Strategies Behind China And Asia-Pacific’s Military Base Construction – Analysis

Military bases are no rarity in the Asia-Pacific. That is hardly a surprise given the frequency and length of conflicts that were waged across the region for much of the twentieth century. But, in the decade-and-a-half after the Cold War, the Asia-Pacific experienced a remarkable period of interstate peace and stability. Military bases were consolidated, scaled down, or shuttered entirely. Most notably, the United States vacated what once were its two largest overseas bases in the Philippines and incrementally reduced its footprint in South Korea. While Washington claimed that it would make up for its smaller forward presence with new, long-range “global strike” assets, the closures appeared to signal an American pullback from the region.

However, since the late 2000s, military bases seemed to have come back into fashion with China, Japan, the countries of Southeast Asia, and even the United States. Indeed, military bases are important manifestations of national strategy. Politically, they demonstrate a level of national commitment and deter potential adversaries in a way that fleeting force deployments cannot. Militarily, they extend capabilities by serving as platforms from which countries can monitor dangers and exert power. Such factors, not to mention the financial resources needed to build and maintain bases, hint at the true intentions and priorities of national strategies. As such, the pace of new military base construction in the Asia-Pacific has been noteworthy and points to a new era of sustained interstate tensions.

First-Mover Advantages

The first country to build a new military base in the Asia-Pacific after the Cold War was China. It did so at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island at the northern edge of the South China Sea during the late 2000s. The ostensible reason for building the base was to better assert China’s sovereignty claims over the waters. At the time, the Chinese military’s reach in the region was too short to do so effectively. China’s nearest naval base at Sanya was too small to house a large fleet and the ranges of its tactical aircraft on Hainan were not long enough to support regular patrols, let alone combat operations, over the area. The new Yulin naval base at Yalong Bay tackled both issues: it could accommodate not only more warships, but also bigger and more complex vessels, like aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines.

By the late 2010s, China had gone further; it constructed several small artificial islands and military bases on the features that it controls within the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. The bases were outfitted with docks, gun emplacements, radars, and an assortment of intelligence-collection gear. On Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef, China also built airfields large enough for H-6 bombers and facilities for HQ-9 surface-to-air missile and YJ-12 anti-ship missile batteries. China’s new bases in and around the South China Sea have enabled Beijing to better maintain persistent surveillance and assert its sovereignty claims over the region.

But some of the facilities that China has built on its South China Sea bases also seemed to indicate a grander strategic aim. The elaborate submarine tunnel complex at Yulin naval base is perhaps the prime example. Dug under a mountain at the tip of Yalong Bay, the tunnel complex was designed to support several nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines. Such warships are hardly necessary to assert Chinese sovereignty claims (or give Beijing an edge over its Southeast Asian neighbors, for that matter). Rather, the tunnel complex suggests a strategy to establish a naval bastion in the South China Sea for the sea-based leg of China’s nuclear triad. Seen in that light, the missile batteries that Beijing installed on its military outposts in the Spratly and Paracel Islands make more sense, not only to assert Chinese sovereignty claims, but also to screen the bastion’s southern approaches.

Meanwhile, China’s expansion of its air and naval bases along the East China Sea appears to have had multiple objectives too. Starting in the late 2000s, China expanded its naval base at Xiangshan with an underground submarine tunnel and those at Dinghai and Zhoushan with several piers and repair facilities. It also upgraded nearby naval air bases with hardened hangars and, in the case of Danyang naval air base, runway improvements for H-6 bombers. Similar improvements followed at Chinese air force bases, like those at Longtian and Huian.[1] In 2012, China completed a brand-new air base near Xiapu and expanded it a few years later.[2] It now serves as a forward-deployment base for Chinese J-11 and Su-30 fighters and may become a permanent base in the future.

A principal reason for such construction at Chinese military bases along the East China Sea is no doubt related to China’s preparations for a Taiwan contingency. But they also enable China to pursue other strategic aims, including asserting its sovereignty claims over the Senkaku Islands and securing the Miyako Strait. Indeed, warships from China’s East China Sea naval bases now rely on the strait as their main conduit into the Pacific Ocean. In addition, Chinese fighters, like those deployed at Xiapu air base, have come to regularly practice escorting H-6 bombers armed with YJ-83 anti-ship missiles through the strait.[3] Likely, China’s expansion of its air and naval bases along the East China Sea has as much to do with Chinese power-projection ambitions as it does with an envelopment of Taiwan.

Reluctant Base Builders

At the turn of the new millennium, most Asia-Pacific countries had hoped that codes of conduct, greater trade, and tighter economic integration would obviate China’s motivation to build or expand its military bases. That has not turned out to be the case. Thus, one by one, countries across the Asia-Pacific have come to reassess their needs for military bases. The types of bases built since the late 2000s signal three distinct strategies.

First is a strategy of limited deterrence, the intent of which is to prevent Chinese forces from operating with complete impunity, rather than to thwart them. Vietnam was the first to employ this approach. In the late 2000s, it overhauled its Cam Ranh Bay naval base. It then offered the use of the base’s modernized facilities to foreign navies, including those of India, Japan, and the United States. By the late 2010s, it had become home to the backbone of the Vietnamese navy: six new Project 636.3 (Kilo-class) diesel-electric attack submarines. Malaysia followed by building a new naval base for its two Scorpene-class diesel-electric attack submarines at Sepanggar Bay on Borneo, near the South China Sea, in 2008. A half decade later, Kuala Lumpur built a second naval base at Bintulu, also on Borneo, to monitor China’s growing maritime presence off its coast. Malaysia expanded the base with an airfield in 2022.

Getting off to a later start were Indonesia and the Philippines. It was not until 2014 that Jakarta expanded its Pontianak naval base on Borneo. Then in 2021, after lengthy preparations, Jakarta broke ground on a new base on Natuna Island for three of its planned diesel-electric attack submarines. Similarly, Manila began to expand its naval facilities at Oyster Bay on Palawan Island, adjacent to the South China Sea, in 2014. Six years later, it selected a site at Subic Bay on Luzon Island for a new base that will house its revitalized navy, including two or three planned diesel-electric attack submarines. It also expects to construct an air base nearby for its new F/A-50 jet fighter-trainers. And, since the mid-2010s, Vietnam has built, and the Philippines will soon build, bases for mobile anti-ship missile batteries along their respective South China Sea coasts. The bases will enable the two countries to project modern firepower into the disputed region.

To the north, Japan began building new military bases at about the same time. But unlike the strategy behind Southeast Asia’s bases, Japan’s bases suggested a strategy whose intention was to not only fully deter China from seizing the Senkaku Islands, but also frustrate China’s wider naval ambitions. In 2014, Tokyo set up a coastal observation base on Yonaguni Island, near the disputed islands. Soon after, it began preparations to construct new bases with anti-ship missile batteries on several Ryukyu Islands, which run from the Japanese mainland to Yonaguni Island. The first base was built on Amami Ōshima Island. It was armed with a Type 12 anti-ship missile battery and defended by a Type 03 surface-to-air missile battery. Tokyo then built similar bases on Miyako Island in 2020 and Ishigaki Island in 2022. The missile bases cover the disputed Senkaku Islands as well as all the transit points for the Chinese navy into the Pacific Ocean, including the Miyako Strait.

Finally, further out into the Pacific Ocean, the United States has started to seriously reconsider its basing requirements. Having pulled back much of its forces in Asia (including those in South Korea) to military bases on Okinawa and mainland Japan after the Cold War, Washington grew increasingly worried about their safety from Chinese ballistic missile attack during the 2010s.[4] Indeed, with the advent of new Chinese intermediate-range missiles, American military bases on Guam seem vulnerable too. Hence, the United States has been gradually shifting from a strategy of forward deployment to one of dispersion and redundancy. In 2018, Washington arranged a more-or-less permanent American presence in Darwin at the northern tip of Australia. Then, in 2020, the United States opened negotiations with a welcoming Palau for a possible new base there. And, given America’s need to secure its sea lanes of communications across the Pacific Ocean, it was no surprise that it also decided to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands in 2022.

The New Old World

The pace of military base construction across the Asia-Pacific has been on the rise since the late 2000s. Early on, China dominated the building boom, driven by strategies meant to secure its sovereignty claims, protect its sea-based nuclear arsenal, and extend its power in the region. But as China’s behavior became more aggressive and confidence in America’s reliability as the Asia-Pacific’s security guarantor eroded, many of the region’s countries have built or expanded their own military bases in response. Even the United States has begun to consider new bases in the Pacific given China’s burgeoning military capabilities.

Naturally, some might see such military bases as a precursor to greater insecurity and instability, possibly even conflict. But what matters, as it always has, is not the number of military bases in the region, but rather how they influence perceptions of power and intentions. If the Asia-Pacific’s new and expanded bases help to create enough power to persuade China to temper its provocative behavior, then they will have enhanced the region’s security and stability, regardless of the level of tensions. That is something that has become better appreciated by the early 2020s. Going forward, the question for Asia-Pacific leaders may be whether the military bases they have built (and are still building) are adequate for that balancing task.