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China’s Mighty Navy and Global Ambitions

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China, historically known for maintaining a localized naval force, is now emerging as a dominant maritime player, boasting the world’s largest naval fleet. This pivot towards blue-water ambitions signals a sea change in global geopolitics and the balance of naval power.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has constructed an impressive armada, surpassing 340 warships. Previously, it functioned predominantly as a green-water navy, focused on operations near China’s coastlines. Yet, recent advancements and shipbuilding projects indicate broader ambitions. Large guided-missile destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and state-of-the-art aircraft carriers, capable of operating thousands of miles from the Chinese mainland, are now part of their maritime arsenal.

“To ensure dominance across vast oceans, a navy needs refueling and replenishing points far from its native waters. China’s actions suggest it’s working towards just that,” states a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based think tank.

Their investigations revealed Beijing’s push for port access around the globe. This includes potential plans for a naval base in Cambodia and explorations for military outposts as distant as Africa’s Atlantic coast. The FDD report mentions, “In addition to these, facilities in places such as Argentina and Cuba, geared towards satellite tracking and monitoring Western communications, underscore China’s desire to extend its military tentacles.”

Currently, the PLAN has a single operational overseas naval base, strategically located in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. While China justifies the Djibouti base as essential for its anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, analysts are skeptical.

Craig Singleton, FDD senior fellow, expresses concerns, stating, “China’s rapidly expanding global footprint and its newfound ability to handle diverse military missions poses significant risks to not just the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies but other regions as well. Given the momentum, it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ China establishes its next military outpost.”

The situation in Cambodia is particularly telling. Recent satellite imagery analyzed by FDD reveals striking similarities between the pier under construction at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base and the pier at the Djibouti base. Singleton points out, “Such similarities could imply that the Ream base, which is expansive, is being equipped to accommodate Chinese blue-water ships.”

In light of such developments, there’s a concerning pattern of China downplaying its military intentions. For instance, prior to officially opening its Djibouti base, both Chinese and Djiboutian officials had denied intentions to establish a military presence. Within a year, the PLAN was conducting live-fire exercises from the base.

This isn’t an isolated case. In 2015, President Xi Jinping pledged that China wouldn’t militarize the man-made islands in the contentious South China Sea. Today, however, these islands bristle with military installations, strengthening China’s territorial assertions.

Historically, China has been a vocal critic of the U.S. and its vast network of over 750 overseas military installations. Yet, as tensions with the U.S. mount, China seems keen on breaking free from perceived encirclements and expanding its own global influence.

“China’s drive to protect its ‘overseas interests’ as highlighted in a 2019 defense white paper, coupled with its assertiveness in the South China Sea and threats against Taiwan, underline a nation striving to redefine global security dynamics,” notes an expert.

A significant aspect of China’s global outreach is President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, fostering infrastructure developments worldwide. This initiative allows Chinese firms to invest in numerous ports, potentially facilitating logistical and refueling hubs for the PLAN.

A study from Virginia’s William & Mary University’s research lab, AidData, lists potential ports for future Chinese naval bases based on China’s heavy investments. Locations include Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Bata in Equatorial Guinea, Gwadar in Pakistan, and Kribi in Cameroon, among others. Notably, China gained control of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port after Sri Lanka defaulted on Chinese loans.

To conclude, China’s naval ambitions, backed by a vast standing army and a burgeoning military budget, are reshaping global dynamics. While China may tout its efforts as peacekeeping and humanitarian, the implications for global power balance and security are profound.

Singleton’s final words serve as a warning, “China’s objective is clear. It aims to develop the capability to project its forces worldwide. The world should be prepared.”

While nobody yet believes China’s navy is the most powerful (U.S. is still clearly in the top spot), it is disturbing how quickly China has grown and modernized their forces. Some speculate that the U.S. Navy would lose in battle in the South China sea – China’s home turf.

But a big navy requires big support, and with China’s economic problems, it will be difficult for them to maintain this force, and indeed to catch up to U.S. capabilities.

https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/01/asia/china-navy-overseas-military-bases-intl-hnk-ml/index.html

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/how-to/worlds-largest-army-navy-how-china-has-ramped-up-its-defense-capabilities/articleshow/98426138.cms?from=mdr

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