China Is Making a Bold Military Power Play

By David TweedDavid Tweed and Adrian LeungAdrian Leung

As lawmakers meet this week to cement Xi Jinping’s power at home, China’s president is also looking to boost his country’s military might abroad. He’s overhauled China’s military to challenge U.S. supremacy in the Indo-Pacific, most visibly with a plan to put half-a-dozen aircraft carriers in the world’s oceans. Still, Xi has a problem: He needs bases around the world to refuel and repair his global fleet. So far, China only has one overseas military base, compared with dozens for the U.S., which also has hundreds of smaller installations.

U.S.-China Balance

Indian Ocean

China

U.S.

India

Potential

Naval base

INDIA

Gwadar

Mumbai

Visakhapatnam

Kochi

Djibouti

Maldives

Hambantota port

Tanzania

Seychelles

Diego

Garcia

Agalega

Island

Indian

Ocean

Mauritius

Djibouti: The U.S., China, Japan,

Italy and France have naval bases.

Saudi Arabia plans to build one.

 

Gwadar: China is building a commercial

port and town here. A naval base would let it exert power over the Arabian Sea.

 

Sri Lanka, Hambantota Port:

China took ownership of the commercial port in December.

Asia-Pacific

Qingdao

CHINA

Busan

Yokosuka

Ningbo

Zhanjiang

Okinawa

Hainan

Island

Woody Island

Guam

Spratly Islands

Malacca

Straits

Malacca

Straits

Changi

Spratly Islands: China has reclaimed land

on seven features here. All have facilities that could be used for naval vessels. Three have airstrips, potentially making them fully fledged bases.

China

U.S.

India

Potential

Naval base

Mouse over *labels for more info

Qingdao

CHINA

Busan

Yokosuka

Ningbo

INDIA

Okinawa

Zhanjiang

*Gwadar

Visakhapatnam

Mumbai

Hainan

Island

Woody Island

Arabian Sea

*

Andaman

and

Nicobar

Islands

Kochi

Guam

*Djibouti

*Spratly Islands

Malacca

Straits

Hambantota

port

*

*Maldives

Changi

*Tanzania

*Seychelles

Diego Garcia

*Darwin

Agalega

Island

Cocos

Keeling

Island

*

*Mauritius

Indian Ocean

AUSTRALIA

China

U.S.

India

Potential

Naval base

Mouse over *labels for more info

Qingdao

CHINA

Busan

Yokosuka

Ningbo

Okinawa

INDIA

Zhanjiang

*Gwadar

Visakhapatnam

Mumbai

Hainan Island

Woody Island

Arabian Sea

*

Andaman

and

Nicobar

Islands

Cam Ranh Bay

Guam

Kochi

*Djibouti

*Spratly Islands

Malacca

Straits

Hambantota

port

*

*Maldives

Changi

*Tanzania

*Seychelles

Diego Garcia

*Darwin

Agalega

Island

*

Cocos

Keeling

Island

Indian Ocean

*Mauritius

AUSTRALIA

China

U.S.

India

Potential

Naval base

Mouse over *labels for more info

Qingdao

Busan

Yokosuka

CHINA

Ningbo

Okinawa

INDIA

*Gwadar

Zhanjiang

Visakhapatnam

Mumbai

Hainan Island

*

Andaman

and

Nicobar

Islands

Arabian

Sea

Woody Island

Cam Ranh Bay

Guam

*Djibouti

Kochi

*Spratly Islands

Malacca

Straits

Malacca

Straits

*Maldives

*

Hambantota

port

Changi

*Tanzania

*Seychelles

Diego Garcia

Agalega

Island

*Darwin

*

Cocos

Keeling

Island

*Mauritius

Indian Ocean

AUSTRALIA

In recent years China has stepped up efforts to challenge the U.S.’s military presence in the South China Sea, developing missiles to deter American warships and reclaiming land to build bases on the disputed Spratly Islands. It also started sending submarines and frigates into the Indian Ocean, opened its first overseas base in Djibouti and invested in ports around the region that could one day be used for military purposes. That has set off alarm bells among some countries in the region, leading to closer security cooperation between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. But China says there’s nothing to worry about. It says the base is aimed at deterring piracy in a key Middle East shipping lane for oil tankers, while the ports are part of Xi’s Belt-and-Road infrastructure push that spans three continents. China says it wants prosperity for all–not global hegemony.

Djibouti is only the first step in what is likely to become a network of Chinese bases across the Indian Ocean.

David Brewster, a senior research fellow with the National Security College at the Australian National University.

Defense Budgets

While the U.S. still dwarfs China when it comes to defense spending, Beijing’s sweeping modernization of the People’s Liberation Army has prompted increases in military outlays from India to Japan. The PLA Navy has led the way. Since 2000, China’s seven main shipyards have produced more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than the collective output of South Korea, Japan and India, according to the 2018 Military Balance published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

$52.5B

India

$150.5B

China

$50.7B

U.K.

$602.8B

$48.6B

U.S.

France

$76.7B

Saudi

Arabia

$46B

Japan

*

$61.2B

$41.7B

Russia

Germany

*Under NATO defense-spending definition.

$52.5B

India

$150.5B

$50.7B

China

U.K.

$602.8B

$48.6B

U.S.

France

$76.7B

Saudi Arabia

$46B

Japan

*

$61.2B

$41.7B

Russia

Germany

*Under NATO defense-spending definition.

$52.5B

India

$150.5B

China

$50.7B

U.K.

$602.8B

$48.6B

U.S.

France

$76.7B

Saudi Arabia

$46B

Japan

*

$61.2B

$41.7B

Russia

Germany

*Under NATO defense-spending definition.

Note: U.S. dollar totals are calculated using average market exchange rates for 2017, derived using IMF data.

Aircraft Carrier Catch-Up

China’s aircraft carrier program is still in its infancy: Only one, the Liaoning, is currently in operation. Of five others planned, two are currently under construction. Two of the carriers are limited by systems that rely on ski-jump decks to launch planes into the air, rather than the steam-catapults commonly used on U.S. carriers. The third carrier could use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system that will be used on the USS Gerald Ford, which was commissioned by the U.S. Navy last year. That system, which reduces wear and tear, is the first in an American fleet that includes 10 Nimitz-class carriers–all of which are nuclear-powered. Reports this month said China may also be planning to build a nuclear-powered vessel, though that hasn't been confirmed.

China

1st Liaoning

Oil

Under construction

Maybe nuclear

U.S.

10 Nimitz Class

Nuclear

1 Ford Class

Nuclear

Under construction

Planned

China

1st Liaoning

Oil

Under construction

Maybe nuclear

U.S.

10 Nimitz Class

Nuclear

1 Ford Class

Nuclear

Under construction

Planned

China

1st Liaoning

Oil

Under construction

Maybe nuclear

U.S.

10 Nimitz Class

Nuclear

1 Ford Class

Nuclear

Under construction

Planned

Note: Ford-class carriers will eventually replace the Nimitz-class

Hemmed In

Chinese military strategists have long felt boxed in by the so-called First Island Chain, a string of U.S.-aligned governments off its coast stretching from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines. When the Liaoning sailed through the Miyako Strait for the first time at the end of 2016, the transit was hailed as a milestone in China. Even so, the U.S. and its allies will still be able to track the comings and goings of Chinese vessels through the region’s waterways until Xi is able to base part of his fleet elsewhere in the world. The U.S. suffers no such hindrance. Its fleet can sail out of San Diego unobserved and disappear into the vast Pacific Ocean.

CHINA

JAPAN

Yokosuka

Qingdao

Busan

Second

Island Chain

Liaoning’s

maiden

voyage

Okinawa

Miyako Strait

Hong Kong

TAIWAN

First Island Chain

South

China

Sea

PHILIPPINES

Guam

0

1,000 km

JAPAN

Yokosuka

CHINA

Qingdao

Busan

The so-called

‘Second Island Chain’

represents an additional

barrier to China’s

blue-water

naval ambitions.

Liaoning’s maiden voyage

Okinawa

Miyako Strait

Hong Kong

TAIWAN

First Island Chain

Pacific Ocean

South

China Sea

PHILIPPINES

Guam

0

1,000 km

JAPAN

CHINA

Qingdao

Busan

Yokosuka

The so-called

‘Second Island Chain’

represents an additional barrier

to China’s blue-water

naval ambitions.

Liaoning’s maiden voyage

Okinawa

Miyako Strait

Hong Kong

TAIWAN

First Island Chain

Pacific Ocean

Bay of

Bengal

South

China Sea

PHILIPPINES

Guam

0

1,000 km

Indian

Ocean

During the National People’s Congress, China’s lawmakers will be asked to approve the country’s military spending as part of the general budget. They are also set to endorse changes to the country’s constitution that will abolish presidential term limits, setting up Xi as a potential leader for life. That would help him implement a vision he outlined in October to turn China into a leading global power by 2050. By then, the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific might look very different.