Myanmar in China’s Plans for Expanded Overseas Network of Military Facilities, US Says

By Nan Lwin 3 September 2020

YANGON—China is seeking to put infrastructure in place in a dozen countries including Myanmar to extend the reach of its armed forces, according to a new Pentagon report, which adds that military bases are among the options China may be pursuing.

Submitted to the US Congress, the annual report titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) 2020” was released on Tuesday by the US Department of Defense.

Beyond its base in Djibouti, China is “very likely already considering and planning” for additional overseas facilities to support its naval, air and ground forces, the Pentagon said in the report.

China has “likely considered” locations in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan, it said.

A global People’s Liberation Army (PLA) logistics network could interfere with US military operations and help China conduct offensive operations against the US, the report said.

The Pentagon said China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects “could create potential military advantages” for the PLA to access foreign ports. This would allow it to put in place the logistical support needed to deploy its navy in waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean to protect its growing interests, according to the report.

In Myanmar, China is planning to construct the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) deep seaport project, which will boost its presence in the Indian Ocean. The development of the SEZ is part of Beijing’s wider plan to expand its footprint in South Asia, which has seen it invest heavily in Indian Ocean ports through the BRI.

Granting China direct access to the Indian Ocean and allowing its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca, the Kyaukphyu port is a crucial component of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is a part of the BRI. It also serves Beijing’s goal of developing China’s landlocked Yunnan province. Located in northern Rakhine State, Kyaukphyu is a strategic hub for China, and already serves as the terminus for twin cross-border oil and gas pipelines between the two countries.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar in January, the two countries signed a concession agreement and shareholders’ agreement for the project. Last month, the Myanmar government’s investment agency, the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA), approved the registration of a joint venture between a Chinese company and a government-backed committee, taking the long-delayed backbone project of the CMEC one step closer to actually getting off the ground.

Even with the COVID-19 epidemic raging in Myanmar, China has pushed the country several times to speed up implementation of the backbone projects for which agreements were reached during Xi’s trip, including the Kyaukphyu SEZ. In May, during a phone conversation with Myanmar President U Win Myint, Xi expressed hope that Myanmar would speed up the process of implementing its BRI projects.

As a part of the BRI, the 1,700-km-long CMEC will connect Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, with Myanmar’s major economic hubs, linking first to Mandalay in central Myanmar before branching east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine State.

In June, Deputy Minister for Planning and Finance U Set Aung said Myanmar would only implement BRI projects that are commercially viable and strategically important to Myanmar.

In the report, the Pentagon said Beijing may be looking at a mixture of models for the overseas facilities, including securing access to commercial infrastructure, exclusive PLA logistics facilities, and bases with stationed forces.

The Chinese army’s approach likely includes consideration of many different sites and outreach to many countries, but only some will advance to negotiations for an infrastructure agreement, status of forces or visiting forces agreement, and/or basing agreement, the Pentagon said.

“Host nations can perform an essential role in regulating the PRC’s military operations, as PRC officials very likely recognize that a stable long-term relationship with the host nation is critical to the success of their military logistics facilities,” the report said.

According to the report, critical organizations involved in planning and negotiating for military logistics facilities are the Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department, CMC Logistic Support Department, and service headquarters.

Currently, the PRC uses commercial infrastructure to support all of its military operations abroad, including the PLA’s presence in other countries’ territories, including its base in Djibouti, it said.

According to the report, in August 2017, China opened its first PLA base in Djibouti, a country located in the Horn of Africa region of East Africa. It said PLA Navy Marines are stationed at the base with wheeled armored vehicles and artillery but are currently dependent on nearby commercial ports due to the lack of a pier on the base.

The PLA personnel at the facility have interfered with US flights by directing lasers at pilots and flying drones, and the PRC has sought to restrict Djiboutian sovereign airspace over the base, it said.

According to China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency, the Information Office of China’s Ministry of National Defense rejected the Pentagon’s report, describing it as “extremely erroneous.” It said that the US report overestimated the “so-called ‘Chinese military threat’ and misinterpreted China’s national defense policy and military strategies.”

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