Sri Lanka tops the list of nations that may host a Chinese naval base in the coming years as Beijing seeks to expand its maritime capabilities, according to a new report.
The South Asian nation’s Hambantota port is the most likely spot for a base given the US$2.19 billion China has already invested there, according to an assessment by the AidData research project at William & Mary university in Virginia.
Sites in Equatorial Guinea, Pakistan and Cameroon were listed as the next possibilities over the next two to five years.
"China’s single largest port investment anywhere is at Hambantota, and Beijing exercises direct control over the facility," said AidData, which released the report on Thursday. "Coupled with its strategic location, the popularity of China among elites and the population, and Sri Lanka’s alignment with China in UNGA voting, Hambantota is our top candidate for a future base."
For years, observers have tried to parse the extent that China uses its economic clout to advance its military ambitions. The Asian nation has the world’s largest navy by number of warships, and its construction and engineering companies are busy building port facilities around the world. It provided loans and grants worth nearly $30 billion from 2000-2021 to build or expand 78 ports in 46 countries, the AidData report said.
Despite frequent speculation about Chinese bases in the works, Beijing has established just one overseas military facility, in the East African nation of Djibouti. AidData said China invested $466 million in the Djibouti facility from 2000-2021, placing it No. 12 on its list.
Still, the Pentagon has raised concern that it was considering more overseas military logistics facilities in locations including Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan. The United States also identified a military facility in Cambodia that it says will be China’s first overseas base in the Indo-Pacific region, something the government in Phnom Penh has repeatedly denied.
The Defense Ministry in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the AidData report.
Commercial imagery company BlackSky said this week that recent photos showed a China-funded naval base in Cambodia has neared completion. The facility includes new piers able to support aircraft carriers.
Leaders in Colombo have said they won’t allow the Hambantota port to host any foreign armed forces. A Chinese entity took over the facility in 2017 when Sri Lanka couldn’t repay the loans that helped build it.
AidData also said that China could pursue a base in Gwadar, Pakistan, citing the two nations’ close ties. The report also found a high concentration of Chinese port investments in Africa, ranking Bata, Equatorial Guinea, as the second most likely spot for a naval base after Beijing committed $659 million to a port there.