China’s launch of its new aircraft carrier on June 17 is the latest milestone in the Chinese navy’s rapid expansion and modernization, and it comes on the heels of new developments in China’s pursuit of foreign bases.
The Chinese military’s growth and Beijing’s increasing interest in an overseas presence illustrate China’s growing power and influence and have stoked US warnings about Beijing’s intentions in the Pacific and around the world.
The carrier, Fujian, is the third China has added in the past decade but the first completely designed and built domestically. Fujian is also the first to have a flat deck and electromagnetically powered catapults, like those on the US newest aircraft carrier, allowing it to launch aircraft with heavier payloads and more fuel and to do so more quickly.
While not as advanced as the US’s 11 nuclear-powered carriers, the conventionally powered Fujian shows China’s navy has pierced the top-tier of fleets by capabilities and size, with roughly 350 warships to the U.S. Navy’s 296.
In the years ahead, the design of China’s carriers and the limited experience of their crews will likely keep them in the Western Pacific, where Beijing is focused on Taiwan and its disputes in the East and South China Seas, but Chinese warships already have a global presence.
Chinese surface ships have operated “for extended periods well beyond the Western Pacific for years now,” Thomas Shugart, an expert on naval warfare at the Center for a New American Security, told Insider.
Beijing recently sent its 41st escort task force to the Gulf of Aden, where its has done regular anti-piracy patrols since 2008. Those task forces “consist of 3-4 ships and are usually gone for 3 to 4 months, spending most of that time at sea, “Shugart said. Chinese naval task forces have also circumnavigated the globe and sailed to Europe and through the Aleutian Islands.
“China has made it clear that one of its biggest national security priorities over the long-term is to be able to maintain the security of its overseas interests, as well as the security of its global sea lines of communication,” Shugart said.
Without more overseas air and naval bases than China currently has, those carriers “will be necessary to achieve the required level of sea control to achieve these goals, especially in the face of a potential adversary like the U.S. Navy,” Shugart said, but reports over the past two years indicate that Beijing is seeking that additional basing.
‘They went in big’
As China’s reach expands, it is seeking “a more robust” overseas basing and logistical network to allow its military “to project and sustain military power at greater distances,” the U.S. Defense Department said in its latest report on China’s military.
China’s only current overseas base was opened in the East African country of Djibouti in 2017. China calls it a logistical support facility and it is near waters where its ships have been conducting anti-piracy patrols.
China’s Djibouti base is also near a major US facility and US officials are wary of Chinese activity there. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of the US Africa Command, told lawmakers in 2021 that China had expanded the base “by adding a significant pier that can even support their aircraft carriers in the future.”
Opening the Djibouti base was “a huge departure from their strategy, [which] formerly had been no military basing abroad, “Lyle Goldstein, an expert on the Chinese military at Defense Priorities, told Insider in a December interview.
“Not only did they go into Djibouti, but they went in big,” Goldstein said. “It’s a substantial facility. It’s not just symbolic.”
China has focused on the Indian Ocean, seeking investments in ports and other facilities related to maritime commercial activity.
China receives 40% of its fossil fuels from the Middle East. “As a result of that, they are interested in pursuing close, deep, and economic relations with nations that adjoin the Strait of Hormuz and the [Persian] Gulf itself so that they can protect that long-term investment, “Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told lawmakers this spring.
“I ultimately believe that will move from economic to a military component,” added McKenzie, who was then the head of the US Central Command.
In early 2021, US intelligence officials reportedly learned that China was secretly building what could have been a military facility in the United Arab Emirates, prompting US efforts to halt the work. In late 2021, US officials were again alarmed by intelligence indicating China was pursuing a naval base in Equatorial Guinea. The US again sought to thwart the project, dispatching senior officials to the West African country.
While China has focused on economic and diplomatic engagement in Africa, it has “to a lesser degree” worked in the “military domain,” Townsend told lawmakers this spring. “Their military investments are playing out in Africa. They have their one overseas base there, and they are working hard to develop other overseas bases there.”
A base on Africa’s Atlantic coast would “put them several thousand miles closer to the US homeland,” Townsend said at the time.
US officials have also been concerned by years of work at the Ream naval base in Cambodia, where China is funding new construction, including the demolition of US-funded buildings. China and Cambodia broke ground on the base this month, days after a Chinese official told The Washington Post that “a portion of the base” will be used by China’s military.
Both countries deny that Ream will be for China’s exclusive use, but experts say it could support a rotational presence and allow China to project power into the Indian Ocean in a way it couldn’t before due to its proximity to passages into the Indian Ocean. The official also told The Post that the Chinese section of the base would host a ground station for China’s BeiDou navigation satellite system, which could aid China’s efforts to support its military operations and monitor other militaries.
In its report on China’s military, the U.S. Defense Department said that a global network of military logistics network and military facilities “could both interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the United States” as China’s “global military objectives evolve.”
US Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the head of the U.S. Transportation Command, told lawmakers this spring that her command monitors China’s “ability to project power around the globe, because that is our operating area.”
“I am monitoring their investments into ports, and their impact of these investments on our ability to maneuver around the world, their ability to disrupt and degrade our ability to project and sustain a force into the Pacific,” Van Ovost said.
‘What’s not fair is also not smart’
China’s apparent interest in foreign military facilities comes amid a decades-long expansion of China’s overseas interests, chiefly in the Pacific but increasingly throughout the world. An interest in overseas bases is in fitting with those expanding interests, Goldstein told Insider in December.
“I’ve had Chinese strategists say to my face, ‘We are seeking additional bases. We have that one base in Djibouti and we want more,’ and it makes sense,” Goldstein said. “China has global interests and they want to have a global Navy.”
Goldstein noted that China doesn’t appear to seek the globe-spanning basing network that the US has had for decades and that Beijing has so far been “cautious” in its use of force. Other experts say the US should keep China’s expansion and its implications for the US in perspective.
“We have a much larger military presence in Southeast Asia than China, and even in recent years we have still engaged in military cooperation with Cambodia,” Van Jackson, an international relations professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said on a recent podcast.
Smaller countries should be expected to balance between two larger powers, Jackson said, pointing to Thailand and Singapore. “It’s not fair to smaller nations to securitize the China part of their hedging strategies, and in Asia, it happens to be that what’s not fair is also not smart and not strategic,” Jackson said.
Other experts argue that countering China everywhere is beyond the US’s means and that Washington should narrow its focus.
“It’s a question of really prioritizing which are the countries and places that have significant strategic importance to the United States, such that if there were a Chinese military facility there we’d be in trouble,” one analyst of China’s foreign policy, speaking anonymously because of professional commitments, told Insider this spring.
US military commanders and other officials say that the US remains the most sought-after partner for many countries and emphasize the need to strengthen those ties in the face of China’s expanding influence.
Van Ovost, the head of TRANSCOM, said her command was pursuing a whole-of-government effort to “thicken our relationship with allies and partners around the world” and make them more “robust” against threats from China.
Townsend told lawmakers this spring that the US is still “the partner of choice, and our equipment and our training is second to none,” though the payoff of that commitment “can sometimes take a long time to unfold.”
“We don’t have to compete with China everywhere. We have to be selective about where we compete with China, and I think we are being successful in that targeted competition,” Townsend said.