China has deployed troops to the country’s first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, as China’s rapidly modernizing military extends its global reach. Beijing says the “support base” will be used for logistical purposes, such as resupplying ships taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia however concerns are growing about China’s rising geopolitical influence especially at such a key strategic location.
Djibouti, which is about the size of Wales, is situated at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal. The tiny, barren nation sandwiched between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia also hosts U.S., Japanese and French bases. As we reported last year, China raised many eyebrows when it began construction of the Djibouti logistical base last year. Located nearly 5,000 miles from the Chinese capital, Djibouti is located at a highly strategic, if dangerous part of the world. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is one of the planet’s most important oil chokepoints and, like the Suez Canal, there are numerous nations that have an interest in keeping it open and secure. Additionally, Djibouti’s location on the horn of Africa makes it an attractive base from which to conduct “anti-terror”, or any other military operations in both Africa and the Mid-East.
As Xinhua reports, ships carrying Chinese military personnel from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) departed Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong Province on Tuesday to set up a support base in Djibouti, without providing details on the number of troops that were deployed. Referring to the facility as a “support base,” the Chinese media said its purpose will be to ensure China’s successful performance of missions in the region.
While it did not say when operations would begin at the base, Xinhua stated that the base will also assist with overseas tasks including military cooperation and joint exercises, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic waterways. The decision to build the base in Djibouti came after “friendly negotiations” between the two nations, according to the PLA Navy.
PLA soldiers salute from a ship sailing off from a military port in Zhanjiang, July 11
Furthermore, in front-page commentary, the People’s Liberation Army Daily said the facility will increase China’s ability to ensure global peace, particularly because it has many UN peacekeepers in Africa and is very involved in anti-piracy patrols. It also noted that China will under no circumstances be seeking military expansionism or become involve in arms races, although as discussed below many are skeptical.
An editorial in the state-run Global Times “patriotic” tabloid, referred to the facility as a proper base, rather than a logistics facility:
“Certainly this is the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base and we will base troops there. It’s not a commercial resupply point. It makes sense there is attention on this from foreign public opinion,” the editorial states. It went on to state that China’s military development is about protecting its own security, not about “seeking to control the world.”
While there has been persistent speculation that China would build other such bases, in Pakistan for example, but the government has dismissed this.
In the past, China has pitched its involvement in the country’s development as an extension of Xi’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which is essentially an expansive initiative that i) gives China an excuse to take a stake in any country that’s willing to accept FDI, and ii) creates a kind of pressure valve for Beijing’s excess industrial capacity.
“China is explaining it as part of the ‘one road, one belt’ strategy, to help link Ethiopia to the sea,” one Western diplomat who has been briefed by Chinese officials on the Djibouti base, told Reuters last year. “China does not want to be seen as a threat.”
Meanwhile, as Reuters adds, Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled worry in India that it would become another of China’s “string of pearls” of military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. As Reuters cited a Western official last year, “If I were Indian I would be very worried about what China is up to in Djibouti. Djibouti enables China to base its long-range naval air assets there and these are capable of maintaining surveillance over the Arabian Sea as well as India’s island territories off the Western coast.”
The deployment comes after a Pentagon report in May claimed that China was eyeing military presence overseas and modernization of its military to “deter or defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party intervention – including by the United States – during a crisis or conflict.” Beijing responded by saying it is “firmly opposed” to the report, which is said included “irresponsible remarks” and “disregarded facts.”
Djibouti is home to some 887,000 people and is favored for its strategic location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, on the route to the Suez Canal. The nation is also home to US, French and Japanese military compounds.
Japanese government sources said last year that Tokyo also plans to expand its base in Djibouti, to counter what it sees as growing Chinese influence in the region. “China is putting money into new infrastructure and raising its presence in Djibouti, and it is necessary for Japan gain more influence,” one source told Reuters at the time.
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A recent article on Djibouti from Bloomberg reveals just how extensive the Chinese presence is in the small country:
After Sept. 11, the U.S. military rushed to establish its first base dedicated to counterterrorism, and Djibouti was about the only country in the neighborhood that wasn’t on fire. Sitting beside the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait—a gateway to the Suez Canal at the mouth of the Red Sea, and one of the most trafficked shipping lanes in the world—it provided easy access to hot spots in both Africa and the Middle East. A few years later, when Somali pirates started threatening the global shipping industry, the militaries of Germany, Italy, and Spain joined France, which has maintained a base since colonial times, by moving troops to Djibouti. Japan arrived in 2011, opening its first military base on foreign soil since World War II.
They eventually come to La Chaumière to gossip, to eavesdrop, to see who’s new in town. Wang is a central branch on the local grapevine. When I ask people here how Djibouti has managed to avoid the turmoil that has plagued the other countries in the region, a stock answer comes back to me from nearly everyone, both local and foreign. “No country is completely safe, but everybody knows everyone here, and they all talk,” Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, the country’s minister of finance, tells me. “Every time a new camera comes into the country, for example, we know whose it is.” The grapevine, in other words, doubles as a safety net.
U.S. soldiers can’t go anywhere without being reminded of the People’s Republic. On the drive to the clinic, I’d noticed lengths of black tubing lying by the side of the road. “That’s a new water pipeline to Ethiopia,” the driver said, “built by the Chinese.” Nobody knows how the new Chinese base will change things, mostly because its scale isn’t yet known, but traces of anticipatory tension are palpable. Several diplomatic officials and members of U.S. Congress have publicly fretted over China’s growing influence in Djibouti, speculating that it might signal an era of increased Chinese military engagement around the world. Kelly, the U.S. ambassador, told me that “snooping,” electronic or otherwise, will be an obvious concern around Camp Lemonnier.
The Americans still have the largest foreign military presence in the country, but China’s intensifying interest in Djibouti is shifting the balance of influence. That brings us back to community relations. At the tiny clinic in Arta, about 50 people wait outside, the men dressed in button-down shirts and macawiis—a loose garment that wraps around the legs like a sarong—and the women draped in colorful headscarves and light shawls. Inside, an Army dentist straps a headlamp to his forehead and stares into the mouth of an unemployed, 29-year-old mother of four. He jabs her gum with a syringe and pries out a tooth.