Report - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Navigating China’s Opportunistic Approach to Overseas Naval Base Acquisition

| November 2023

Executive Summary

Future Chinese overseas naval bases may threaten U.S. interests, and the United States needs a better plan for understanding and responding to this threat. While China has thus far relied on commercial ports to satisfy many of the peacetime functions of dedicated military bases, commercial ports cannot substitute for the sophisticated infrastructure, defense systems, and logistics capabilities offered by dedicated naval bases. 

Indeed, the U.S. Defense Department’s 2022 China Military Power Report states that China has “likely considered” Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kenya, Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan as locations for permanent PLA facilities, and has “probably” already made overtures to Namibia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands.

This report thus explores the drivers of setback and success that China has encountered in the process of developing dual-use and military-dedicated naval installations abroad. It looks at cases where China has considered or actively pursued military-dedicated installations to characterize Beijing’s general approach to overseas naval base acquisition.

Primary Research Questions

1. What factors help explain where China seeks military bases? In these locations, what determines whether it successfully does so? 

2. What should the U.S. Defense Department do now to address China’s ongoing naval base acquisition activity? When policymakers judge that a PLA installation threatens core U.S. interests in the future, what should they do to reduce the likelihood that such bases materialize? When bases do materialize, how should policymakers mitigate the risks to U.S. national security?

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Simon, Maxwell and Jayaram Ravi. “Navigating China’s Opportunistic Approach to Overseas Naval Base Acquisition.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 2023.