While the Gray Zone – the space between peace and war – is rapidly growing in the South China Seas, it’s not the only body of water that has some issues on the horizon. In the South China Seas, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) of China has used coercion, intimidation, propaganda, and manipulation to slowly grind down its neighbors in the region.
China Refurbishing a Strategic Airbase
On May 5, Reuters reported Chinese plans to refurbish an existing airstrip in the south Pacific Ocean archipelago nation of Kiribati. During WWII, the United States Navy built this airstrip on Kanton (also known as Canton), becoming a strategic stopover point for flights to Australasia and staging location for attacks on the Japanese held Islands in Oceania.
If China gets its way, they will obtain a strategic airbase location roughly halfway between Hawaii and Fiji, giving their military a greater reach throughout the tense Gray Zone region. In addition to providing a foothold in a militarily strategic location, China’s plans may also include access to Kiribati ‘s 1.35 million square mile exclusive economic zone; some of the most productive fishing grounds in the world.
China Jockeying for Position in the Atlantic
Just one day later, similar challenges in the Atlantic Ocean were announced by U.S. Africa Commander General Stephen Townsend. On May 6, in an interview with The Associated Press, Townsend said the Chinese desire to establish a large navy port on Africa’s western coast capable of hosting aircraft carriers or submarines. China has been approaching African coastal countries from Mauritania to Namibia, with intent of establishing this naval facility. If their goal is fulfilled, China would be able to base its expanding Navy warships in the Atlantic, much like it has in the Pacific Ocean.
U.S. military commanders caution that China’s growing assertiveness is not simply occurring in Oceania and Asia. They state Beijing is asserting economic influence, while pursuing footholds in African Nations, South America, and the Middle East. Recent reports show that the Pentagon may be shifting focus from the counterterrorism wars of the past 20 years to Indo-Pacific regional conflicts and threats from powerful adversaries like China and Russia.
“The Chinese are outmaneuvering the U.S. in select countries in Africa,” Townsend stated during his interview. Adding, “Port projects, economic endeavors, infrastructure and their agreements and contracts will lead to greater access in the future. They are hedging their bets and making big bets on Africa.”
Djibouti in the Horn of Africa is home to Beijing’s first overseas naval base, which was built years ago and is steadily growing militarily and in capacity. Townsend stated there are nearly 2,000 military personnel located at this location, with several hundred Marines for base security.
In a 2020 Defense Department’s report, China’s growth of additional military facilities to support its naval, air, and ground forces in Angola, and other locations in Africa and the Middle East is detailed. With large amounts of oil and liquefied natural gas, the report noted this region is a high priority China over the next 15 years.
Playbook for the Pacific Leads to Plans in the Atlantic
It has become obvious that the Pacific Gray Zone strategy continues to enable success for Chinese expansion, and this policy may well become the playbook for the Atlantic Region. Intimidation and buyout appear to be the way of the future for autocratic nations. Today, the policy is to slowly grind down governments and claim their strategic desires, rather than perform a frontal assault of the earlier wars.
Regardless of our understanding and the exactness of our intelligence on Beijing’s planning and expansion of the Gray Zone strategy in the Pacific and additional Atlantic operations, we are seeing new examples of China’s efforts to expand its geopolitical reach on a weekly basis. We recently learned that President Biden’s primary long-term security challenge is China’s rapidly expanding economic influence and military might. Perhaps more concerning is the ongoing national preoccupation with political correctness, defunding the police and appropriate gender pronouns, rather than national security. As Woodrow Wilson stated in 1918, “America cannot be an ostrich with its head in the sand.”