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Jamestown.org: Strategic Strong Points and Chinese Naval Strategy

Posted by: Berhane.Habtemariam59@web.de

Date: Saturday, 23 March 2019

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 6

On August 1, 2017, China opened its first overseas military base, in the East African nation of Djibouti. This was a landmark event that raised a whole host of questions for Indo-Pacific states: Is Djibouti the first of other bases to come? If so, how many? Where will China build them? How will they be used? Where do they fit into Chinese military strategy? Chinese policymakers and analysts are pondering these same questions. However, they are employing concepts unique to Chinese strategic discourse, and it is essential to grasp these concepts in order to understand how Beijing intends to project military power abroad.

For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the term “overseas military base” (haiwai junshi jidi, 海外军事基地) carries significant historical baggage: foreign imperialists built them on the soil of other countries in order to colonize and exploit them. On the other hand, Chinese policymakers have come to recognize the value of maintaining locations overseas where the Chinese military—above all, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)—can concentrate resources needed to support operations abroad. To distinguish Chinese actions from the predatory deeds of Western and Japanese imperialists, Chinese military thinkers have adopted a specialized term: the “strategic strong point” (zhanlüe zhidian, 战略支点). [1] A careful analysis of the Chinese use of this concept offers valuable insights into Beijing’s strategic intentions outside of East Asia.

Understanding the “Strategic Strong Point” Concept

The term “strategic strong point” has different meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. In some cases it refers to a quasi-alliance relationship; in other cases, it is used in the context of overseas ports (Journal of Strategy and Decision-Making, No. 2, 2017). The 2013 Science of Military Strategy describes them as locations that “provide support for overseas military operations or act as a forward base for deploying military forces overseas” (Military Science Publishing, December 2013). The PLAN’s new facility in Djibouti has been called China’s first “overseas strategic strong point” (World Affairs, July 26, 2017).

The term is not just applied to Chinese bases: U.S. bases in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are also sometimes described as strategic strong points, and Chinese observers have spent considerable time examining these bases in order to inform their own thinking on developing overseas strategic strong points. Between 2016 and 2017, the PLAN’s official magazine Navy Today ran a series of articles, each one discussing the features and strategic roles of individual U.S. bases. One refers to Pearl Harbor as a “strategic strong point in America’s forward defense,” without which its defensive lines would be limited to the homeland (Navy Today, June 24 2016). Two others describe the roles of Diego Garcia and Guam as strategic strong points critical to Washington’s global strategy. [2]

However, Chinese experts are quick to point out that China’s strategic strong points are fundamentally different from those of other states. They state that China’s strategic strong points offer benefits to host states and provide them with public security goods. Moreover, these sites will not be used to conduct offensive operations, as is the case with the overseas bases of other states. [3]

The Need for Strategic Strong Points

Strategic strong points will improve the Chinese military’s ability to operate overseas. Currently, the PLAN conducts the vast majority of the PRC’s military missions abroad. The PLAN serves two primary functions: protecting China’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and safeguarding China’s overseas interests. Both require forward presence in strategically important areas of the Indo-Pacific. According to the Science of Military Strategy, an expansion of the geographic scope of naval operations requires the establishment of replenishment points and “various forms of limited force presence” (Science of Military Strategy, December 2013).

Strategic strong points fulfill these demands. An engineer at the Academy of Military Science’s Institute of Logistics explains that overseas strategic strong points will support the military’s long-range projection capabilities by effectively shortening resupply intervals and expanding the range of support for Chinese forces operating abroad (National Defense, December 2017). However, replenishment ships alone cannot meet the Navy’s needs. As the deputy chief of the PLAN Operations Department wrote in 2010, personnel relief, equipment servicing, and the uncertainties of foreign berthing facilities were limiting factors in the long-term regularization of overseas operations. Chinese facilities in overseas ports are the next step in building an “overseas support system.” [4]

PLAN Commander Adm. Wu Shengli talked about the importance of strategic strong points in December 2016, during an event commemorating the eighth anniversary of China’s anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa. Wu Shengli pointed out that “overseas strategic strong point construction has provided a new support for escort operations… We must give full play to the supporting role of the overseas support system to carry out larger scale missions in broader areas and to shape the situation.” [5]

Establishing several strategic strong points near crisis regions is integral to ensuring the sustained and effective use of forces in these roles. [6] When incidents and crises erupted in the past, efforts to protect China’s overseas interests were highly reactive. Strategic strong points allow China to gradually shift its posture to stabilize and control situations before they become crises. They might even play a role in stabilizing local governments and economies, and in ensuring civil order (International Herald Tribune, October 13 2015).

Accurate and timely intelligence is vital to effective operations, and PLA thinkers believe that strategic strong points will serve intelligence support functions. [7] Two authors from the PLA Equipment Academy write about the PLAN’s development of a “sea & space battlefield versatile situation picture” that integrates various intelligence sources to provide real-time visualized information support for the PLAN’s overseas actions. This system, they state, will support the PLAN’s defensive strategy in its strategic strong points, maritime passages, and core interest areas (Journal of Equipment Academy, April 2017).

One Is Not Enough

The 2013 Science of Military Strategy declared that China “must build overseas strategic strong points that depend on the homeland, radiate into the surrounding areas, and move toward the two oceans.” The “two oceans” refer to the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Chinese sources clearly place an emphasis on the Indian Ocean, across which extends China’s most important SLOC: often called China’s “lifeline” (shengming xian, 生命线), this SLOC runs from the mainland across the South China Sea, and through the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean. There are two primary straits at the end of this lifeline: the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Hormuz (Grand Strategies for Strengthening the Nation: Research on the Forefront Issues of National Strategy, June 2016). Securing the end of this lifeline is China’s first overseas strategic strong point, the PLAN support base in Djibouti (World Affairs, July 26, 2017).

The Maritime Silk Road follows China’s lifeline through the Indian Ocean, connecting the ports of many of the countries along this route. The secretary general of the China Port Association explains that Chinese port companies are expanding their investment layout overseas through mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, and other methods. These ports are referred to as important nodes for constructing the Maritime Silk Road (China Ports, July 2018). According to an expert from the Dalian Naval Academy, each of these nodes can potentially be transformed into a strategic strong point (Ocean Development and Management, January 2016).

Chinese strategists also view the PLAN’s island bases in the South China Sea (SCS) as strategic strong points, and believe that a network of mutually-supporting strategic strong points will help China secure the SCS leg of its maritime lifeline. The PRC established and expanded Sansha City in the Paracels in 2012, and began constructing artificial islands in the Spratlys in 2013 (China Ocean Press, December 5, 2016; China News Weekly, May 12, 2016). Authors from the PLA and government-sponsored institutes describe these efforts as the construction of strategic strong points meant to strengthen China’s position in the SCS.

Three authors from the Dalian Naval Academy discuss the strategic logic of building this network in the SCS, and the support that these island points might offer for the PLAN’s operations along the Maritime Silk Road (Proceedings from the 8th Maritime Power Strategy Forum, October 21, 2016). Figure 1 (below) shows their depiction of the interlocking nature of strategic strong points in the South China Sea.

“Hypothetical Map for South Sea Strategic Strongpoint Construction”

Linked to the PRC mainland, this network of strategic strong points is intended to secure a military presence on the eastern entrance to the Malacca Strait. With the Djibouti naval base in place, China has secured a military presence on the far end of its lifeline. However, the PLAN has not been sufficiently engaged on the western entrance to the Malacca Strait, and many Chinese analysts believe that this is the logical next step (The New Orient, September 23, 2014). [8]

Discussion of the strategic strong point concept is not confined to the Indian Ocean and the SCS. Other authoritative sources have recently used the term in a grander context, citing the expansion of China’s interests globally (World Affairs, June 2018). Indeed, the deputy director of the Center for National Strategic Research at the Chinese Academy of Governance advocates the building of numerous strategic strong points across multiple regions (Administrative Reform, June 2016). For example, some propose building a similar network of strategic strong points in the South Pacific (Journal of Strategy and Decision-Making, No. 2, 2017), stating that the control of strategic strong points in these areas can help relieve strategic pressure from maritime challenges closer to home in the SCS (Ministry of Commerce, May 23, 2017).

However, there currently exists a wide gap in strategic strong point coverage of China’s lifeline across the northern Indian Ocean between Djibouti and the SCS, making this area the current priority. In the northern Indian Ocean, the ports of Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) are frequently cited as candidates to become future strategic strong points (Reformation & Strategy, March 2017). Gwadar is well-positioned to cover the Strait of Hormuz, a key passage for Chinese energy imports; whereas Hambantota provides an excellent Indian Ocean mid-transit point for replenishment, repair, and berthing (China Water Transport, December 2015).

Creating an Overseas Support System

Chinese strategists are already discussing the need to integrate individual strategic strong points into an overseas support system. The need to connect individual “points” (dian, 点) into “lines” (xian, 线) is a common theme in discussions about strategic strong points (Administrative Reform, June 2016). Officers from the PLAN Command College describe a future basing layout that “combines points and lines” and “controls chokepoints.” [9] Chinese experts also point out that these lines should eventually combine to form “fronts” (mian, 面) (Proceedings from the 8th Maritime Power Strategy Forum, October 21, 2016).

Faculty at the Dalian Naval Academy have explained the functions of strategic strong points in what they refer to as the “Points, Lines, and Fronts Strategy for ‘Maritime Silk Road’ Strategic Strong Point Construction” (Proceedings from the 8th Maritime Power Strategy Forum, October 21, 2016). This concept is illustrated in Figure 2 (below).

(Original graphic modified to provide author’s translation of the original Chinese)

The subject of “fronts” is currently unclear and somewhat sensitive. Some discussions of a mutually supporting network of strategic strong points intentionally avoid drawing connections between each point, fearing that doing so could raise fears about China’s grander ambitions. As one author from the Institute of Strategic and Security Studies at the PLA’s National Defense University explains, the relationship between “points” and “fronts” in strategic strong point construction must be properly managed to reduce the risk of sparking alarm among foreign observers and host-states, who might interpret such expansion negatively. China must realistically plan numerous “points,” but only let some of them “bloom.” Some can make developmental breakthroughs, but multiple “lines” should not coincide with each other. The most strategically valuable strategic strong points must be developed first. [10]

If such an approach is ultimately adopted, it is likely that we are witnessing an initial period of rapid strategic strong point construction. What follows may be a gradual maturation of civilian port infrastructure into a more robust logistics support network–one located along the mid-section of the lifeline route, which will link up with locations in the South China Sea.

Conclusions

This article has attempted to answer some critical questions about China’s approach to developing its overseas military support capabilities. Tracking Chinese discussion on strategic strong points can shed light on the PRC’s intent to establish an overseas military presence. Significantly, the term demonstrates a relationship between the seeming unrelated military facilities that the PRC has constructed in the Horn of Africa and the South China Sea. Academic discussions on strategic strong points are widespread, and there are numerous Chinese experts exploring this subject on two levels. Many examine in-depth the role of strategic strong points in supporting Chinese sea power (Journal of International Security Studies, February 2015). However, there is also a branch of discourse that utilizes the term as an alternative concept to an alliance: scholarly discussions of strategic strong points in this context often advocate that China relax, but not abandon, its non-alliance policy (Journal of Contemporary Asia-Pacific Studies, No. 1, 2014).

Beijing has sought to minimize the security dimensions of its Belt and Road strategy in order to mitigate negative press coverage regarding the PRC’s future geopolitical intentions (China Defense News, May 5, 2017). However, the widespread use of the term “strategic strong points” appears to have successfully allowed an open discussion since 2013 of China’s construction of overseas military presence and basing, while still allowing the PRC to posture itself as a more virtuous international actor than the rapacious imperial powers of the past. Understanding the terms and concepts of this discussion will prove fundamental to assessing future Chinese naval strategy.

Conor Kennedy is an Instructor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Notes

[1] The term “strategic strong point” is also often written as 战略支撑点 (zhanlüe zhichengdian),  used interchangeably. See: 王多月 [Wang Duoyue], “战略支撑点与 ‘21世纪海上丝绸之路’ 的建设” [Strategic Pivot Countries and the Construction of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ in 21st Century], May 20, 2017, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, p. 27.

[2] 李大光 [Li Daguang], “关岛基地: 美军西太军事要塞” [Guam Base: The US Military’s Fortress in the Western Pacific], 当代海军 [Navy Today], No. 2, 2016, pp. 60-62; 杨燕南 [Yang Yan’nan], “迪戈加西亚: 美军印度洋上不沉的 ‘航母'” [Diego Garcia: US Military’s Unsinkable ‘Aircraft Carrier’ in the Indian Ocean], 当代海军 [Navy Today], No. 7, 2016, pp. 52-55.

[3] 许可 [Xu Ke], “构建 ‘海上丝路’ 上的战略支点” [On the Establishment of Strategic Fulcrums for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road: A Reference of Diego Garcia Base for China], 亚太安全与海洋研究 [Asia-Pacific Security and Maritime Affairs], No. 5 2016, p. 13.

[4] 王滨 [Wang Bin], “护航行动海外保障点建设思考” [Thoughts on the Construction of Overseas Support Points for Escort Operations], 海军杂志 [Navy Magazine], No. 12, 2010, p. 2.

[5] Commander Wu Shengli’s original quote: “海外战略支点建设为护航行动提供了新支撑。我们必须充分发挥海外保障体系的支撑作用,以便在更大范围、更广领域遂行任务、塑造态势.” See: 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong], 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan], “海军召开亚丁湾护航8周年研讨会” [The Navy Holds a Seminar on the 8th Anniversary of the Gulf of Aden Escorts], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 30, 2016, p. 1.

[6] Xu Ke, p. 12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Xu Ke, p. 10.

[9] The original Chinese for the phrase describing China’s basing layout is “点线结合、控制咽喉、依托城市、重在长远.” See: 谌力, 汪丽, 韦政 [Chen Li, Wang Li, Wei Zheng], “新安全观视域下海外基地转型重塑的影响及启示” [The Impact and Lessons of the Transformation and Reconstruction of Overseas Military Bases Under the New Security Concept], 国防 [National Defense], No. 9, 2017, pp. 41-45.

[10] Original Chinese is “可以多点运筹, 但不宜全面开花; 适宜重点突破, 不能多线并进.” See: 胡欣 [Hu Xin], “中国的海外战略支点建设需要处理好五对关系” [China’s Construction of Overseas Strategic Strong Points Must Deal with Five Relationships], 世界知识 [World Affairs], No. 3, 2018, p. 74.

 
*PLA Navy Vice Admiral Tian Zhong reviews Chinese and Djiboutian troops at the PLA Navy support base in Djibouti, August 1, 2017. (Source: China Daily)

 

 
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