China, with its world’s largest naval fleet, is expanding its naval capabilities beyond its shores, signaling its blue-water ambitions. It has launched various types of warships, including destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and aircraft carriers, capable of operating in the open ocean and projecting power far from home. To support these capabilities, China is seeking port access for refueling and replenishing provisions. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) reports that China is helping to build a naval base in Cambodia and exploring other potential locations, including Africa’s Atlantic coast. Additionally, China has military facilities in Argentina and Cuba that serve surveillance and communication interception purposes.
China has one operational overseas naval base in Djibouti, which it claims supports anti-piracy and humanitarian missions. However, FDD’s analysis of satellite imagery suggests that China is developing the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia to accommodate blue-water ships. Despite China’s denial of establishing military outposts, FDD believes that its expanding global footprint poses risks to the United States and its allies.
China’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have not yet commented on these findings. The Ream Naval Base project in Cambodia has been described as military cooperation and aid to strengthen Cambodia’s navy, in line with the country’s constitution that prohibits foreign military bases on its territory. However, the similarities between the Ream and Djibouti bases, as observed in satellite imagery, raise concerns that China is repeating its pattern of denials followed by the actual establishment of military footholds.
China’s military operations have often contradicted its official statements. For instance, China promised not to militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea but now uses them to support its territorial claims. As China’s rivalry with the US intensifies, it seeks to break free from what it perceives as US encirclement and assert its military might abroad.
China’s expanding maritime commercial operations and its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative have allowed it to gain influence in ports around the world. Some of these ports could potentially host future military bases. A study by AidData identifies several port locations, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Bata in Equatorial Guinea, Gwadar in Pakistan, Kribi in Cameroon, Vanuatu in the South Pacific, Nacala in Mozambique, and Nouakchott in Mauritania, as favorable for future naval bases. Equatorial Guinea, particularly Bata, has drawn attention from US military leaders, but there are indications that China may be shifting its focus to Gabon instead.
China’s growing global clout and its maritime capabilities reflect its desire to project power and influence beyond its shores. As China continues its military expansion, it poses risks to the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region and other operational theaters.