China’s FIRST EVER Overseas Military Base: Why Djibouti?

Yesterday, China officially opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti (in the Horn of Africa). In a press conference on February 25 of last year, the spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China described the intended use of the base as such:

“Through friendly consultations between China and Djibouti, the two sides have reached consensus for China to build support facilities in Djibouti. The facilities will mainly be used for logistical support and personnel recuperation of the Chinese armed forces conducting such missions as maritime escort in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.”

While the described uses above are fairly mundane, Djibouti nevertheless offers several major strategic advantages that should not be overlooked. China’s ability to capitalize on these advantages is a new development, but several other countries are already situated with military bases in the area.

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The list of countries with military bases in Djibouti includes the following (Saudi Arabia has plans to be on this list as well):

  • China
  • France
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • USA

So why is this the case? Why here?

Trade Routes and Stability

Put simply, protection of economic interests and a chance to gain footing in a relatively calm slice of the crisis-filled African continent are the two main drivers for establishing military bases in Djibouti.

On the economic side, the location on the Gulf of Aden/Suez Canal trade route is what makes Djibouti so attractive. As Ben Ho Wan Beng, a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, cited last year, about 20,000 ships, 20% of global exports, and 10% of global oil exports go through this route each year. A military base in the region can help alleviate piracy concerns and protect trade interests in the event of the outbreak of any kind of widespread conflict. Furthermore, a free trade zone and banking deal has already been agreed to between Djibouti and China. Other, similar agreements between China and other parts of Africa could potentially follow.

Examining the advantage of stability that Djibouti offers provides some interesting insight. While the USA largely uses such stability as a launching point for ground-based operations against terrorism in the more volatile neighboring parts of Africa, most analysts see China’s base serving the purpose of projecting power across water. For this reason (i.e. the apparently stark difference in strategic purpose), there seems to be a consensus that the neighboring bases of each of the countries will not lead to any major, immediate confrontations. As Andrew Gawthorpe, lecturer in Contemporary Military History and Security Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands, put it:

“Beijing’s intentions are thoroughly aquatic: it is interested in power projection across water, not land.  The facility in Djibouti is likely to be the first such installment around the Indian Ocean from which Beijing can in the future protect the maritime trade routes which are so crucial to its economy…The U.S. uses Camp Lemonnier to prosecute the “war on terror” across Yemen and North Africa, an issue that interests China little because Al-Qaeda and related groups do not pose a threat to Beijing.”

While the potential for any sort of military confrontation is not raising many red flags at the moment, some are pointing out the potential for increased espionage between China and the United States, thanks to the proximity of their bases in Djibouti.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see (a) if, and how much, China deviates from the originally stated purpose of its new base, and (b) if China is able to handle the logistics of the new base without creating any tensions or encroaching on any operations of the United States or any of its allies’ bases in the crowded area.

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