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Research Questions

  1. How are China's national interests evolving, and how do these changes drive China to seek overseas military access and basing?
  2. Which countries or regions is China most likely to pursue for overseas basing and access, and what types of operations may Chinese forces carry out at these overseas locations?
  3. What are the implications for the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the U.S. Army?

While China's growing economic power began reshaping the global economy in the 2000s and Beijing's foreign policy approach has increasingly sought to reshape the international order since the 2010s, the future role of China's rapidly improving military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), on the global stage remains unclear. However, General Secretary Xi Jinping's 2017 assertion that the PLA will transform into “world-class forces” by 2049 implies that China will seek to develop at least some level of global military power over the next three decades.

This study aims to understand where China might seek to gain basing and access for PLA forces abroad and what types of operations it might carry out there. The authors develop a framework to systematically assess valuable attributes from Beijing's perspective, focusing on the utility of potential host nations (desirability) and on China's ability to secure access (feasibility). They evaluate 108 countries across three priority regions — the Middle East, Africa, and the broader Indo-Pacific — and the respective U.S. combatant command areas of responsibility in which each country is located.

The authors match 17 framework indicators, focusing on the 2030–2040 time frame, to available quantitative and qualitative data to assess and rank potential host nations. They discuss implications and recommend strategies for the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Army to better understand China's plans for additional overseas basing and access and to prioritize risks to U.S. forces.

Key Findings

Expanding Chinese economic interests drive requirements for overseas military power

  • Beijing's primary motives for expanding PLA presence abroad are fundamentally based on achieving domestic priorities, such as economic growth, to sustain the regime's legitimacy and are, at most, only secondarily about competing with or imposing costs on the United States or any other country.

A mix of factors shapes China's pursuit of overseas basing or access

  • A growing body of literature by Chinese military analysts and academic researchers suggests potential criteria for overseas PLA locations and options to prioritize locations, such as military and economic utility.
  • China's pursuit of overseas basing and access is likely to diversify beyond the PLA Navy to encompass other services, as well as a wide array of forces and units.

The framework identifies 24 countries that may be especially well suited to China's pursuit of overseas basing and access

  • Four countries in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific scored in the top 25 percent of all countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
  • Among the 24 overall top-scorers, countries within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility appear to present especially compelling options and variety for PLA basing and access.
  • An additional 13 countries that scored relatively poorly in terms of feasibility may offer options for Beijing, depending on decisions made by those countries' leaders in the next two decades.

A growing overseas PLA presence is not a matter of if, but when

  • There are strong indications that Djibouti will not remain China's sole overseas military facility.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. government and DoD could adapt the framework to develop indications and warning for new overseas PLA locations. Such a framework might be used to inform U.S. diplomatic and other initiatives intended to deny China military access in key states, impose additional costs on China if its military expansion appears threatening, and slow its rate of advance.
  • The U.S. Army should prioritize countries of concern for Army organizations and forces. Building on the countries identified in the framework as priority host nations that China might pursue, the Army could assess the implications of China securing a base or long-term access by performing country- or facility-level risk assessments for specific mission sets that it currently conducts or may be called on to conduct in the future, during periods of both crisis and competition.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by U.S. Army Pacific and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program with the RAND Arroyo Center.

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