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International relations

China eyes military footing in Thailand, Myanmar and Pakistan: US

Pentagon's yearly report to Congress notes new power projection push by Beijing

Residents greet Adm. Miao Hua, then political commissar of the People's Liberation Army Navy, and other Chinese naval officers visiting the southern Philippine city of Davao in April 2017.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- China seeks to establish a logistics network that could cover much of the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Department of Defense said Tuesday in its mandatory annual report to Congress on Chinese military power.

China has "likely considered" Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other countries in Africa and Central Asia as locations for military logistics facilities, according to the 200-page "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2020."

This marks the first time that such an observation has appeared in the report, said Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the Washington-based think tank American Enterprise Institute, in an AEI webinar.

China has already made overtures to Namibia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, the report noted.

The new report places emphasis on "China's desire to act globally," former Pentagon staffer Cooper said.

Washington's belief in Beijing's power projection ambitions across the Indian Ocean stems from how China opened its first-ever permanent overseas base in 2017 in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.

The Djibouti site is China's only overseas military base so far. Beijing characterizes it as a support base for such purposes as humanitarian aid and escort missions.

The Chinese military's presence in Djibouti provides Beijing with "the ability to support a military response to contingencies affecting China's investments and infrastructure in the region" and the roughly 1 million Chinese citizens in Africa and the 500,000 in the Middle East, the Pentagon report said.

The U.S. also believes that Cambodia has signed a secret agreement with Beijing to allow the Chinese armed forces to use one of its naval bases -- an account both Asian countries have publicly denied, according to the report.

China has repeatedly said it "will never seek hegemony or expansionism," citing a peaceful cultural and historical "tradition."

Chinese investments in civilian ports across the Indian Ocean have been dubbed the "string of pearls" strategy to establish strategic footholds in key locations that may one day be used by China's navy. While the Chinese have not acknowledged the existence of such a strategy, analysts have seen it as an attempt to encircle potential rival India.

The development noted in the Pentagon report points to a more direct attempt to create military footholds in foreign countries.

The Pentagon report said Beijing will at least double its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade from its current estimated level in the low 200s. It extensively discussed the Chinese strategy of military-civil fusion, which includes "leveraging civilian service and logistics capabilities for military purposes."

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