Yin Zhuo, an admiral and senior researcher at the Chinese Navy’s Equipment Research Center, said today that China needs a permanent naval base overseas to re-supply its ships contributing to the multinational anti-piracy flotilla in the Gulf of Aden.
Yin, a transcript of whose interview with state radio was posted on the Chinese Defense Ministry Web site, seemed to be echoing Beijing’s view that a more active naval presence abroad is necessary to protect sea lanes. His comments come amid speculation that Beijing may be reversing its longstanding policy of not establishing military alliances or opening bases abroad — in other words, that it has no interest in becoming an expansionist power.
While Yin argues that the re-supply base would be primarily for China’s role in multinational anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia, it is evident that such a base could serve other functions. Growing rivalry between China and India comes to mind. Such a base would hem in India in the Indian Ocean and open up a second front in case of conflict, while giving it an edge over other regional actors, such as Australia. Furthermore, once a precedent is set, it would become much easier for China to open other bases abroad, possibly in North Korea or even Russia, which would have serious implications for security in North East Asia and further complicate US and Japanese efforts to come to Taiwan’s assistance should war break up in the Taiwan Strait (China is reportedly interested in opening bases in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, Thailand and elsewhere in the South China sea).
Add that to China’s ongoing efforts to build aircraft carriers — stalled for the moment due to technical problems, according to Taiwanese intelligence — and soon enough, China will be in a position to expand its area of control far beyond 200km outside its coastal areas.
The fact that the Chinese Navy is discussing the matter shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite its avowed lack of interest in maintaining military bases abroad, Beijing cannot resist the desire to expand, as have other emerging powers that came before it. Anti-piracy is only providing the excuse to do so.