Cover: Implications of a Global People's Liberation Army

Implications of a Global People's Liberation Army

Historical Lessons for Responding to China's Long-Term Global Basing Ambitions

Published Dec 8, 2022

by Stephen Watts, Scott Boston, Pauline Moore, Cristina L. Garafola

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Research Questions

  1. Why do major powers seek overseas bases, and what do they do with them?
  2. How do countries obtain and lose basing rights?
  3. What can the United States do about competitors' overseas bases?

Overseas military access and basing is a critical component of China's global military ambitions. With the opening of its first overseas military facility in Djibouti in 2017, China appeared to take a major step toward global power projection. The strategic implications of such access and basing outside of China's immediate periphery are hotly debated.

In this report, the authors look to the past to help anticipate what Chinese overseas access and basing might look like in the 2030s. They focus on three case studies of overseas military access and basing among the United States' competitors — French bases in francophone Africa during De Gaulle's presidency, Soviet bases ringing the Mediterranean and Red Seas region under Brezhnev, and Russian bases in Syria during the ongoing Syrian civil war — to understand how major powers have conceived of and used strategic basing in the past.

France, the Soviet Union, and Russia — together with the United States (also examined) — have had the largest networks of overseas military bases in the post–World War II period. These cases represent a range of competitive behaviors, reflecting the uncertainty of Chinese behavior ten to 20 years in the future. Drawing on a combined examination of case studies and a literature review of U.S. basing experiences, the authors assess the potential risks posed by Chinese military expansion and recommend principles for the U.S. government, U.S. Department of Defense, and U.S. Army to adopt now to help shape the environment in which Chinese ambitions for global military presence will unfold.

Key Findings

For a country that seeks to compete against the United States, bases provide some level of military potential that likely could not be realized through lesser forms of access

  • Basing states often perceive their motivations for power projection as primarily defensive.
  • Bases help support larger steady-state presence, more rapid crisis deployments, and larger major military operations.
  • Basing states use bases in part as learning or training mechanisms.

Basing rights founded on host nations' insecurity alone appear to be precarious

  • Basing rights are usually a product of war or extreme insecurity.
  • Basing rights provided for economic profit are the exception, and the host nations often take measures to protect their sovereignty.
  • Overseas bases can entrap the basing state in local conflicts.

Many of the military risks that China's pursuit of overseas military access and basing poses to the United States may be indirect ones

  • The United States has limited ability to block competitors' military access under ordinary conditions.
  • As the perceived threat posed by competitors' military presence grows, so too do opportunities for U.S. diplomacy.
  • One of the most common tools for opposing competitor access is security cooperation, but overreliance on it can be dangerous in unstable regions.
  • The most stressing military requirements that emerge from competitor overseas bases may not be large-scale combat operations against the peer competitor but rather regional shifts in balances of power — changes that can provoke wars and draw in outside powers, including the United States.

Recommendations

Recommendations for the U.S. government

  • Carefully prioritize where to resist Chinese access and basing and where to reinforce U.S. relationships, considering the extent of U.S. interests, the depth of the U.S. relationship with a given partner, and the potential for destabilization.
  • Resist overly militarizing efforts to prevent Chinese access and basing.
  • Emphasize themes of sovereignty or broken Chinese promises in public messaging.
  • Undertake initiatives to reduce potential host nations' dependence on China.

Recommendations for the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Army

  • Retain forward posture in key regions.
  • Conduct risk assessments for U.S. military activities in affected regions.
  • Consider the risks of a growing PLA military presence when planning security cooperation.
  • Take appropriate measures to increase U.S. ability to respond rapidly to crises.
  • Maintain or expand the military expertise necessary to react to wider PLA operations.
  • Retain U.S. military capabilities for lower-intensity conflict.

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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