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For the past two decades, strategic analysts have debated where China would establish overseas military bases. That debate has only accelerated since Beijing opened its first — and, currently, only — foreign naval base in the East African country of Djibouti in 2017.

A new report by AidData, a research organization at William & Mary, identifies eight locations where its analysts assess China could establish its next overseas military base(s) in the coming two to five years.

They are:

  1. Hambantota, Sri Lanka
  2. Bata, Equatorial Guinea
  3. Gwadar, Pakistan
  4. Kribi, Cameroon
  5. Ream, Cambodia
  6. Vanuatu
  7. Nacala, Mozambique
  8. Nouakchott, Mauritania

You may not have heard of many or most of these ports — and even some of the countries in which they’re located. And that's precisely the point: China's next base may be in a smaller, economically precarious, but strategically-located country.

From Ports to Bases

Many observers see the presence of a foreign port operated by a Chinese state-owned company as a potential precursor for a military base for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy).

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The prevailing view among China hawks is this all fits into what they allege is Beijing's "debt-trap diplomacy" — a strategy of drowning poor countries in debt to extract strategic concessions from them, such as basing rights.

China has been involved in the construction, financing, and operation of dozens of ports worldwide. Much of this has been through its flagship connectivity program, the Belt and Road Initiative.

Scholars such as Isaac Kardon of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have noted that ports operated by Chinese state-owned companies overseas could serve a dual use. Along with their commercial role, they could also provide military services to the People’s Liberation Army - Navy (PLA-Navy) — like the replenishment of naval vessels — at least during peacetime. 

AidData began its assessment by identifying the 20 ports that were the top recipients of official Chinese financing from 2000 to 2021. It then narrowed the list down to the final eight based on a number of factors, including the size of the port investment, strategic location, and closeness of economic and military ties with China.

What is striking about the report's findings is that it includes three ports on Africa's Atlantic coast. When it comes to China's naval expansion, the focus has generally been on the broader Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. But Beijing — AidData and others say — could establish a naval base on the Atlantic.

Project 141 and China's Other Military Base Options

The AidData list does not include the United Arab Emirates, which the U.S. Intelligence Community in March identified along with Cambodia and Equatorial Guinea as countries where China is "reportedly pursuing potential bases."

So Beijing's future basing options aren't limited to economically-challenged countries. Potential candidates include prosperous, stable countries that are looking to take advantage of today's multipolar era.

The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, is looking to diversify its foreign policy relationships, reducing its dependence on the United States. They are building ties with China — and not just economically, but also militarily and strategically.

In April, the Washington Post — citing the Discord Leaks — reported that construction had resumed at a military facility being built by China at Abu Dhabi's Khalifa Port. A Chinese state-owned company operates a port terminal there.

The leaked U.S. intelligence assessment lists the UAE along with Equatorial Guinea, Cambodia, and Tanzania as countries that are part of China's "Project 141," which it says is Beijing's plan "to establish at least 5 overseas bases and 10 logistic support sites by 2030."

(Other Project 141 countries include Djibouti, which is home to a known Chinese base, and Tajikistan, a landlocked neighbor of China where it operates a military facility.)

The AidData report also doesn't include Cuba, with which, the Wall Street Journal reported, China was in talks to build a "new joint military training facility" that would also be part of Project 141. Cuba is right in America's backyard.

Cambodia Moving Full Speed Ahead?

When it comes to China's near-periphery, Cambodia is a country to watch.

Last month, BlackSky, a commercial satellite company, revealed imagery that it says shows a nearly complete pier of a naval base being constructed by China in the Cambodian port of Ream. It says the base resembles both "in size and design" China's only overseas naval base in Djibouti.

The base, BlackSky says, could host a Chinese aircraft carrier. Dennis Wilder, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, said the base could provide "strategic value" to Beijing in the event of a military clash in the South China Sea, enabling the PLA Navy to operate near the Malacca Strait maritime chokepoint.

But other analysts challenge claims that the Ream base would significantly benefit Beijing. Beijing-based researcher Zhou Chenming says the facility is to "too small and crude" to host an aircraft carrier.

Collin Koh, a defense analyst in Singapore, contends that the port could provide value in peacetime, allowing Beijing to extend its maritime patrols deeper into the Indian Ocean region.

The Big Picture

China's overseas military expansion requires close monitoring. But it's important to maintain a sense of perspective.

The U.S. too is expanding its presence in China's backyard, reaching an agreement with the Philippines in February for access to four additional military bases. Beijing's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is driving Manila back into Washington's camp.

Moreover, the U.S. operates hundreds of military bases across the world — facilities it can use during war. China is challenging U.S. power. But the U.S. global reach remains unparalleled and dominant — for now.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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