When the Chinese government took the unusual step last week of issuing a statement to deny claims made by Pakistani officials about the country's possible involvement in a naval base project, it reignited a long-running and heated debate among Chinese strategists.
A growing number of voices in the military have in recent years called for China to take on a more assertive role, particularly by establishing overseas bases. But analysts say the government has, for now, all but ruled out any such endeavours, wary of rising concerns among its neighbours — a factor, according to them, behind last week's denial.
The anxieties have been voiced particularly by India, with Chinese commercial involvement in port projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar being seen by some as an indication of intent to set up naval facilities to “encircle” India.
Some analysts, however, say such a possibility is far-fetched, with China's naval capabilities far from adequate to set up effective bases in these countries.
“China follows a principle that it will not build any overseas bases,” Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told The Hindu. “This principle remains unchanged.”
Mr. Zhao said this position was confirmed when China denied having reached any agreement with Pakistan to take over operations at the Gwadar port, after Pakistani officials claimed China had “acceded” to its requests following Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's visit to Beijing last month.
Ashley Townshend, an expert on international security and the Chinese military at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, says the statement on Gwadar shows “Beijing has no interest in antagonising the United States” and other countries, as “signing up to navy-base-building in Pakistan would be a sure way to increase anxiety in Washington and New Delhi”.
Mr. Townshend says the “string of pearls” hypothesis on China's intention to set up bases in the Indian Ocean is questionable. China does not have exclusive access to any of the port projects it is involved in on a purely commercial basis. “To militarise the Indian Ocean facilities, Beijing would require local air defence capabilities, munitions storage units, mine-clearing assets and a permanent military footprint. These costly renovations would probably exceed the technical, logistical and expeditionary capabilities of the Chinese military for a decade or more,” he wrote in a recent article.
In China, however, more assertive voices are calling for the government to not rule out any such initiative. “Setting up overseas military bases is not an idea we have to shun; on the contrary, it is our right. Bases established by other countries appear to be used to protect their overseas rights and interests,” wrote Shen Dingli, an influential strategist at Shanghai's Fudan University, in an article last year.
Last week, the state-run Global Times newspaper left the debate open-ended. “Beijing recently denied a rumour,” it wrote in an editorial, “But this doesn't stop some of the Western countries and India, China's regional competitor, playing with the so-called China threat theory.”
“However, if China is going to play an important role in the Asia-Pacific region and on the international stage, as urged by the international community, it eventually will need to establish overseas military bases in cooperation with other countries.”
Mr. Zhao said China's concerns were more about energy security, with “a large part of China's exports of goods and imports of energy resources” passing through the Indian Ocean. He said there was a need for “a strategic dialogue” between India and China on maritime security, with little communication between the two sides. “India is a crucial party in the Indian Ocean,” he said. “I hope we can develop dialogue and cooperation in the future, even if we don't have it today.”