China is developing a widening network of strategic ‘bases’ that further heightens the challenge it poses to the United States, a former U.S. naval chief told a conference Tuesday.
Beijing has already sought to secure access and rights in strategic countries to boost its influence and support its naval forces as it deploys them further out for patrols in the Indian Ocean or anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa. These include ports in Oman, Pakistan and Djibouti.
But Admiral Gary Roughead, the former Chief of Naval Operations, told a two-day conference at the Center for Naval Analyses that Beijing may be looking to expand its network of distributed, critical outposts across regions for various functions including projecting power, establishing necessary supporting infrastructure and gathering intelligence. New nodes, Roughead said, may include Greece to establish a foothold in the energy-rich Eastern Meditteranean and even Iran which already has a burgeoning maritime partnership with Beijing.
“We are beginning to see the Chinese version of ‘places not bases’,” Roughead said in his keynote address, using the term U.S. officials use to distinguish between older, tighter agreements it had with allies like Japan to permanently station forces there and looser pacts offering temporary and limited access to facilities as with Singapore.
Apart from Greece and Iran, Roughead said that further nodes could be developed as well, especially if they are “synchronized” with China’s ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative which seeks to boost connectivity and cooperation primarily with countries in Eurasia. However, he stressed that this network would be stitched together with a “light touch” and be “distributed,” quite apart from the more alarmist ‘string of pearls’ interpretations that continue to persist.
He also urged to think of China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea in a similar way, with Beijing looking to use its artificial islands to build maritime infrastructure, enhance its power projection capabilities, and establish information nodes to improve its surveillance of the region.
The confluence of Chinese economic initiatives and its ongoing military buildup, he said, made Beijing the most consequential strategic challenge facing the United States today, in spite of the fact that many in the United States may now perceive greater threats from the Islamic State or Russia.
Roughead said he was not yet worried about the United States being outmatched militarily since it had a significant qualitative advantage in spite of Chinese quantitative advances, ensuring that Washington would be “in a good place” for at least the next decade. But he acknowledged that those rising Chinese numbers would matter over time. In particular, if Beijing continues increasing its out of area missions and boosting key capabilities – including submarines – Roughead said the United States would need to make adjustments to ensure it maintains its relative position.
“Numbers will continue to matter, and presence will be the driver,” he said.
In terms of capabilities, he encouraged the United States to continue with ongoing to shift more resources from the Atlantic to Pacific, including at least another aircraft carrier and an additional amphibious ready group to help support Southeast Asia. He also emphasized the need to invest in key areas like cyber and never relinquish American dominance in the undersea domain.
Beyond what Washington could do itself, he stressed the need for more engagement with traditional U.S. allies like Japan and Australia but also emerging partners like Vietnam and India. He also joined the chorus of former U.S. officials in underscoring the importance of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, noting that the U.S. stock in the region would be “significantly less” if it is not concluded.
“Our China strategy needs to be more about our allies and partners instead of about China,” Roughead said.
More broadly, he called for the United States to extend its strategic thinking from shorter stints out to the end of the next U.S. administration in 2024. He said this would make more sense since it would be much more in line with potential leadership transitions in the region, with Xi Jinping’s leadership ending in 2022 and key U.S. partners Prime Ministers Abe and Modi potentially lasting up till then as well.
“My bottom line here is that we need to put away the calendars,” Roughead said.
Despite his concerns about China’s behavior, Roughead also did say that the United States ought to seek cooperation with Beijing where possible. He urged Washington to seize opportunities to work with the Chinese navy in the far seas where possible and to continue to try to make progress in the cyber domain despite existing differences.
Beyond that, he also stressed that the United States needs to get to know the new generation of China’s military leaders that they would be dealing with over the next few years.
“There is a new generation of…leadership and we need to get to know them,” he said.