WASHINGTON • The US Defence Department expects China to add military bases around the world to protect its investments in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) global infrastructure programme, according to an official report.
Beijing currently has just one overseas military base, in Africa's Djibouti, but is believed to be planning others, including possibly Pakistan, as it seeks to project itself as a global superpower.
"China's advancement of projects such as the 'One Belt, One Road' (Obor) initiative, will probably drive military overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security for Obor projects," the Pentagon said in its annual report released on Thursday to Congress on Chinese military and security developments.
Obor is another term referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature BRI programme.
"China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a long-standing friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries," the report said.
That effort could be constrained by other countries' wariness of hosting a full-time presence of the People's Liberation Army, it noted. But target locations for military basing could include the Middle East, South-east Asia and the western Pacific. China has already established well-armed outposts on contested atolls in the South China Sea.
Last year, there were reportedly discussions about a base in the Wakhan Corridor of north-west Afghanistan. The Washington Post recently also identified an outpost hosting Chinese troops in eastern Tajikistan, near the strategic junction of the Wakhan Corridor, China and Pakistan.
Mr Xi has sought to project his country's power beyond its immediate "backyard" in East and South-east Asia. This includes strengthening the country's presence in international institutions, acquiring top-flight technology and establishing a strong economic presence worldwide. It also includes projecting the country's military power on land, at sea and in space, the report noted.
"China's leaders are leveraging China's growing economic, diplomatic and military clout to establish regional preeminence and expand the country's international influence," the report said.
Beijing in particular increasingly sees the United States as becoming more confrontational in an effort to contain China's expanding power, it said. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has taken note of a growing suspicion in many countries of the BRI, and has toned down its aggressive rhetoric in response.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon said Beijing's leadership has not altered its fundamental strategic goals.
The Pentagon report also said that deepening Chinese activities in the Arctic region could pave the way for a strengthened military presence, including the deployment of submarines to act as deterrents against nuclear attacks.
The assessment follows Beijing's publication of its first official Arctic policy white paper last June. In that paper, China outlined plans to develop shipping lanes opened up by global warming to form a "Polar Silk Road" - building on the BRI.
China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013. That has prompted concerns from Arctic states over Beijing's long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployments.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will attend the meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, starting on Monday, which comes amid concerns over China's increased commercial interests in the Arctic.
The Pentagon report noted that Denmark has expressed concern about China's interest in Greenland, which has included proposals to establish a research station and a satellite ground station, renovate airports and expand mining.
"Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks," the report said.
China's navy operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 50 conventionally powered attack submarines, the report said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS