China sends troops to military base in Djibouti, widening reach across Indian Ocean

Beijing says facility needed for anti-piracy operations but rivals expected to be alarmed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 1:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 8:50am

China has taken a decisive step ­towards establishing a maritime force that can reach across the ­Indian Ocean with its first ­deployment of troops to its ­military facility in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

China has presented the ­facility as a support base to run anti-piracy operations in waters along Africa’s east coast as well as peacekeeping and ­humanitarian missions in the region.

But given it sits at the shipping choke point of the Gulf of Aden which opens to the Suez Canal and beyond, China’s ­regional neighbours including Japan, ­India and Vietnam were likely to view the deployment with alarm, mainland experts said.

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Additional facilities throughout the Indian Ocean are possible as China seeks to create a “string of pearls” running from Hong Kong past Sri Lanka and Pakistan to Africa, where it has been funnelling investment and building infrastructure, as part of the maritime component of its belt and road strategy.

Beijing announced on Monday that ships carrying military personnel departed from Zhanjiang in the southern province of Guangdong on Tuesday heading for the support base in Djibouti.

Xinhua did not disclose how many military personnel would be stationed at the facility or when it would become fully operational. But previous mainland reports have put the size of the deployment at 10,000. The lease runs for a decade with China paying US$20 million a year.

Djibouti already hosts several foreign military bases, including one each from the US and Japan, two strategic rivals to Beijing. A base by Saudi Arabia is also under construction in Djibouti.

“China’s presence in Africa has become systematic, in terms of the economy, diplomacy and – most importantly – military,” said Ni Lexiong, director of the Sea Power and Defence Policy ­Research Institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

“But this would, of course, raise the eyebrows of many ­because the location is of deep strategic importance and it’s China’s first one.

“Countries that see China as a rival, such as Japan, India and Vietnam, would be cautious as they might fear their trade via the route could be affected in the event of war.”

Xinhua said the base would facilitate military cooperation and joint exercises, part of China’s ­efforts to “jointly safeguard the safety of international strategic channels with relevant parties”.

But according to Chinese experts, the main purpose of the base was safeguarding the nation’s economic interests overseas rather than force projection.

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An estimated 60 per cent of the nation’s oil imports come from the Middle East, most of which passes through the gulf, along with huge shipments of raw materials out of Africa. Tens of thousands of Chinese nationals are also employed on the continent, working as labourers and engineers on infrastructure projects – another reason Beijing wanted stable access, said Liu Naiya, an expert in West Asian and African affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“The location is important and strategic as it connects three continents and five seas,” Liu said. “So far, China’s anti-piracy missions are mainly carried out in the Gulf of Aden and the missions need a place to dock. That’s the main reason why we want to build a base there.”

The United States has an estimated 4,000 soldiers operating out of its Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. A US Department of Defence report in 2105 said Chinese attack and ballistic missile submarines were on regular patrol in the Indian Ocean, and could veer further westward when the Djibouti facility was completed.