According to Xu Hongmeng, deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N), China is planning to put its first aircraft carrier into service by the end of this year, much sooner than generally expected. Whether this announcement is confirmed or not, it signals the rapid expansion of the Chinese Navy, raising concerns and fuelling military expenditure in neighboring countries.
The PLA-N’s increasingly frequent patrols in Asia-Pacific waters, including in disputed maritime territory, its rapid modernization, and its declared aspiration for blue-water naval capability suggests that the deployment of the first aircraft carrier announces a much more visible Chinese presence far from its usual shores.
Last year, while denying reports that China was building a naval base in Pakistan, Major-General Xu Guangyu said it was only a matter of time until China had foreign bases. As the world’s biggest oil importer, Chinese socio-economic development depends largely on foreign energy supplies. Despite efforts to diversify its energy sources, by increasing imports from Central Asia and Russia through a network of newly-built or planned pipelines, China continues to rely massively on the Arab-Persian Gulf region (which provided it with 46% of its oil imports in 2010), and to a lesser extent, on Africa (which represented 22% of its oil imports in 2010). Securing the maritime supply routes, in an increasingly hostile environment whether in the Arab-Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea or the Strait of Malacca, is therefore a priority for Chinese leaders. It is strongly expected that China would seek to establish naval bases along these routes to protect its tankers and strategic supplies.
Historically reluctant to project power abroad, on the grounds that it infringes upon national sovereignty, China gradually started to break with its traditional policy in the early 1990s by participating in peacekeeping missions, paving the way for a growing engagement in the international arena. Besides peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and Sudan, China has been carrying out anti-piracy operations off the coasts of Somalia and along the Gulf of Eden for the past three years, in what represents the first patrolling mission outside its own waters or what it considers as its own maritime territory.
China will continue to dispatch naval forces to the region. Somali piracy operations represent an entry-point and China will seek increased military cooperation with countries in the Middle East, much to the ire of Washington, the strongest military presence in the region, and perhaps conveniently for some Arab countries which do not always see eye-to-eye with the American administration on recent developments in the Middle East. Amid troubled relationships with the U.S. last year over Hosni Moubarak’s ouster in Egypt, and – more alarmingly for the Saudis – American calls for Bahrain’s ruling family to make concessions to the protesters, just hours before Saudi-led Peninsula Shield forces invaded the small island to suppress the opposition, King Abdullah dispatched his national security advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan to Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao. This is a signal, albeit cautious as is traditionally the case with Saudi diplomacy, that the Kingdom is also considering diversifying its allies.
China often finds itself in the position of an alternative partner whenever relations with traditional powers strain: For developing countries, it offers its own experience in economic development as a model, not conditioned by human rights or democratic reforms. Also on offer, its vital investments, particularly in the petroleum industry. It has helped in the past develop and expand Sudan’s oil industry. While investing in Iran and importing Iranian crude has become increasingly controversial, Iraqi oil constitutes a better alternative. Chinese National Oil Companies are now reaping the benefits of the Iraq war, grabbing five lucrative contracts so far.
At a time when U.S. military strategy is reorienting its focus from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia – an area where military spending have dramatically increased over the last few years and where maritime and political disputes are abundant, threatening regional stability – China is looking for opportunities in the Middle East, America’s military playground, and is more confidently setting a foot there. This leaves the door open for political maneuvering between the United States, China, and Arab countries.