China has signed a ten-year contract to open up its first military base overseas – in Djibouti, at the intersection of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea – according to a U.S. military official. Kristina Wong of The Hill cited U.S. General David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, confirming the news to defense reporters.
China is “going to build a base in Djibouti, so that will be their first military location in Africa,” Rodriguez said. He described the base as a logistics hub that China would use to “extend their reach.”
Though China has consistently refused to confirm reports that it will establish a military presence anywhere overseas, the government of Djibouti has talked openly about the prospect. Back in May, President Ismail Omar Guelleh told AFP that China and Djibouti were in talks about opening up a Chinese military base. A Chinese military presence would be “welcome,” he added.
France’s presence [in Djibouti] is old, and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region… The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy — and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome.
China’s Foreign Ministry responded to reports on Guelleh’s remarks by saying that “regional peace and stability serves the interests of all countries … The Chinese side is ready and obliged to make more contributions to that end.” However, Chinese officials have also repeatedly stressed that China does not have any military bases overseas.
China won’t be alone in establishing a military presence in Djibouti. Thanks to its strategic location, the country already plays host to military facilities from a number of countries. U.S. Africa Command’s primary base of operations, Camp Lemonnier, is in Djibouti. France maintains about 1,500 troops in Djibouti (and was the original operator of Camp Lemonnier). Even Japan, which has strict limits on the ability of its military to operate overseas, has a military presence there – in 2011, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force opened a base near the international airport in Djibouti City to serve as a hub for anti-piracy operations.
That’s the most probable use for a Chinese military presence in Djibouti as well. China has been taking part in international anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, yet without a permanent base in the area, its ships are forced to use temporary docking arrangements in Djibouti. Setting up a logistics hub (as Rodriguez described it) would allow China to service the ships that are already regularly deployed to the region. It would also likely allow China to still claim it doesn’t have any overseas bases, because its military facilities in Djibouti would be aimed at resupply and logistical support.
Christopher Yung, co-author of a 2014 study on China’s overseas basing options, wrote for The Diplomat that Beijing would be most likely to pursue a “dual use logistics facility” overseas rather than following the U.S. basing model. “Such a logistics facility would be designed to address non-traditional security challenges to China’s overseas interests,” Yung wrote. “It would ease the logistics burden of China’s overseas naval operations (at present mostly counter-piracy operations), but could expand to support limited operations protecting Chinese citizens and property abroad.”
That seems to be precisely the model China is pursuing in Djibouti – a logistics hub for its counter-piracy operations and for potential contingencies. It’s telling that Guelleh confirmed China’s interest in establishing a base in Djibouti one month after China’s navy had to conduct a large-scale evacuation of its citizens (and other foreign nationals) from Yemen. All told, China evacuated 629 of its citizens and 279 foreign nationals, according to Xinhua – and many of them were evacuated to Djibouti. That example, the second time in five years China has to undertake a mass evacuation of its citizens in the greater Middle East, likely drove home the utility of having a military base in the area.
Setting up a military base in Djibouti is a logical next step for China. And Rodriguez didn’t seem overly concerned about the prospect; according to The Hill, he noted that China’s military activities in Africa are mostly restricted to taking part in UN-mandated peacekeeping missions and providing training for military officials.
Chinese officials are opposed in principle to doing much more than that, particularly so far from home. Establishing a U.S.-style network of military bases runs counter to Beijing’s long-held policies against intervention in other states’ affairs. When China does take part in military operations overseas, to date it has done so only under the aegis of the United Nations – and that’s unlikely to change. Instead, Beijing has actually doubled-down on the UN’s central role by making major new commitments to the peacekeeping force. A Chinese military base in Djibouti is hugely significant as a sign of China’s growing interests and presence in the Middle East and Africa, but should not be viewed as evidence of nefarious intentions.