The Muscle Behind China’s New Silk Road Is Over the Horizon

The recent kidnapping and murder of two Chinese nationals by ISIL in the Pakistani province of Balochistan raises a fundamental question: how will China secure its ambitious and potentially transformative Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? If recent developments are an indication, Beijing plans to send in the Marines. In March, China quietly revealed plans to expand the People’s Liberation Army Marine Corps (PLAMC) from 20,000 to 100,000 with the intent to garrison an unspecified number of marines at its “dual use” port facilities in Obock, Djibouti and Gwadar, Pakistan.

Building out the world’s second largest Marine Corps will be less of a challenge than some may imagine, as China already has around 60,000 amphibious trained mechanized infantry troops, some of which can be readily transferred from the army to the PLAMC. China’s amphibious forces train frequently in the East and South China Seas, including joint exercises with Russia. While the PLAMC is unlikely to replicate the unique joint warfighting capabilities of the U.S. Marine Corps that have taken generations to develop – it only needs to be ‘good enough’ to shape facts on the ground. As a point of reference, Russia’s Naval Infantry, which only numbers about 12,500 marines, participated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as the intervention in Syria.

By forward-deploying the PLAMC and the PLA Navy to Djibouti and Pakistan, China will significantly increase its capability to project “hard power” in the Middle East and Africa. This signals what is likely to be China’s expanding military presence along the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and the Indian Ocean littoral that carries with it the potential to reconfigure regional security and geopolitics.

To be sure, China’s nearly completed facility in Djibouti – its first overseas military base, not counting artificial islands in the South China Sea – is a critical node of the MSR. From this geostrategic location on the Horn of Africa, China will be able to better support its counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and safeguard its vital sea lines of communication that transit the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal (notably the European Union is China’s largest trading partner). Likewise, Gwadar is located about 250 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which over half of China’s oil imports flow.

With PLAMC-reinforced positions in Djibouti and Gwadar, China will also be able to respond more quickly to regional contingencies such as noncombatant evacuation and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. China’s evacuation of its overseas citizens from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015 underscores this need. China would be well positioned to support its U.N. peacekeeping missions in Mali (where a Chinese peacekeeper was killed in a terrorist attack in 2016) and in South Sudan (where it contributes a 700-man infantry battalion to U.N. peacekeeping).

However, when it comes to providing physical security for infrastructure and citizens abroad, China is likely to rely on private security contractors or host government forces. China’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), illustrates this point. To address China’s security concerns, Pakistan has created a special security division that will provide up to 15,000 troops to protect CPEC assets and workers. While the PLAMC may be expected to provide security at their Gwadar compound, China will likely avoid sending its Marines out to become entangled in Pakistan’s intractable insurgencies in Balochistan and Kashmir. Doing so could have the unintended consequence of increasing the risks posed to Chinese assets and citizens. It could also have broader regional geopolitical and security implications considering the proximity to China’s borders as well as the likelihood of increasing tensions with India.

In contrast, Africa offers China greater strategic room to maneuver to develop operational experience for its ground forces under the guise of protecting overseas Chinese citizens and assets, much in the way counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden have given the PLA Navy the opportunity to develop operational experience. While African security is an increasingly crowded arena, with several external powers providing security assistance as well as conducting joint counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations, there is a potential security role for the PLAMC. Indeed, China’s new counter-terrorism law now allows its military to conduct operations abroad.

Seemingly small at only 90 acres, China’s new base in Djibouti will be large enough to potentially house a few thousand troops, berth six ships, stage several helicopters, and pre-position supplies. As U.S. and French military operations in Africa demonstrate, China could do a lot with this relatively small footprint.

The United States maintains about 4,000 troops at Camp Lemonnier, its largest base in Africa and home to Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa. Notably, Camp Lemonnier started at 88 acres before expanding to over 500. The U.S. also operates out of several ‘contingency locations’ scattered throughout the continent. Similarly, France maintains about 1,900 troops in Djibouti and conducts counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations elsewhere in Africa with additional troops. Operation Serval in Mali during 2013-2014 involved about 4,000 French troops, while the ongoing Operation Barkhane in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger consists of a force of about 3,000 troops.

Like France or the United States, China has extensive strategic and commercial interests, assets, and citizens in Africa to protect. In Djibouti alone, China has invested over $14 billion, including a railroad connecting the port of Djibouti to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. China has committed extensive investments, loans, and foreign aid in nearby East Africa and beyond, and even surpassed the U.S. to become Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009. Africa is also China’s second largest source of oil imports after the Middle East. While an accurate number of Chinese nationals living in Africa is elusive, estimates vary from 250,000 to 2 million. The demand and rationale for an increased security role in Africa on China’s part are evident.

The question is whether Beijing will send its Marines out to engage in counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency, and security assistance operations or keep the PLAMC sequestered in their barracks in Djibouti. Indeed, with the PLAMC as the tip-of-the-spear, Africa may emerge as an indispensable proving ground for China’s land forces, which are untested on the modern battlefield. As French military operations in the Sahel demonstrate, China does not need to field more than a few thousand marines to shape regional security and geopolitics. Even a few hundred troops would enable China to take on a symbolic, yet scalable, security assistance role.

Going forward, Beijing’s venture in Djibouti should be seen as a stepping stone in a longer-term strategy to develop additional ‘bases’ along the MSR and Indian Ocean littoral, many of which may be expected to host the PLAMC. Additionally, China will likely work toward developing the equivalent of a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit—a self-sustaining force of about 2,000 combat-ready Marines that essentially floats at sea on six-month rotations waiting for contingencies to arise. In countries where a permanent military presence would be controversial, China may borrow another page from the U.S. military by deploying rotational forces instead.

With an expanding network of naval bases along the MSR and Indian Ocean littoral that includes small detachments of permanent or rotational forces, coupled with expeditionary capabilities, the PLAMC is poised to become the muscle behind China’s Silk Road ambitions. Aside from warfighting capabilities, the PLAMC will also assert China’s regional influence through regular bilateral and multilateral training exercises as well as show-the-flag port visits that are part and parcel of naval diplomacy. For decades, the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps team was the only amphibious power in the Indian Ocean—but not for much longer as the PLAMC is over the horizon.

Jeremy Maxie is an Associate at Strategika Group Asia Pacific and Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and a research fellow at the Japan Forum For Strategic Studies.