Tag Archives: Overseas Basing

Becoming a Maritime Power? – The First Chinese base in the Indian Ocean

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Xunchao Zhang

In May 2015, it was reported that China was going to establish a naval base in the East African nation of Djibouti. In the past, there has been much talk about Chinese overseas bases, but the Chinese official response to this news suggest the base is likely to be more than a rumor. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not deny the report but instead stated that “Regional peace and stability serves the interests of all countries and meets the aspirations shared by China, Djibouti and other countries around the world. The Chinese side is ready and obliged to make more contributions to that end.” Likewise, the Chinese Defense Ministry also expressed China’s willingness to “make even more contributions” to peace and stability of the region. More directly, the official Xinhua News Agency has argued that time is ripe for a base in Djibouti. The talk of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti seems to confirm a 2014 report from Washington predicting the establishment of Chinese “dual-use” bases in the Indian Ocean serving both commercial and security functions. All of this brings to mind three questions: First, why would China choose to increase its Indian Ocean presence? Second, what is the strategic environment in which China has to operate? And third, what are the strategic implications for Sino-U.S. strategic interactions and China’s maritime strategy?

Strategic Rationale         

The increasing importance of the Indian Ocean to vital Chinese maritime interests form the rationale of having a Chinese base in the area. Although the official white paper “China’s Military Strategy” did not explicit confirm an out-of-area naval base, it did designate several reasons requiring the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) presence in Indian Ocean. A base in the Horn of Africa is consistent with the strategic shift from solely “offshore waters defense” to a combined “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection.”

The white paper states that the “traditional mentality that ‘land outweighs sea’ must be abandoned” especially regarding sea lines of communication (SLOCs), of which, exports of manufactured goods and crude oil imports are paramount. Since a significant share of these rely on Indian Ocean sea lines, an out-of-area naval presence is almost a necessity. The February PLAN exercise in Lombok Strait sent a strong signal of the increasing Chinese naval footprint in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the PLAN has responded to several non-traditional security contingencies near the Horn of Africa. For instance, the PLAN has conducted a series of evacuation operations in the nearby states of Yemen, Libya, and Syria. China has also operated in the Gulf of Aden as a part of the international anti-piracy force since 2008. The official white paper states that the abilities and experiences in dealing with non-traditional challenges should be extended into traditional security areas.

Strategic environment

Multiple political and economic factors shape China’s rather favorable environment in the Indian Ocean region. One of the most significant is the lack of direct geopolitical tensions with the regional states. In contrast to the situation in the West Pacific, where China had a wide range of maritime territorial disputes with its neighbors in the South and East China Seas, China has far more cooperative relations with most states in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing not only has strong partnerships with countries like Pakistan but robust commercial and political ties with African states as well.

Under the Xi administration, China has placed greater economic emphasis on the Indian Ocean region. For instance, the recently announced ‘Maritime Silk Road’ involves connecting East Asia with Indian Ocean economies such as India, Pakistan, Kenya and others via the promotion of maritime trade and investment in port infrastructures. Indian analysts have dubbed this the “String of Pearls.” Although the “String of Pearls” concept is an exaggerated reading of largely commercial Chinese infrastructure investments in the Indian Ocean, the scope of Chinese port building does reveal Chinese economic-political weight in the area.

Port in Gwadar, Pakistan.
Port in Gwadar, Pakistan.

Many international media observers have zealously pointed out the “conflict” between China’s new overseas base strategy with China’s non-interventionist principles. However, overseas basing is not necessarily incompatible with the principle of non-intervention, as long as base arrangements and military deployments are based upon agreement with rather than coercion of foreign governments. A naval base is also irrelevant to the domestic politics of the state where base is to be located. Hence, in technical sense, it is possible for china to establish overseas bases while maintaining the non-intervention principle at the same time.

Strategic Implications

Realistically speaking, China has a long way to go if it is to fulfill the objectives outlined in the recent defense white paper. China would have to overcome not only the overall capability gap with the U.S., but also the lack of experience in running overseas bases, as well as the doubts concerning the cost-benefit calculus of overseas bases. Comparatively, the U.S. military has operated from its own Djibouti base, Camp Lemonnier, during a variety of naval and counter-terrorism missions since 2001. The U.S. base has more than 4,000 personnel and is likely to be much larger and more functionally comprehensive than the potential first Chinese base. Furthermore, as mentioned in the 2014 NDU report, some voices in China are rather skeptical of overseas bases citing concerns about the principle of non-intervention and the possibility of foreign opposition. Therefore, there is possibility that the function of a first Chinese overseas base in Djibouti would be deliberately kept small to avoid controversy. In addition, even in the official white paper, the goal of transformation from “offshore defense” to “open sea protection” remains a limited one, reflecting the Chinese awareness regarding its own limited power projection capabilities.

In terms of overseas naval operations, the Chinese defense strategy white paper clearly took a reassuring tone emphasizing the cooperative and non-confrontational nature of PLAN open sea protection, and SLOCs security objectives. Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean region is neither intended to nor sufficient to pose challenge to the current maritime order. But it does indicates an increasing determination on Beijing’s part to provide security for its own overseas interests rather than merely relying on the “public goods” provided by the U.S. Navy. In this sense, China’s increasing Indian Ocean presence, though insufficient to trigger real strategic competition between the United States and China, is certainly feeding the popular narrative of global Sino-US competition in the media.

In sum, the strategic move towards an overseas base is part of the continuation of changing Chinese strategic culture that is increasingly outward-looking and maritime-oriented. But if the base in Djibouti is to be materialized, even in its most limited form, it is certainly a transformative moment in the strategic cultural shift. The increasing PLAN overseas presence, particularly in the India Ocean region is almost a foregone conclusion. However, it depends on how the PLAN is able to deal with its growing pains, the extent and effectiveness of which remain to be seen.

Currently working for the Australian Institution of International affairs, Xunchao Zhang is an observer of Chinese defense and foreign policy, Zhang is also the sub-editor of ACYA journal of Australia-China Affairs. He has been an intern at the Sea Power and Centre Australia, a guest correspondent of China Radio International, and a member of CIMSEC.

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Behind the Bluster: The Reality of Russia’s Rhetoric for a Global Navy

By Ian Sundstrom

A slowly expanding shipbuilding program is no evidence of greater interest in the navy by the Russian government, and Russian interest in overseas bases does not mean significant changes in the international environment. If Russia does obtain more overseas bases, it will not result in a sustained global presence in the near future.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Throughout the ongoing Syrian crisis, Russia has stuck by the Assad regime and repeatedly stressed its desire to retain its access to the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia claims the base is needed for training and maintenance for routine counter-piracy patrols.[1] The base also gives Russia a bit claim to the position of global influence the Soviet Union once possessed.[2] Additionally, it may serve as a reminder of Russian influence in the Middle East or provide an added layer of defence for Russia’s Black Sea coast.[3] Just this week, the Russian government announced its renewed intentions to keep Tartus in conjunction with the desire to open new naval facilities in Cuba, Vietnam, and Seychelles.[4] It would appear to demonstrate a new desire by the Russians to project naval power around the world. But does this presage a global focus for the Russian Navy? The answer: not likely.


There are a number of reasons why the Russian Navy could not develop a global posture, even with access to new overseas facilities. The first is cost. Long-distance deployments are costly in fuel and maintenance expenditures. This is particularly problematic given instability in the Russian state budget. The budget is heavily dependent on high oil and gas prices – up to one third of government funds come from hydrocarbon revenues – meaning Russian military activity is beholden to global petroleum prices.[5] This has serious implications for Russia’s military modernisation, a key component of its current national security strategy.[6] In fact, an article in RIA Novosti stated that Economic Development Minister Andrei Belousov recently quashed rumours of a three-year delay in Russian rearmament plans.[7] The article noted that the Finance Ministry has been consistently opposed to high levels of defence expenditure because of the strain they put on state finances. Given intra-governmental disagreement over simply recapitalising and modernising the ailing military it is unlikely that funding will be available for foreign bases. After all, just in 2002 Russia closed its facility at Cam Ranh, Vietnam due to cost.[8] Expensive global cruises, sustained foreign deployments, and overseas bases are not sustainable for Russia.


The second reason is the Russian Navy’s aging equipment. Most of its ships are ex- Soviet vessels, many over thirty years old.[9] At this stage in their careers, these vessels require lengthy periods of maintenance to remain operational. Unfortunately for the navy, Russia lacks adequate maintenance facilities to keep them fully functional.[10] Just in 2008 the pride of the Russian fleet, the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, suffered an electrical fire off Turkey and an oil spill off Ireland, all on the same deployment.[11] If Russia increases the pace and range of its naval deployments, similar incidents will likely occur. Furthermore, the Russian Navy suffers safety issues, demonstrated most spectacularly by the Kursk incident in 2000.[12] These would only be exacerbated by an increased deployment schedule, which would mean reduced training for short-service conscript crews and subsequent attendant issues.[13] With aging equipment, inadequate maintenance facilities and poor safety procedures, it would be difficult for Russia to maintain a global posture without seriously degrading its fleet. This brings us to the final point: the Russian Navy cannot handle increased attrition because it has already been severely reduced in size since 1990.


The Russian Navy is just not large enough as it stands to both maintain a global presence and meet its obligations nearer home. In 1990, the Soviet Navy stood at 2052 vessels. Today its Russian successor stands at 518, of which a maximum of 79 could be considered significant combat assets.[14] It is a shadow of its former Soviet self. On top of this reduction, Russian shipbuilding facilities are woefully inadequate. For example, from 1994 to 2008, only seven ships, all begun during the Soviet era, were completed.[15] RIA Novosti claims that 10 to 15 new ships will be launched this year, but it is likely that at least some of these will be delayed, and none are particularly large or capable ships.[16] Given its reduced size, the Russian Navy has had to focus on its core responsibilities. Russia’s core national interests include ‘ensuring the solidity of the constitutional system, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the Russian Federation’, and the Navy helps achieve these by protecting the Russian coast and defeating terrorists and drug smugglers.[17] Russia has only a handful of major naval assets, barely enough to ensure its most basic national security objectives much less adopt a wider-ranging posture.


If Russia does obtain more overseas bases, and it appears Vietnam will at least allow Russian ships to visit Cam Ranh, the result will not be a sustained global presence in the near future.[18] In the longer term the Russian Navy may shift its focus, and a slowly expanding shipbuilding program does provide evidence of greater interest in the navy by the Putin government.[19] As it stands, Russian interest in overseas bases is a curiosity, but does not mean significant changes in the international environment.



[1] RIA Novosti,‘Russian Navy Holds on to Its Syria Base’, 25 July 2012

[2] BBC,‘How vital is Syria’s Tartus port to Russia?’, 27 June 2012

[3] I argue that Tartus provides Russia strategic depth on its Black Sea flank here. It would appear that Vice-Admiral Chirkov, head of the Russian Navy, supports this argument by referring to Tartus as in the ‘Black Sea Fleet’s strategic operational area’ in RTT News, ‘Russia to Retain Tartus Naval Base in Syria’, 26 July 2012,

[4] RIA Novosti,‘Russian Navy Holds on to Its Syria Base’, 25 July 2012; Reuters,‘Russia wants naval bases abroad-report’, 27 July 2012

[5] Andrei Shleiffer and Daniel Treisman (2011), ‘Why Moscow Says No: A Question of Russian Interests, Not Psychology’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 1, p. 125

[6] Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020, paragraphs 28-32

[7] RIA Novosti,‘Russia’s Rearmament Remains on Schedule – Econ Minister’, 2 July 2012,

[8] International Business Times,‘Russian Navy Looks to Expand Bases Abroad, Goes Hunting in Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean’, 27 July 2012

[9] Dmitry Gorenburg (2008), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 23: ‘Has the Russian Navy Turned a Corner? Recent Trends in Russian Shipbuilding and Naval Deployments’, pp. 22

[10] Ibid., pp. 2-4

[11] Dmitry Gorenburg (2009), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 57: ‘Russian Naval Deployments: A Return to Global Power Projection or a Temporary Blip?’, p. 3

[12] Ibid., p. 6

[13] Even a major vessel like Pyotr Veliky has conscript crewmembers. Russian conscripts serve for only one year. Ria Novosti, ‘The battle-cruiser Pyotr Veliky’, 22 April 2010. [14] IISS, The Military Balance 1990, pp. 36-38 ; IISS, The Military Balance 2012, pp. 194-196

[15] Dmitry Gorenburg (2008), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 23: ‘Has the Russian Navy Turned a Corner? Recent Trends in Russian Shipbuilding and Naval Deployments’, p. 2

[16] Bloomberg,‘Russian Navy May Add Up to 15 New Warships This Year, RIA Says’, 27 July 2012

[17] Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020, paragraphs 21 and 41

[18] RIA Novosti, ’Vietnam Ready to Host Russian Maritime Base’, 27 July 2012

[19] IISS, The Military Balance 2012, p. 187; RIA Novosti,‘Russia to Build New Aircraft Carrier After 2020’, 26 July 2012,; RIA Novosti,‘Russian defense minister denies plans to build aircraft carriers’, 2 July 2012; Captain Thomas Fedyszyn, USN (Ret.), ‘Renaissance of the Russian Navy’, Proceedings, March 2012

This article was originally published at the website of our partners, theriskyshift.com and can be found in its original form here.