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Predictions in a new report from AidData suggest the People’s Liberation Army will undergo a major expansion under Chinese President Xi Jinping

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This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows a new jetty being built at the Ream Naval Base, in Cambodia, on June 23.Planet Labs PBC/The Associated Press

In June of last year, to the sounds of a brass band and under the flags of Cambodia and China, military officials from both countries broke ground on an expansion to a naval base in Ream, a port town on the Gulf of Thailand, about 175 kilometres from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

While China and Cambodia said the new facilities would be used for joint exercises, U.S. officials claimed the project was cover for an expansion of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) overseas footprint. It will see China’s navy get exclusive access to the port and a foothold in the western reaches of the South China Sea, almost all of which China claims as its territory.

If true, Ream would be China’s second overseas military base, along with a naval facility in Djibouti, a tiny country on the Horn of Africa, bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. And according to U.S. intelligence and Western military analysts, it’s unlikely to be the last, with the PLA undergoing a major expansion under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who wants to project China’s power around the world, challenging the United States, which also has a base in Djibouti and has previously funded operations at the Ream facility.

A new report from AidData, a research lab at William and Mary University, seeks to predict where future PLA expansion might take place. It draws on a variety of data, including Chinese funding and financing of port operations around the world, strategic objectives in various regions and Beijing’s relations with potential host countries.

Potential future sites for overseas Chinese military bases

According to research by AidData and leaked U.S. intelligence

Future site, according to U.S. intelligence

Future site, according to AidData

Operational

10

1

8

2

12

5

9

11

3

6

4

7

Future sites, according to both AidData and U.S. intelligence

10

8

9

11

12

13

1

Nouakchott, Mauritania

2

Kribi, Cameroon

3

Bata, Equatorial Guinea

4

Gabon

5

Djibouti

6

Tanzania

7

Nacala, Mozambique

8

Abu Dhabi, UAE*

9

Gwadar, Pakistan

10

Tajikistan

12

Ream, Cambodia**

11

Hambantota, Sri Lanka

13

Vanuatu

*Reports of construction under way in early 2023.

**Ground broken on Chinese expansion to naval base in June, 2022.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: AIDDATA, JULY 2023; LEAKED TOP SECRET U.S. INTELLIGENCE REPORT, MAY 2023

Potential future sites for overseas Chinese military bases

According to research by AidData and leaked U.S. intelligence

Future site, according to U.S. intelligence

Future site, according to AidData

Operational

10

1

8

2

12

5

9

11

3

6

4

7

Future sites, according to both AidData and U.S. intelligence

10

8

9

11

12

13

1

Nouakchott, Mauritania

2

Kribi, Cameroon

3

Bata, Equatorial Guinea

4

Gabon

5

Djibouti

6

Tanzania

7

Nacala, Mozambique

8

Abu Dhabi, UAE*

9

Gwadar, Pakistan

10

Tajikistan

12

Ream, Cambodia**

11

Hambantota, Sri Lanka

13

Vanuatu

*Reports of construction under way in early 2023.

**Ground broken on Chinese expansion to naval base in June, 2022.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: AIDDATA, JULY 2023; LEAKED TOP SECRET U.S. INTELLIGENCE REPORT, MAY 2023

Potential future sites for overseas Chinese military bases

According to research by AidData and leaked U.S. intelligence

Operational

Future site, according to AidData

Future site, according to U.S. intelligence

10

8

10

9

1

11

8

12

2

12

13

5

9

3

11

6

4

7

Future sites, according to both AidData and U.S. intelligence

1

Nouakchott, Mauritania

5

Djibouti

9

Gwadar, Pakistan

13

Vanuatu

2

Kribi, Cameroon

6

Tanzania

10

Tajikistan

*Reports of construction under way in early 2023.

**Ground broken on Chinese expansion to naval base in June, 2022.

3

Bata, Equatorial Guinea

7

Nacala, Mozambique

11

Hambantota, Sri Lanka

4

Gabon

8

Abu Dhabi, UAE*

12

Ream, Cambodia**

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: AIDDATA, JULY 2023; LEAKED TOP SECRET U.S. INTELLIGENCE REPORT, MAY 2023

“There has been widespread speculation abroad and, more importantly, hints dropped by those within the Chinese government and military itself, that more overseas supply facilities will be coming,” said Alex Wooley, one of the report’s authors. “China has been short on specifics in its rhetoric and remarkably restrained in practice. In our report we try to look at this from Beijing’s perspective – what are the best options for an ambitious navy and foreign policy that has not done this before. We take a data-first approach, looking at where the money for ports has already gone, bearing in mind that the entities constructing or expanding these overseas ports are not far removed from the central government in Beijing.”

As well as Ream – where recent satellite imagery shows continuing construction of facilities – AidData identified seven other potential sites for PLA naval bases. In Asia-Pacific these include Sri Lanka, where Chinese entities already have a 99-year lease to Hambantota Port; Gwadar in Pakistan, one of Beijing’s closest allies; and the tiny island nation of Vanuatu. Further afield, the researchers also identified four sites in Africa: Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Mauritania in the west and Mozambique, on the Indian Ocean, in the southeast.

AidData’s predictions overlap somewhat with those of U.S. intelligence. According to a slide leaked in April by Massachusetts Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira and originally published by The Washington Post, the U.S. has identified some two dozen countries where there has been “confirmed PRC interest since 2014.” (PRC is an abbreviation of the People’s Republic of China.)

Titled “PRC Making Uneven Progress on Overseas Basing Efforts,” the slide claims China “seeks to establish at least 5 overseas bases and 10 logistic support sites by 2030 to fulfill Beijing’s national security objectives, including protecting its economic interests abroad.”

Key countries of interest, according to U.S. intelligence, include three of those identified by AidData: Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique and Cambodia. The slide also notes renewed activity at a site in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which previously said it had halted Chinese construction projects at a port there after U.S. officials said they might be used for military purposes.

UAE officials refused to comment on the leaked materials when they were first disclosed. A spokesman for China’s embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said Beijing “conducts normal law enforcement and security co-operation with other countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOOGLE EARTH; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; SKYSAT/SKYWATCH

“The U.S. runs more than 800 overseas military bases, which has caused concern by many countries around the world,” he said in April. “It is in no position to criticize other countries.”

Since the early 2000s, researchers and military analysts in the West have predicted that China would increase its overseas footprint as it expanded and modernized the PLA. One theory, known as the “String of Pearls,” sees Beijing setting up bases or friendly ports from the Chinese mainland to the Horn of Africa, giving the PLA a presence around several key maritime choke points.

In a 2020 report to the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon said China was “seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances.” It identified 15 countries under consideration, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Vanuatu.

Beijing has consistently denied it has any such ambitions, however, and some experts have also cast doubt on these predictions, arguing the purported expansion plans do not align with China’s stated or perceived security objectives.

“It’s an open question as to whether China has these types of global aspirations,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defence official and current senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “If you look at the Communist Party’s perception of risk and threats, they’re quite broad but they’re also focused on the party’s political security and domestic stability, not on extending China’s footprint throughout the globe.”

It is “just not clear to me why they would need a military presence in Sri Lanka or Mozambique or Gambia or other countries where China has made tremendous diplomatic inroads,” Mr. Thompson said.

“There needs to be a political rationale for basing, not just opportunistic approaches where a favourable government has real estate for lease that China can acquire,” he added. “These deployments are expensive, they potentially put PLA assets at risk of being overextended, isolated or embroiled in domestic conflicts they have no interest in.”

While skeptical of the broader claims about Chinese intentions, Mr. Thompson said he understood why there was growing global concern, given Beijing’s lack of transparency and failure to honour certain pledges, such as Mr. Xi’s remarks, alongside U.S. president Barack Obama in 2015, that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of territories in the South China Sea – territories that today host airstrips and weapons platforms.

This lack of trust has seen the U.S. and its allies try to pre-empt any potential Chinese military expansion, such as pushing back against Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific, which may have stymied any plans for bases there, said Mr. Wooley, the AidData researcher.

“The Pacific, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere were largely ignored” in the past two decades while Western attention was focused on the Middle East, he said. “Now the West, especially the U.S., is diving into their tool boxes – defence, diplomacy, aid, trade, influence – to try and counter or leapfrog gains China has made, especially in the Pacific and Indian oceans.”

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