China’s Djibouti military base: ‘logistics facility’, or platform for geopolitical ambitions overseas?

Official peacekeeping mission notwithstanding, new outpost has docking facilities that can handle most vessels in China’s naval fleet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 8:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 10:20am

Chinese troops at the country’s only overseas military base conducted their first live-fire exercises last week in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, near some of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

Beijing has described its military outpost as a logistics facility for resupplying Chinese vessels on peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. But satellite imagery and unofficial reports show the base has military infrastructure, including barracks and storage and maintenance units, and docking facilities that can handle most vessels in its naval fleet.

China was the seventh country to establish a military presence in the small African nation, one of the poorest in the region, following in the footsteps of the United States, France and Japan, among others.

But its base in Djibouti – situated en route to the strategically important Suez Canal, at the mouth of the Red Sea – has stoked concerns it would be a platform for Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions overseas.

Here is a quick look at China’s interest in choosing Djibouti.

Strategic location

Many other countries have a presence in Djibouti, a factor that was critical in Beijing’s decision to build its first overseas military base in the African nation. For example, Djibouti houses the US’ only permanent military installation on the continent.

“It’s less controversial for China to be in Djibouti simply because there are many other countries with a presence there,” said Zhang Baohui, a Lingnan University professor of Chinese foreign policy.

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Djibouti is also far from China’s main competitors – a base at Gwadar Port in Pakistan, for example, would have raised alarm in New Delhi.

Zhang said the base’s siting in Djibouti meant China could credibly claim it was for humanitarian missions such as anti-piracy efforts off the coasts of Somalia and Yemen.

Beijing has deployed vessels from Somalia for these missions since 2008, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.

“[The base] will also help promote economic and social development in Djibouti,” he said.

Protecting Chinese investment

China also wants to be able to protect its interests along its “21st century maritime Silk Road”, the sea-based part of Beijing’s expansive “Belt and Road Initiative”, according to Malcolm Davis, Asian security expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“There’s lots of Chinese diaspora and investment, and also trade flows in that region,” he said. “It primarily is about being able to have a presence in a strategically important area.”

Around 40 per cent of Chinese imports passed through the Gulf of Aden waterway near Djibouti by 2008, according to a report by CNA, a Virginia-based research organisation.

Live-fire show of force by troops from China’s first overseas military base

CNA said Djibouti relied heavily on capital from China, with Chinese firms providing US$1.4 billion in funding for the nation’s major investment projects.

China’s military base there lies next to the Doraleh Multipurpose Port, partly funded and operated by China’s state-owned China Merchants Holdings. Chinese state firms have also financed and built the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway and Ethiopia-Djibouti Water Pipelines.

Broader strategic aims

According to the CNA report, the Djibouti base can help support China’s missions for “far seas protection” to support operations such as combatting piracy, the evacuation of Chinese citizens, peacekeeping, counterterrorism, intelligence collection and protection of strategic sea lanes.

Analysts say Beijing could use the base to project its power into North Africa, as well as to strengthen its position in the Indian Ocean.

“What it could mean for Chinese ship deployments into the Indian Ocean is they could [maintain] much longer periods of patrolling in the Indian Ocean,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, senior fellow for South Asia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The familiarity of the Chinese navy with the Indian Ocean has increased tremendously.”

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But this has raised concern in India about regional maritime security, particularly in view of China’s other regional naval bases in countries such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka, analysts say.

“China’s maritime strategy is oriented to counter India in the Indian Ocean, particularly building naval bases around India’s neighbourhood in the Indian Ocean,” Bawa Singh, an international relations scholar at the Central University of Punjab, said.