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Many in denial over China’s quest for bases

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LONDON — For a long time, Chinese foreign-policy thinkers and the political establishment have been trying to convince the world that China’s rise is peaceful, that China has no expansionist intentions and that China will be a different kind of great power.

What’s striking is how many liberals in the West have taken these assertions at face value. There is an entire industry in the West that would have us believe that China is a different kind of great power and that if the West only gives China a stake in the established order, China’s rise will not create any complications.

Now, however, one of the most prominent foreign policy thinkers in China is suggesting that establishing bases overseas is a Chinese right that the government cannot ignore. Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, asserts that “it is wrong for us [China] to believe that we have no rights to set up bases abroad.”

Dingli argues that it is not terrorism or piracy that poses the greatest threat to China’s interests, but rather the potential of other states to block China’s trade routes. To prevent this from happening, China, according to Dingli, needs not only a blue-water navy but also “overseas military bases to cut the supply costs.”

Of course, Dingli doesn’t fail to mention that the real purpose behind the development of China’s military prowess is “world peace” and that China will establish military bases overseas not only to protect its interests but also to promote regional and global stability. Yet the real message is strikingly clear: As China emerges as a major global power, it will expand its military footprint across the globe, much as other great powers have done throughout history.

For some time now, China’s expansionist behavior has been evident. China has been acquiring naval bases along crucial “choke points” in the Indian Ocean not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region. China realizes that its maritime strength will give it strategic leverage to emerge as the regional hegemon and a potential superpower.

China’s growing reliance on bases across the Indian Ocean is a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistic constraints it faces because of the distance to the Indian Ocean.

China is also consolidating power over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with an eye on India. China’s growing naval presence is troubling for India as it restricts India’s freedom to maneuver in the region. Of particular note is China’s “string of pearls” strategy, which has significantly expanded China’s presence in India’s backyard.

The Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Burma and electronic intelligence-gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal are part of this strategy. Some claims concerning the Chinese naval presence in Burma are exaggerated. The Indian government, for example, conceded in 2005 that reports of China turning the Coco Islands in Burma into a naval base were incorrect and that there were no naval bases in Burma.

Still, the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean is gradually becoming more pronounced. The Chinese may not have a naval base in Burma, but they are involved in the upgrade of infrastructure in the Coco Islands and may be providing some limited technical assistance to Burma.

As almost 80 percent of China’s oil passes through the Strait of Malacca, Beijing is reluctant to rely on U.S. naval power to ensure unhindered access to energy, so it has decided to build up its naval power at choke points along sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

China also is courting other states in South Asia by building container ports in Bangladesh at Chittagong and in Sri Lanka at Hambantota as well as helping to build a naval base at Marao Island in the Maldives. Consolidating its access to the Indian Ocean, China has signed an agreement with Sri Lanka to finance the development of the Hambantota Development Zone (including a container port), a bunker system and an oil refinery.

The submarine base that China has built in the Maldives has the potential to challenge U.S. naval forces from Diego Garcia. China’s presence in the Bay of Bengal via roads and ports in Burma and in the Arabian Sea via the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in Pakistan has generated concern in India.

With access to crucial port facilities in Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, China is well-poised to secure its interests in the region. China’s involvement in the construction of the deep-sea port of Gwadar has attracted a lot of attention due to its strategic location — about 70 kilometers from the Iranian border and 400 kilometers east of the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil supply route. It can be used to keep an eye on Indian and American activities in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

It is possible that the construction of these ports and facilities by China can be explained away on purely economic and commercial grounds, but for regional powers like the United States, Japan and India, these activities seem to be aimed at them. China’s diplomatic and military efforts in the Indian Ocean seem to exhibit a desire to project power vis-a-vis competing powers in the region.

China is merely following in the footsteps of other major global powers who established military bases abroad to secure their interests. The sooner the world acknowledges this, the better it will be for global stability.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London, and is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.