China is reportedly seeking to establish a permanent military base in the Middle East for the first time, which Washington will certainly see as a significant ‘challenge’, given that the planned base would be in the Arab Gulf region, where the US also has major bases, as in the case of the Navy Central Command installations in Qatar and Bahrain.
“President Joe Biden has been briefed on what his advisers see as a Chinese plan to build a military facility in Oman, people familiar with the matter said, amid a broader effort by Beijing to deepen defence and diplomatic ties with the Middle East,” Bloomberg writes in its major Tuesday story.
“Biden was told that Chinese military officials discussed the matter last month with Omani counterparts, who were said to be amenable to such a deal, said the people, who asked not to be identified while discussing private deliberations. They said the two sides agreed to more talks in the coming weeks,” the report continues.
It’s as yet unknown precisely where the potential Oman base would be located. Just last August, Oman and China held a formal celebration for their 45 years of official diplomatic relations.
The Chinese and Omani militaries have in the recent past coordinated events and exercises, with Oman’s port of Muscat semi-regularly hosting Chinese PLA warships. Last month, the Omani and PLA militaries held joint drills and pledged to work “to expand their naval defence and military cooperation.”
China is also believed to have long eyed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a possible host country for another base. Currently, Beijing’s only other significant overseas military base is in the East African country of Djibouti.
Bloomberg suggests the deepened military ties between China and Oman parallel energy ties:
Oman is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East, given that it follows a policy of neutrality and regularly acts as a mediator, including between the US and Iran. It’s also sought to strike a balance between maintaining its partnership with the US and nurturing ties with China, which imports the bulk of its crude output. China also invested in the first stage of Oman’s Duqm special economic zone, which will be the site of the Middle East’s biggest oil storage facility.
The US itself doesn’t have a permanent, stand-alone military base inside Oman; however, it has a key agreement with the government to use Omani bases when needed for a variety of operations.
For example, the US Air Force uses RAFO Thumrait airbase, a military airport located near Thumrait in the country’s south. The US Navy also frequently patrols waters off Oman’s coast, looking for Iranian weapons and sanctioned oil or other shipments. One military publication has described of the Pentagon’s minimal presence (compared to other Gulf nations) in Oman as follows:
The U.S. maintains the ability to use Omani bases through the Oman Facilities Access Agreement, originally signed in 1980 and most recently renewed in 2010.55 This accord made Oman the first country among the Arabian Gulf States to explicitly partner militarily with the U.S. According to the agreement, the U.S. can request access to these facilities in advance for a specified purpose. Some of the bases listed in this section are those the U.S. may access, but not necessarily where a presence is maintained. Oman has allowed 5,000 aircraft overflights, 600 landings, and 80 port calls annually.
Starting in 2021, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) began warning that China is not content with its Djibouti base on the continent’s east coast, but is looking to establish a military presence on the Atlantic. The US has long seen China as the top threat to the so-called “rules-based international order” (alongside Russia)–but Beijing very obviously lacks a global military presence like Washington has.
China also has a small naval outpost at Pakistan’s major Indian Ocean port.