Lukewarm Support for Base

Foreign opinion is mixed in response to a proposed Chinese naval base abroad.

2010-01-11
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By Michael Lelyveld

BOSTON—China has drawn mixed reactions to a proposal for a foreign base to support naval operations amid concerns about the country’s growing military power.

The idea for China’s first overseas base was floated by retired Admiral Yin Zhuo, a frequent military commentator, in a state radio interview.

It was published Dec. 30 by the Defense Ministry Web site.

Yin called for a “relatively stable, relatively solid base for resupply and repair” of Chinese warships operating in the Gulf of Aden as part of international anti-piracy patrols off the African coast.

The proposal follows a year of Chinese missions to the region with ships spending up to four months at sea.

While he stressed the advantages, Yin acknowledged concerns about China’s military presence abroad.

Idea ruled out

“I believe that regional countries and countries taking part in the anti-piracy patrols would understand if China established a relatively permanent coastal supply base,” he said.

But on Jan. 1, the Defense Ministry quickly ruled out the idea “for now,” said the official English-language China Daily, citing a faxed statement.

The report quoted cautionary reactions from the international press.

Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the episode reflects China’s debate about how to protect its growing interests and a bid to gauge responses to military expansion.

“That explains why you’re seeing some of these ideas being introduced in the press, and they may be trial balloons to get a sense as to how other countries might respond to efforts by China to gain base access overseas,” Glaser said.

Even a supply base would represent a departure for Chinese policy, which promotes commerce but largely avoids military commitments.

China Daily cited a BBC comment that Chinese navy ships previously sailed to the Gulf of Aden during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

India, others watch carefully

Glaser said countries including India and bordering nations in the South China Sea are watching to see whether Beijing follows its growing investment interests with extensions of military power.

“I think that the Chinese are well aware of the concern that exists not only in their neighborhood but also in other places like the Indian Ocean about a potential Chinese effort to establish military bases overseas,” she said.

China may seek support facilities for international operations such as anti-piracy patrols and peacekeeping in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) takes part.

But even that effort is likely to be slow and gradual because of foreign security concerns, Glaser said.

Adam Segal, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the task of promoting the base idea will be tricky for China.

“They like repeating over and over again that they’re not like other countries, that they’ve never had a base overseas, they’re not expansionist,” said Segal.

“So if they were to make that kind of change, it would take a lot of PR [public relations] work in the international community,” he said.

“I think that’s why you see after the statement by this admiral that the ministry said ‘No, no, no—we’re not doing this.’”

Suez concerns

Although Yin didn’t specify a location for a base near the Gulf of Aden, China’s logical choice may be Sudan, where it has oil investments and influence.

But a military presence in the Red Sea may raise international concerns about traffic through the Suez Canal.

Segal said a Sudan base would also raise U.S. concerns because of past conflicts over terrorism, civil war, and Darfur.

“The United States would certainly be worried not only for strategic reasons, but also politically we have been trying to convince the Chinese that their relationship with Sudan is not good for them and not good for the world,” said Segal.

But China’s growing power and displays of new weapons have created a public expectation that the PLA will someday be used to protect investments and workers overseas, Segal said.

The reaction to Yin’s proposal suggests that Beijing will try to build more international confidence in its intentions.

“The Chinese are going to have their work cut out for them in terms of reassuring other countries that they are not seeking to build power projection capabilities that threaten the interests of others,” Glaser said.

“Other countries have been concerned about China’s emerging economic, political, and military capabilities across the board.”

Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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