Military Expansion — Really?

I recently saw a tweet that said China has four military bases overseas and this is one of the reasons people are afraid of the military expansion of China. I didn’t think it was true so I decided to take a look.

China’s military expansion is a great cause of concern to the world but is that concern justified? Recently, a senior Australian journalist suggested Australia should invade the Solomon Islands and change its government to one more sympathetic to Australian needs. All because China is in talks with the remote Island group to discuss building a port there. Something Australia has never thought about doing in over 200 years of relations, relations that have kept the Solomon Islands at number 151 of 189 countries on the Human Development Index. The Port China is suggesting would be a commercial port to allow imports, of which China is by a long way the Island’s largest with Australia less than half[1] and Exports of which China is once again the largest with Australia not even in the top 5. There seems to be no information anywhere about the port being a military base but something more like the Sri Lankan Port which China profitably runs on behalf of the Sri Lankan government or the Port of Darwin which is also a Chinese managed port providing jobs and income to Northern Territory and tax dollars to the Federal Government of Australia. It was also recently reported that there are now four Chinese military installations outside of China’s borders and Wikipedia was used to support the claim.

Wikipedia is a great source of general information but I don’t like, nor do I trust the site as a source of facts. I’ll rarely cite it as my source unless I’ve double checked the information and drilled down to find the primary source. On this occasion, I used it and found there are indeed 4 military bases registered as being Chinese on the Wikipedia site and here they are: Djibouti; Myanmar; Pakistan and Tajikistan

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_with_overseas_military_bases#China

However, that’s not the end of the story, it’s only the beginning. There are about 2,000 Chinese troops in the military base in Djibouti[1]. China went there in 2017 because a large proportion of the shipping passing the Horn of Africa is Chinese in origin and a lot of it was being pirated by Somalian pirates who weren’t being stopped by the only permanent US military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier[2]. The US had setup this base and been operating against an increasing number of piracy incidents since 2001 but seemed ineffective in preventing or even reducing the piracy. There were literally hundreds in previous years[3] which have now reduced to a trickle. According to one leading expert[4]: “Even though they operate independently, PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) forces have continuously cooperated with the other task forces and are a major reason why piracy has decreased in the region”.

Also worthy of note, but the subject of another article elsewhere, is the poverty alleviation programs China has put into place there, with investments in billions providing for water pipelines, railways, ports and airports; in a similar style to the way in which China has improved conditions within its own borders. Although these are often decried as debt traps the benefits to the country receiving them are enormous and seem to override the issues local politicians have with the restrictive practices of organisations such as the World Bank and the International monetary Fund (IMF)[5]. And, if we were honest, providing jobs for pirates with a decent income is surely a better way of preventing further incidents than chasing them back to their hidden coves. It’s highly unlikely that people living in the Horn of Africa actually set out to, or want to become pirates, poverty has forced them into it. The complaints seem to come from the international finance community, who are now missing out on lucrative loan deals, a lot more than they come from the benefiting countries. Like China’s military expansion, China’s debt trap seems like a myth.

Myanmar is a different story. About 20 years ago, it was widely reported in military circles, based on reports from India’s Military Intelligence, that China had an intelligence gathering base in Myanmar, on Great Coco Island[6], 300 kilometres off the coast. It’s been so widely reported and so often reported that, according to the Irrawaddy Newspaper[7], people now believe it’s true. What isn’t widely reported is that both Myanmar and China denied this for many years and the Myanmar military invited the Indian Military to visit the island and see for themselves, they declined. There are no official records in either China or Myanmar of China being given permission to maintain a military base either so, if it is there, it must be very secret. However, in 2005, Myanmar and India signed an agreement to allow Indian Intelligence gathering flights to cross the island. Two months later, according to the Irrawaddy, the Indian Chief of Naval Staff admitted they was no evidence of any Chinese military base on the island. Yet rumours still persist with some even alleging it was there but it’s moved. Perhaps it’s time for the Indian navy to take up that invitation to visit!

Moving to Pakistan which does indeed have a Chinese invested deep-water port in Gwadar, one of only two in the country. China’s investment amounts to $248 million in the first phase of development of a total investment of $1 billion[8]. But is this a military port? The answer is no, but it could be. It’s actually set up to be a Freezone port allowing development of tax free, or favourable tax policies in order to capitalise on trading with Pakistan’s manufacturing and service industries[9] and yes, China is investing heavily in Pakistan, there’s even a Free Trade Agreement and, what was described, as recently as this week, as an Iron-Clad friendship[10] between the two countries. Once again this “military installation” has no military presence but is considered, by India to be a threat. So, if you read about a Chinese military port in Pakistan, it’s worth taking a look at the source and you’ll probably find it’s a great story full of suggestions about what might happen rather than the realities of what is happening. Such as this article in the Republic World ezine[11].

Which brings us to the final place that China has apparently militarized; the landlocked, mountainous and poverty-stricken, neighbouring country of Tajikistan. There is no doubt at all that China would be well served by having some security presence here, it is a region in crisis[12], the largest autonomous region of the country with 47% of its land but only 220,000 of the 9 million Tajik population live there. It borders China’s troubled Xinjiang and has a difficult border to police. It also shares a border with Afghanistan where it serves as a corridor for refugees as well as potential terrorists and opium smugglers.

What Beijing has done to help the country, at the request of the country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, is build, but not staff a police station near the border[13]. Obviously, a poor country such as Tajikistan would have problems if there were instability in neighbouring country and just such a thing happened in 2021 when Afghan troops, abandoned by their American counterparts fled the country over the nearest borders, at least 1,000 of them arriving in this region of Tajikistan.

Once again, we see suggestions and allegations, even from HK’s South China Morning Post that China could, China might or China is suspected of, but never that China has expanded into the region. China’s alleged good deeds being misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately so, as military expansion.

We can leave it to the reader to make informed decisions on whether China’s military expansion into the Horn of Africa is a good or bad thing, but tens of thousands of mariners and their families are happy to see them there. As are the insurance companies which were paying millions in ransoms to get their ships and crews released and the President of the country, as well as his citizens seem ok with it. The other three sites Wikipedia claims are threats to world peace are only threatening in the minds of people who assume that China has some intent which has never, at any time in modern history, manifested itself as real.

[1] https://oec.world/en/profile/country/slb/

[1] https://bettertourismafrica.org/djibouti/why-is-china-in-djibouti/

[2] https://militarybases.com/overseas/djibouti/

[3] https://ctc.usma.edu/piracy-in-the-horn-of-africa-a-growing-maritime-security-threat/

[4] https://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/2019/10/10/the-decline-of-maritime-piracy-in-the-horn-of-africa/

[5] https://www.thechinastory.org/yearbooks/yearbook-2018-power/forum-whos-in-charge-here/chinas-base-in-djibouti-whos-got-the-power/

[6] https://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/world/china/coco.htm

[7] https://www2.irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=6640&page=3

[8] http://www.gwadarport.gov.pk/

[9] https://tribune.com.pk/story/2349350/gwadar-free-zone-phase-ii-set-in-motion

[10] https://www.news18.com/news/world/pakistan-china-sign-agreements-to-further-strengthen-iron-clad-friendship-4896914.html

[11] https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/china/china-seeking-to-use-pakistans-gwadar-port-as-military-base-warns-expert-articleshow.html

[12] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/tajikistan/b87-rivals-authority-tajikistans-gorno-badakhshan

[13] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3155133/why-china-funding-base-tajikistan

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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences