidly expanding standalone defense technologies are the more likely pointer to a real strategic position than the building of bases.
One glaringly obvious point in this scenario is that the Chinese are developing economic bases just as enthusiastically as they are building military bases. Are the Chinese effectively taking over economic assets and markets? If so, they’re moving quickly and effectively.
The Pacific nations are in very bad shape, economically. They’ve been largely forgotten by the West, and need money. Their territories, however, also just happen to take up a very large part of the Pacific. If the core Chinese strategy is economic, it’s doing fine against truly feeble, ineffective, competition. In combination, China could be seen as creating a mix of assets across the Pacific, with military support, too.
I find it difficult to believe that China is systematically creating these bases at the same time as a major global economic push for purely military or economic reasons. They’re not building Kublai Khan’s Pleasure Dome. They’re building the “New Silk Road” on land, and an integrated shipping environment, as well as bases.
An overview of all these projects will show a rapidly spreading, all-purpose global Chinese network of trade, military and, inevitably, political interests. Keep in mind that China went from a virtual economic backwater to an economic superpower in less than 30 years. China has the capital and technical capacity to build on that success with more success.
The pattern is that China’s various “bits and pieces” under construction make far more sense as parts of a much larger structure than they do as individual elements. The world has had a lousy record of predicting Chinese moves in those 30 years, too. Now would be a good time to start reading the tea leaves correctly.
I think these bases are the first, perhaps unintentional, calling cards from a super-China of 2100. The British Empire started out as a few isolated bases, too, remember? The Chinese don’t need to fight a war to win one, if so.
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
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