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China’s Military Is Setting Sail for the Atlantic and Beyond

China’s Military Is Setting Sail for the Atlantic and Beyond

Wednesday, 15 December, 2021 - 04:30

In Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich country on the Atlantic coast of Africa, a global clash of strategy between the US and China may play out in the next few years. The Pentagon is alarmed at reports that China may build a multipurpose naval base there, providing Beijing with military access to the mid-Atlantic. This follows Chinese construction of a military installation inside a commercial port on the Red Sea in Djibouti.

Is China about to militarize its geo-economic Belt and Road Initiative, which until now has been focused on economic development and business opportunities?

One person to ask, if we could bring him back to life, would be Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the intellectual father of the modern US Navy. Over a century ago, alongside his patron, President Theodore Roosevelt, Mahan developed a global theory of sea power that drives much of the Navy’s thinking today. In essence, it says that to wield international influence, a nation must have a globally deployable and powerful navy and a network of overseas bases to support it.

During Mahan’s time, it was access to ammunition and coaling stations that were vital, while today it requires petroleum-based fuel for warships and international connectivity. In both cases, physical location at the nexus of important sea lanes and maritime “choke points” is key. Bear in mind that even in our globalized age, ships transport more than 80% of world trade.

For decades, the US has followed Mahan’s dictates, and has a superb set of overseas ports and basing arrangements: from Rota, Spain, at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, to Singapore, guarding the Strait of Malacca that connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Other countries with important US bases or ports of guaranteed access include Australia, Djibouti, Japan, South Korea, the UK and even Cuba — the base at Guantanamo Bay is an important logistical hub as well as the location of the infamous detention center.

President Xi Jinping of China has been clear in his ambition to make his nation a dominant military power and the world’s most powerful economic actor by the middle of this century. This aspiration requires a more capable and wide-ranging naval force; a global command-and-control network that can reach into space and down to the ocean floor; and a logistical and communications network to support such a fleet. China already has more warships than the US (although of far lower quality) and an emerging submarine force, and is increasing activities in space. What it lacks are the global bases.

If I were advising Xi, I would tell him that with facilities on the Horn of Africa and (potentially) Africa’s Atlantic coast, there are additional key nodes to consider. One is in the Americas: the Caribbean. An arrangement with either Cuba or Venezuela — Chinese ships have made port calls at both — would be a smart move for Beijing.

The days of the Monroe Doctrine, cementing American dominance of the Western Hemisphere, are long past. A Chinese flotilla operating just south of the US would be a major distraction for Washington, necessitating additional ships for the Navy’s Fourth Fleet, which has its home port in northern Florida. It would also put pressure near the Panama Canal, still a vital trade route and increasingly under the sway of Chinese business interests.

Another smart location for a Chinese military presence would be in the northern Pacific, and the obvious partner would be Russia. Moscow and Beijing have been drawing closer together, and their navies have operated together not only in the Pacific but in the Baltic Sea in the heart of Europe.

A basing arrangement at a northern Pacific port would give Beijing strategic depth and a position on another side of Japan’s home islands. China could also consider a South Pacific atoll, perhaps Fiji, with which it has close trading relations. The eastern Mediterranean also has attraction, with ports in Syria under Russian control the obvious location.

Finally, Beijing will likely look north to the Arctic. It has observer status in the Arctic Council and a larger fleet of icebreakers than the US, and covets the trade routes, potential hydrocarbons and deep-seabed minerals in the region. Most nations with geographic access to the Arctic are either members or close partners of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But close to half of the Arctic’s “front porch” is Russian, and separatist elements in Greenland (today part of Denmark) might welcome the Chinese navy.

The US is understandably putting pressure on Equatorial Guinea to reject Beijing’s overtures. But either way, China is going to expand its already impressive fleet and broaden its naval power globally through bases, friendly relations and logistical arrangements. Alfred Thayer Mahan would recognize Beijing’s approach. He would counsel the US to focus on increasing forward deployments in the Pacific and elsewhere, maintaining key bases and logistics nodes, and preparing for real competition on the high seas.


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