At Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, China is nearing completion of what U.S. officials suspect will be its first overseas military outpost in the Indo-Pacific region. This represents a major evolution in Beijing’s regional defense strategy. Beyond facilitating Chinese military adventurism in the South China Sea, the new base could provide the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) with a staging ground to monitor and influence vital maritime routes like the Malacca Strait, through which an estimated 40 percent of the world’s trade flows.
But the base also shines a light on Beijing’s broader embrace of an innovative strategy to challenge American military strength that has potentially grave implications for Washington and its allies.
China’s expanding military mission centers on establishing what it calls “strategic strong points” along China’s major trade, energy and resource routes, especially those that run from China through the Malacca Strait and into the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. China has plainly stated that these points are designed to “provide support for overseas military operations” and “exert political and military influence” abroad.
Open-source intelligence and imagery suggest that China is laying the groundwork for this network with completed or potential projects stretching from Djibouti in East Africa and Equatorial Guinea on Africa’s Atlantic coast to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
China’s defense strategy has historically been focused on defending Chinese territory closer to home. But as its military strength and overseas interests have grown, Beijing has pivoted toward deploying military assets further abroad. China remains at a great tactical disadvantage compared to the United States, which maintains a sprawling, expensive network of hundreds of military bases in more than 80 countries. But China now has the world’s largest navy. That, combined with its new approach — leaner and more cost-effective than the everywhere-at-once U.S. strategy — could chip away at America’s edge, giving Beijing the ability to strike military or other high-value targets during a conflict or neutralize America’s ability to redirect its forces to China’s immediate periphery should a conflict arise there.
In building this architecture, China is utilizing the groundwork already laid by its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative, first launched a decade ago and centered on revitalizing infrastructure at ports around the world with the goal of expanding Chinese economic and political power. Once-commercial projects are now being retrofitted with military assets.
Concerned U.S. policymakers need look no further than Djibouti — China’s first overseas “strategic strong point.” In 2015, China began work on a civilian multipurpose port in the east African country, located where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean. That port, near the U.S. military’s Camp Lemonnier, has since evolved into a heavily fortified base. According to intelligence platform Stratfor, it features more than 250,000 square feet of underground bunkers — a common P.L.A. technique for concealing artillery and other munitions from spy satellites.
Similar changes are afoot at the port of Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates, where a Chinese shipping conglomerate built and now operates a commercial container terminal. Biden administration officials believe China is building a covert military facility there — around 50 miles from a U.A.E. air base that hosts a major U.S. Air Force unit. In Pakistan, Beijing recently delivered two naval frigates to safeguard a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project that includes the Chinese-invested port of Gwadar, where China is believed to be considering establishing a naval presence.
China’s strategic strong points may result in new bases that could be advanced staging areas for its armed forces or platforms for spying on foreign militaries. In other cases it may reach access agreements with host countries that allow for refueling, repair, and short-term stopovers of Chinese military assets or personnel.
But tomorrow’s wars will involve more than ships and planes. They will include heavy cyber, electronic warfare and space components as well. Beijing is positioning itself for victory on this new frontier, too.
Nearly a decade ago, President Xi Jinping tasked the P.L.A. with establishing “a new military doctrine, institutions, equipment systems, strategies and tactics” to wage “information warfare.” China’s Strategic Support Force (S.S.F.) — a part of the military that oversees space, cyberspace, communications and psychological warfare — has been charged with putting this vision into operation. The S.S.F. now maintains a presence in four known outposts in Argentina, Pakistan, Kenya and Namibia that operate tracking and telemetry stations for China’s military space program. China also reportedly has a newly uncovered eavesdropping station in Cuba, and satellite imagery suggests it has built signals intelligence infrastructure on reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea.
Personnel at these and potentially other locations could, according to leaked U.S. intelligence reports, conduct operations to “deny, exploit or hijack” U.S. satellites. They could also carry out cyber and cognitive warfare against American or allied infrastructure — a core component of China’s strategy for undermining American military superiority, including spreading false information onto an adversary’s airwaves to degrade its decision-making.
These “strong points” could give China the ability to distract and overextend U.S. and allied forces in different operational theaters, while using Beijing’s closer military and economic ties with other countries to pressure them to limit U.S. base access. If China were to harness this overseas framework during a conflict over Taiwan, it could create a dilemma for American decision makers, forcing them to prioritize between defending the island and responding to Chinese diversionary actions elsewhere.
Yet as China has rolled out this far-reaching strategy over the past several years, the U.S. government has often seemed to be playing a reactive game of Whack-A-Mole. During my time in the U.S. government, I watched as Washington waited until Chinese access agreements were finalized or nearly completed in the U.A.E., Equatorial Guinea and the Solomon Islands before dispatching high-level delegations to brief those governments about the perceived risks of hosting a Chinese military facility.
Policymakers in Washington must come to grips with the strategic depth of China’s moves and craft a strategy for pre-emptively neutralizing them, including incentives or punishments to convince host governments to rebuff China’s military advances. A single, high-ranking official should be empowered to lead this effort.
For a start, U.S. policymakers should direct their attention to the tiny West African nation of Gabon. China and Gabon have developed substantial military ties in recent years. A base in Gabon or nearby Equatorial Guinea — already identified by the United States as a likely P.L.A. basing target — could enable China to project power into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.
Under the radar, Beijing is making moves that could reshape the global military landscape. America must stop playing catch-up, and devise a strategy for staying ahead of the game.
Craig Singleton (@craigmsingleton) is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously spent more than a decade serving in national security roles in the U.S. government, focused on East Asia.
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