Over the weekend, the New York Times took a look at China’s first naval base in Djibouti, which will sit adjacent to the United States’ Camp Lemonnier outpost there. News that China would look to set up its first overseas military outpost in the small but strategically located East African nation came in May 2015, and Beijing broke ground on construction in February 2016. China does not call the facility a “naval base” or even a “military installation,” preferring instead to use the more anodyne formation of a “support facility” for the People’s Liberation Army-Navy.
The thrust of the Times‘ look at China’s upcoming facility in Djibouti is the broader effect it could have on the United States’ presence in the country. Camp Lemonnier has served as an important foreign military installation for the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks and has supported U.S. covert operations, including targeted drone strikes, in the Middle East.
The crux of the issue from the U.S. perspective is that China’s Djibouti facility will turn out to be something far greater than an anodyne “support facility.” “The support facility will be mainly used to provide rest and rehabilitation for the Chinese troops taking part in escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian rescue,” the Chinese Defense Ministry told the Times, echoing its previous statements on the matter.
While it’s true that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy has stepped up its presence in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, U.S. military planners no doubt also worry that the “support facility” could gradually evolve into an important logistical node in resupplying and replenishing expeditionary PLAN operations more broadly. For example, in its 2015 report on China’s military, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed for the first time that Chinese attack and ballistic missile submarines were now regularly conducting patrols in the Indian Ocean. These operations could veer further westward once the Djibouti facility is completed.
The United States won’t be the only country watching China’s Djibouti facility with interest. In India, the announcement of a Djibouti facility served as a confirmation of long-standing fears that China would operationalize a string of naval bases across the Indian Ocean littoral. Indian strategists have long feared the potential for China to convert other facilities, including ports at Gwadar in Pakistan, Sittwe in Myanmar, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, into dual-use logistics node for naval use.
Both India and the United States will be closely watching for any signs that China is intending to deviate from the stated purpose of its Djibouti facility. More significantly, both will be watching for follow-up “support facilities” after Djibouti, something Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hinted at last year. However, for now, ties between Djibouti and Beijing continue to grow closer, with China quickly laying the groundwork for a more permanent military presence; the relationship is further cemented by growing Chinese economic involvement in and assistance to Djibouti.