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Ignore the Threat Inflation About Chinese Overseas Bases
What we are seeing is a desperate effort by China hawks to exaggerate the problem in order to sell the public on an even more aggressive anti-Chinese policy.
Craig Singleton indulges in some old-fashioned threat inflation about Chinese ambitions for building overseas bases, and then says this:
Policymakers in Washington must come to grips with the strategic depth of China’s moves and devise a strategy for pre-emptively neutralizing them, including incentives or punishments to persuade host governments to rebuff China’s military advances [bold mine-DL]. A single, high-ranking official should be empowered to lead this effort.
The important thing to keep in mind about the fearmongering over China’s “far-reaching strategy” is that it is almost entirely based on speculation. There are efforts underway to build up the naval base at Ream in Cambodia, and it seems that the PLAN may be making use of part of the base, but as many analysts have noted in the past this doesn’t give the Chinese military many benefits that it doesn’t already have. Sebastian Strangio has written extensively on Cambodian history and politics, and he said this about the base last year:
It is also unclear how much military benefit China would derive from a possible military presence there; the 0.3 square-kilometer facility is not exactly Subic Bay. As John Bradford of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies wrote in February, “these facilities will offer few new operational advantages for the Chinese.”
We shouldn’t ignore that the Cambodian government has its own security reasons for expanding this base, and this shouldn’t be seen primarily in terms of Chinese -ambitions or U.S.-China rivalry. As Kathrin Reed put it in her article last month, “Cambodia’s maritime security and economic interests need to be taken into account in the debate over Chinese involvement at Ream. It should serve as a reminder that the actions of small states should not be reduced to their relationships with great powers.” Great power rivalry tends to make policymakers and analysts in Washington forget that smaller nations are independent actors and not just pawns in a game with the rival.
To the extent that the base expansion in Cambodia involves China, this isn’t being repeated anywhere else. Despite rumors about potential Chinese bases in different parts of the world, there is no evidence that anything like this is happening in Equatorial Guinea or the Solomon Islands. If China is gaining access to an additional overseas base, that would bring their grand total to two. This is not proof of a “far-reaching strategy” to project power to distant shores.
Unfortunately, the Times chose to give this absurd threat inflation a prominent platform, and because of that many of their readers will come away with the false impression that China is aggressively seeking and successfully acquiring bases all over the globe. This is presented as a dangerous menace that must be thwarted at every turn, and it is used to justify heavy-handed tactics to bribe and intimidate smaller states to compel them to do what the U.S. wants. Giving fearmongering hawks a loudspeaker to broadcast their propaganda is a disservice to the public and the country, and the Times should be—but won’t be—embarrassed.
Even if China were in the process of acquiring two or three more overseas bases, this would not be worth panicking over and it wouldn’t be a good reason to start bullying and buying off other governments. A few Chinese overseas bases wouldn’t “reshape the global military landscape” if China had them, but they don’t have them and they seem unlikely to get them anytime soon. The U.S. is always saying that every state is entitled to make its own security and foreign policy arrangements, but the moment that a smaller state makes the “wrong” choice the U.S. targets it for punishment. This is both hypocritical and obnoxious, and it should stop.
What we are seeing is a desperate effort by China hawks to exaggerate the problem in order to sell the public on an even more aggressive anti-Chinese policy to “counter” Beijing in every corner of the globe. As Singleton says, this effort will involve “pre-emptively neutralizing” Chinese moves, so it means that the U.S. would start bullying potential Chinese partners before China even expresses an interest in basing rights. If China starting doing this to its neighbors to block U.S. base access, the same people calling for these measures would denounce it as proof of their malevolent and aggressive designs.
We should ignore the threat inflation about Chinese overseas bases. If China ever does acquire a handful of bases around the world, the threat that would pose to the U.S. is negligible at most. Our government should treat the prospect of new Chinese bases accordingly. U.S.-Chinese relations are already tense enough without looking for new excuses to make them worse.
Update: Ben Friedman of Defense Priorities says that Singleton’s article and the map attached to it are “basically misinformation.” As he notes, the “FDD map is mostly speculation or Chinese facilities that aren't military bases, made to look like a budding empire.”