China: An aspiring global navy

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FORECAST

The Chinese navy will continue to increase its forays and deployments around the globe.

Beijing will put considerable effort into establishing a capable and expansive logistics network to support its increasingly global operations.

Nevertheless, given limited onshore options, China will rely heavily on supply ships to replenish its warships while at sea.


ON Nov. 26, Beijing announced its plans to establish its first overseas naval installation in the small nation of Djibouti, a strategic location on the Horn of Africa about 7,700 kilometers (4,800 miles) from China. China is growing into its role as a great power and is setting the stage for more active involvement by its military to defend Beijing’s interests abroad. To that end, China will continue to work toward establishing a capable and expansive logistics network to support its increasingly global operations.

More ships, more need
Establishing resupply and logistics points abroad is a vital component of China’s attempts to expand its global reach. China already maintains a constant naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden as part of its contribution to the UN anti-piracy mission, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry says is its primary motivation for setting up the new naval installation. Since the UN mission began in December 2008, Chinese ships have docked in Djibouti more than 50 times. The new base will provide a more comprehensive resupply point for the constant stream of warships traveling back and forth from China.

However, China’s interests and involvement abroad extend far beyond its anti-piracy efforts. For instance, the new installation could be a crucial link in its logistics chain supporting UN peacekeeping operations in Africa as well as any future Chinese interventions on the African continent. The installation in Djibouti, likely to be located at Obock on the country’s northern coast, may also extend China’s reach further into the Indian Ocean, and China could stage maritime patrol aircraft there. Indeed, Djibouti has already proved critical to Beijing. When China staged a rescue operation to remove its citizens and others from the conflict in Yemen in April, Chinese personnel took the evacuees to Djibouti. Other significant powers, including the United States, France and Japan, also maintain a presence in the country.

China has traditionally downplayed the military aspect of its presence in foreign ports. Activity has typically focused on infrastructure development and trade. Frequent visits by Chinese naval vessels are portrayed as just that: visits, rather than the establishment of a logistics support network that already spans the Indian Ocean. But as the Chinese increasingly deploy their ships abroad, Beijing is slowly becoming more willing to recognize and publicly acknowledge the military component of its overseas moves. This is well demonstrated by the latest Chinese defense white paper, which lays out how the Chinese military will manage its growing international role.

As the Chinese stage more naval forays, they will need more established logistics bases rather than ports of call. Logistics bases with a strong Chinese shore presence allow for more maintenance, potential munitions and spare parts storage, crew rest facilities and aviation facilities. The Djibouti base will likely fall within this category, giving the Chinese navy broader logistics capabilities.

Though Djibouti is emerging as a major logistics hub for China, Beijing has also been paying particular attention to other ports, especially around the Indian Ocean Basin. For instance, Chinese warships have often docked and resupplied at Colombo in Sri Lanka, Gwadar and Karachi in Pakistan, Salalah in Oman, Aden in Yemen and the Seychelles. The Chinese are also exploring the possibility of widening their logistics options to include other ports, such as Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, Bagamoyo in Tanzania and Walvis Bay in Namibia. Replicating their success in Djibouti by setting up more comprehensive logistics hubs in these areas will not be easy, though. Adverse security conditions in Aden and Gwadar, crowding in Karachi and political obstacles in Colombo and other ports may make it more difficult for Beijing to establish more extensive logistics nodes in the region.

Beyond the Indo-Pacific area, China has significantly ramped up its global naval forays over the past few years. Chinese fleets have visited the United States as well as European, African and Latin American countries. They have traversed the Suez and Panama canals, rounded Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, and plowed through the Black, North and Bering seas. As China enhances the pace and scope of its long-endurance naval missions, reliable logistics points will become more important to sustaining its expeditions.

Underway logistics
Even as China works to bolster its access to logistics nodes around the world, it will continue to rely heavily on underway replenishment vessels, or supply ships, to replenish its warships while at sea. Chinese warships, especially those on long voyages over the high seas, will require continuous resupply at times when they are far from shore or do not have access to a friendly and reliable resupply port in the area. The Chinese, in fact, already have considerable experience with the use of these supply vessels, which routinely accompany their naval forays.

As Stratfor explained last year, the Chinese are already investing heavily in expanding their underway logistics capabilities. This year, Beijing has launched two additional Type 903A replenishment ships and has started construction on a new type of underway replenishment vessel, the Type 901, at Guangzhou Shipyard International’s Longxue shipyard. With its reported 45,000-ton displacement, the Chinese Type 901 could very well be the largest vessel of its kind in the world.

Relative to the global maritime reach of the United States, China is still very much in the early stages of building up its maritime logistics network. Though the Chinese navy already deploys the second-largest underway replenishment fleet in the world, Chinese warships lack the US Navy’s access to a vast number of friendly ports with considerable replenishment and maintenance capabilities. These logistics points greatly enhance both US peaceful and wartime operations. As the Chinese grow into their great power status and seek to protect their interests across the globe, they, too, will look to build up both their underway replenishment fleet and their logistics port network.

(STRATFOR Lead Analyst: Omar Lamrani)– © 2015, STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE

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