It’s no secret that China’s hegemonic aspirations are driving its acquisition of land bases around the globe. Liberty Nation has been reporting on China’s encroachment into the Arctic, the South China Sea, and Africa. The Chinese port complex in Djibouti is a significant investment, located within rifle-shot of the U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier and a troubling concern to General Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command.
In a recent American Defense News article, Paul Crespo described another emerging Chinese “beachhead” in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s backyard. Beijing plans to build a military base on Canton, belonging to the island nation of Kiribati, just 1,800 miles from the vast number of U.S. military installations on Hawaii. That’s the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles. This base will establish China at the halfway mark between Asia and the Americas.
The irony is that the U.S. Navy has in years past managed Canton Island as a missile-tracking installation frequented by the U.S. Air Mobility Command C-5s and other cargo aircraft en route to Australia and New Zealand. The island’s 6,300-foot runway also served as a refueling stop for long-range bombers during World War II. Writing for The Drive, Thomas Newdick and Joseph Trevithick, in a more detailed report on the Chinese Canton Island project, described the island’s potential:
“The existing runway at Canton Airport, once modernized, could be long enough to support fighter deployments, but the improved section would likely need to be extended out to the full 8,000 feet length to support large-size transports, as well as maritime patrol aircraft or even bombers … The location of the airstrip would be especially useful for surveillance aircraft flights, including those by long-endurance unmanned aircraft, extending reach toward both Hawaii in one direction, and Australia and New Zealand in the other.”
The Canton Island base strategically placed would also be particularly valuable for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) surveillance flights by manned and extended-range and endurance unmanned PLAAF aircraft. Some critics of the notion of the PLAAF being able to operate at long distances in the Pacific suggest that China does not have the extensive aerial refueling capability to make such missions operationally practical.
However, as The Drive pointed out in a companion article by Jamie Hunter, as late as last year, the PLAAF flew a formation of six Russian-made Su-30MKK Flanker fighter aircraft on a ten-hour mission from the coast of China south to the Spratly Islands and back to base. The flight took advantage of Il-78 Midas aerial tanker aircraft.
Consequently, the PLAAF is coming close to long-range engagement capability. Yet, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not have a force projection capability with sufficient cargo and aerial refueling aircraft to be credible. Nonetheless, if the reports reflect what China is really up to, then it’s squatting on islands worldwide is a troubling alternative.
Writing on that very possibility, Gordon Chang, China scholar and distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute, in his thought piece “Coming Soon, China’s Navy Patrolling Off New York,” explained:
“Chinese planners are not only thinking of the continent [Africa], they are also eyeing islands in the Atlantic, specifically Terceira, one of the Azores. On that island, part of Portugal, there is a port and, of even greater interest, Air Base No. 4. Better known as Lajes Field, the facility is jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and its Portuguese counterpart. If China controlled the base, the Atlantic would no longer be secure … “
As Chang sees the future of the air base, “Pentagon budget cutters have been scaling back activities at Lajes, making it a ‘ghost base.’ As a result, Lajes is ripe for China to take it over.” For the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command, losing Lajes would be unfortunate.
Whenever U.S. forces have deployed to the Middle East, whether during the 1973 Yom Kippur War bringing tanks to Israel, or the Desert Shield/Desert Storm rescue of Kuwait, or defeat of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War of early 2003, Lajes has been a critical en route transshipment base for airlift. The ramp area is large and the runway long enough to handle the largest U.S. airlifter, the C-5 Galaxy, and the largest commercial aircraft that participate in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.
More disturbing was Chang’s contention that China is poised to acquire basing facilities in the Bahamas, just 90 miles from Palm Beach, FL. Chang explained that a “Hong Kong-based business is spending about $3 billion on a deep-water container facility, the Freeport Container Port.” Additionally, there is a Chinese-funded port on Abaco Island in the Bahamas, which, as Chang pointed out, “is essentially useless from a commercial point of view and could fall into Beijing’s hands.”
If successful in gobbling up bases around the world from which it could operate reconnaissance missions or combat bomber and fighter sorties, the CCP could quickly put U.S. commercial trade routes in jeopardy. Of even more concern is the rate at which the CCP expanded its navy from virtually nothing in 2002 to about 400 ships today, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Furthermore, IISS estimates the CCP navy could “have more than 530 warships and submarines” by 2030. Between 2015 and 2017, Chinese naval shipyards surpassed the United States in tonnage output, so the 530 number is possible.
The United States must take seriously the efforts of Communist China to strategically position its commercial and naval seaports around the world to render the United States checkmated for control of the sea. The dominance the U.S. has held in sea power and force projection could be coming to an end in the not-far-away future.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.