Countering China’s Militarization of the Indo-Pacific


Two weeks ago, Australians were startled by media reports that China intended to establish a military base in Vanuatu. This small island nation sits less than 1,500 miles from Australia’s northeastern coast in an area of the Pacific long thought free from great power rivalry. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded to the news unambiguously, declaring that his country “would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbors of ours.” Just as it was a surprise for Australia to hear that the People’s Liberation Army was exploring military facilities in its strategic backyard, it was a surprise for India to learn about potential Chinese bases in Pakistan and it was a surprise for the United States to find Chinese companies offering to build casinos on the exact locations in Micronesia where the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps had been planning new facilities as part of the Pentagon’s rebalance strategy to the Asia-Pacific. Having broken Xi Jinping’s promise not to militarize Chinese man-made islands in the South China Sea and then gotten away with it, Beijing now appears poised to establish a string of bases and dual-use ports from Hainan to Djibouti. It is not too late for the maritime democracies of the “Quad” (the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) to act. First, however, they must recognize what is at stake.

China’s military penetration into the South Pacific would challenge one of the oldest and most fundamental tenets of Australian strategic doctrine, the exclusion of outside military powers from its island approaches. The federation of the Australian colonies in 1901 was motivated by “fear, national sentiment and self-interest,” as put by leading federalist Sir Robert Garran. For three decades prior to federation, Australians had watched nervously as the leading colonial empires moved to annex the remaining territories in Oceania and the Western Pacific. In 1883, the colonial Queensland government sought to annex the portion of Papua New Guinea that was not Dutch territory in order to forestall a feared German land grab. In May 1918, with World War I still raging in Europe (and almost exactly 100 years before Turnbull’s declaration), Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes visited the United States and proclaimed “an Australasian Monroe Doctrine” in the South Pacific. Hughes said

[T]he position of Australia is such that it is essential to its territorial integrity that it should either control these islands itself or that they should be in the hands of friendly and civilized nations. … To allow another nation to control them would be to allow it to control Australia.

Hughes pursued this doctrine trenchantly at the subsequent Paris peace conference, insisting that Australia retain control over New Guinea and clashing with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (who wanted former German colonies placed under League of Nations trusteeship). During World War II, Australian and American forces fought to uphold it at the Battle of the Coral Sea, at Kokoda, and in the subsequent campaign to push Japanese forces out of New Guinea. The echoes of Hughes’ declaration reverberate to the present. Australia’s current Defence White Paper states:

Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighborhood … becomes a source of threat to Australia. This includes the threat of a foreign military power seeking influence in ways that could challenge the security of our maritime approaches.

The Vanuatu government has denied discussions are under way with Beijing about establishing a military base, but China’s activities in the country fit a broader picture. The Chinese government provided a $54 million concessional loan for a Chinese company to build a 360-meter wharf at Luganville. The wharf is ostensibly to accommodate visiting cruise liners, but at some point in the future — under a different Vanuatu government — it could support large naval vessels. Commercial satellite imagery, provided by the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe, suggests there is room to expand the existing facility.

The same is true of Vanuatu’s main airfield, where the government of Vanuatu signed a contract with the Chinese state-owned enterprise, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, to expand Bauerfield International Airport, the main aviation gateway to Vanuatu. This airport has been in desperate need of rehabilitation, with the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation contracted to lengthen and widen the runway to handle long-haul commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A330 (but potentially also large military aircraft). Already Vanuatu’s external debt amounts to approximately one third of its GDP, with around half of that owed to China – giving Beijing economic leverage and risking future debt entrapment. This is the fate that recently befell Sri Lanka when it lost control of the port of Hambantota to Chinese government-controlled interests as a result of inability to service debts. Hambantota is strategically located to support not only Chinese trade but increasing deployments of Chinese naval vessels in the Indian Ocean. In a nice piece of historical irony, Sri Lanka was compelled to grant a 99-year lease to China, evocative of the 99-year lease China was forced to give the British Empire for Hong Kong in the 19th century.

One of the hallmarks of Xi’s high-profile Maritime Silk Road initiative is the development of extensive maritime infrastructure in Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and around the Indian Ocean littoral. This network of facilities has a genuine commercial dimension in supporting China’s large merchant fleet, as Beijing seeks to build a web of economic connections linking China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. But much of it could also be used to support increasing power-projection operations in the region by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy. The United States and its regional allies and partners need to pay attention and develop a more coherent and effective response.

Chinese military forces are consolidating their formidable access denial capabilities in their “near seas,” within the first island chain from Japan through the Philippines to Malacca and the other vital maritime chokepoints between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As this happens, China is investing more in the long-range power projection capabilities needed for what the People’s Liberation Army calls “open seas protection.” This includes surface combatants and support vessels, nuclear-powered attack submarines, and aircraft carriers. China already has almost 100 vessels capable of deploying well into the Indian Ocean. There is no sign its naval shipbuilding program is about to slow down.

Supporting those far-flung deployments will require a network of facilities, and China is well on its way to building this network. Beijing’s efforts on this front are at their most advanced in Djibouti, where China has established its first formal overseas military base — conspicuously adjacent to the U.S. military facility that supports operations in the Horn of Africa. There is strong evidence that the People’s Liberation Army is violating its status of forces agreement with Djibouti by conducting live fire exercises on the base. Moreover, neighboring U.S., Japanese, and other bases depend on infrastructure currently operated by Dubai World Ports, but there are rumors in the market that Chinese firms are preparing to buy these commercial concessions. In addition to Djibouti in East Africa and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, China is constructing major port facilities at Gwadar in Pakistan, has a substantial stake in the deep water Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar, and is seeking to negotiate access agreements around the region.

The facilities at Hambantota, Gwadar, and Kyaukpyu are not yet being used by the People’s Liberation Army. But Beijing’s militarization of its man-made South China Sea facilities — including, most recently, the deployment of radar jamming equipment, as well as the sudden prospect of a base in Vanuatu — demonstrate how quickly dual-use infrastructure could be turned to military logistical support. The vulnerability of countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Vanuatu to Chinese debt traps associated with these infrastructure projects was recently highlighted by International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde and suggests how easily Beijing might tighten the financial screws to obtain strategic access.

To be clear, China has legitimate interests in sea-lane security, counter-piracy operations, and non-combatant evacuation operations that would require logistical support. Nor would a string of Chinese military bases pose a major problem for the United States and its allies in the event of a major regional conflict. Chinese vessels operating nearer to its coastline enjoy the protection of land-based airpower, but the People’s Liberation Army-Navy is operating on exterior lines in the Indian Ocean and will continue to lack adequate organic air power for some time to come.

In situations short of military conflict, however, China will be able to exploit the network of military and dual-use facilities it is establishing to support an enhanced military presence and shape the Indo-Pacific maritime security environment in ways that are deleterious to U.S. and allied interests. It will be better positioned to collect intelligence and to influence — and potentially coerce — host governments. It could also gain the ability to block or complicate U.S. military access in a crisis and to severely disrupt the logistics that are vital to American power projection. The result would be to reduce Washington’s capacity to deter threats and reassure allies, and hence to maintain regional stability.

China’s activities in Djibouti merit particular scrutiny in this regard, since a more significant Chinese military presence there would complicate the ability of the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet to swing across the Indian Ocean in support of U.S. Pacific Command in a contingency in the Western Pacific. U.S. access to the strategically located base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean could also come under jeopardy. The United States leases the facility from the United Kingdom, which recently extended the lease to 2036. But British possession of the territory is contested by Mauritius, and Chinese influence operations could seek to exploit pressure for “decolonization.” The return of Diego Garcia to Mauritius may resonate with someone like Jeremy Corbyn at the helm at 10 Downing Street.

Beijing may not yet be positioned to dominate the Indian Ocean or South Pacific, but a strategy of denial backed by infrastructure spending, debt traps, and expanded Chinese naval and air force presence would be enormously advantageous to its strategy of control over the first island chain and the East and South China Seas.

Whilst China’s maritime infrastructure play across the Indo-Pacific could present a major challenge to American and allied interests in the region, this is far from a foregone conclusion. The United States continues to enjoy what Secretary of State Dean Acheson called “situations of strength” in the Indo-Pacific and can join with allies and partners to build on these strengths. Turnbull’s firm stand against a permanent Chinese military presence in the South Pacific shows the way. The return of the Quad security dialogue in 2017, after a ten-year hiatus, presents a useful framework to begin pushing back against any Chinese efforts at coercive or subversive establishment of military infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific. Together, these maritime democracies can take the lead with seven lines of effort:

First, they should spotlight and push back against Chinese military facility construction that is aimed at disrupting longstanding allied and partner access arrangements in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean. Parallel to this, these four countries can offer expanded support for civil society-building, transparency, and accountability in littoral states participating in China’s Maritime Silk Road to ensure greater attention to anti-corruption, labor and the environment.

Second, members of the Quad should develop a more attractive alternative to the Maritime Silk Road through the Asia Development Bank, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation and other institutions committed to quality infrastructure projects that have better economic impact and lower life-cycle costs.

Third, it is important to continue U.S., Australian, Japanese, and New Zealand diplomatic and economic support for South Pacific states. The U.S. Congress and the Trump administration recently took a positive step in this direction by providing $124 million towards funding the Palau Compact Agreement in the 2017 defense bill. Under the 2010 agreement, the United States commits to providing financial assistance to Palau until 2024, in return for which U.S. Pacific Command continues to enjoy unchallenged access to the archipelago’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Fourth, it is time to step up Quad-centered maritime presence and military capability-building in the Indian Ocean. Two cost-effective ways to do this would be to increase interoperability through an expanded Malabar exercise series and to establish a rotational presence of U.S. surface combatant vessels at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia (and consider the possibility of investing in the nuclear support infrastructure necessary for basing of attack submarines as well).

Fifth, the United States, Japan, and Australia should work with India to build greater maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean, including by building up and networking the capacity of littoral countries.

Sixth, members of the Quad should establish a combined joint task force for low-intensity operations such as counter-piracy and humanitarian and disaster relief for the Indo-Pacific that would be inclusive of all regional navies and would establish clearer norms and communication with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and Chinese Coast Guard.

Finally, it is important that all members of the Quad encourage Beijing to make the Belt and Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road converge with established international practices designed to ensure transparency and accountability. Pressure from Australia and other members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank established by China helped to move the new institution closer to the norms associated with the World Bank and Asia Development Bank.

These steps will be important if the United States and other maritime allies and partners want to avoid a situation where Beijing suddenly flips a switch to turn its string of infrastructure projects into a new military reality that upturns longstanding assumptions about the Indo-Pacific region remaining free and open.


Michael J. Green is Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. Andrew Shearer is Senior Adviser on Asia Pacific Security and Director of the Alliances and American Leadership Project at CSIS.

Image: Photo by Phillip Capper from Wellington, New ZealandCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons