China will soon establish its first military base on the African continent in the country of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, according to a U.S. General. Such a move by Beijing was expected. China is currently involved in economic projects across Africa and it was only a matter of time before they would establish a base there. The establishment of a base in Africa will allow China to project its power with greater efficiency as it expands its global role while also gaining greater influence in Africa. While some in the West are disconcerted by this, this move by Beijing in no way represents a real threat to Western, specifically U.S. interests in the region.
China’s Military Base
Recently, Beijing signed a 10-year contract with the government of Djibouti for the establishment of a logistic-military base. For some time there has been talk of China establishing base in that country but only now is it becoming reality. As reported by The Hill, the commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Army General David Rodriguez told defense reporters that this base will serve as a logistics hub allowing Beijing to “extend their reach” into the region.
China currently pays Djibouti to allow ships of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to dock there following the signing of an agreement in February 2014. The new deal which is for ten years provides a degree of permanence while also allowing for the establishment of facilities and infrastructure. PLAN ships have been engaged in anti-piracy operations off Somalia since late 2008 which represented the PLANs largest-ever overseas deployment up to then. In early 2010 Beijing joined the multination anti-piracy operation in the region and since 2008 over 16,000 PLAN sailors have served in these operations.
In May, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh told AFP that China and Djibouti were in talks concerning the establishment of a military base. Guelleh said regarding the presence of U.S, French, and Japanese forces in his country, “France’s presence 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”. Regarding China he said “the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome.”
Earlier this month People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui visited a PLAN warship, the Sanya that was replenishing in Djibouti fueling speculation of a pending China-Djibouti base deal. Beijing though has yet to comment on the deal.
Foreign Bases in Djibouti
The U.S. currently has a base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier which is the only permanent base of the U.S. in Africa. From this base which includes an airfield, the U.S. and allies conduct intelligence, counter-piracy and counterterrorism operations in the region. Approximately 4,000 U.S., joint and allied forces military and civilian personnel along with Department of Defense contractors work at the U.S. Navy run installation which has been under U.S. control since the early 2000s.
In 2011, Japan established a base in the country to assist in its regional anti-piracy operations. Prior to this, Japanese forces had been based at Camp Lemonnier since 2009. Japan has about 180 members of its Self Defense Forces (SDF) stationed at the base which is next to the main international airport in Djibouti City. This is Japan’s first full-fledged and only overseas base.
Djibouti also plays host to a French base and its relations with its former occupying power are strong. France has the longest history of countries with bases in Djibouti. Between1999 and 2001, France assisted the government in Djibouti to put down an insurgency and during that time saw the country grow host to the largest concentration of French forces in Africa. As the situation in the country grew more stable, France gave over its Foreign Legion post to the local government which later sold it to the U.S. and is now Camp Lemonnier. France currently maintains over 1,500 troops in the country which support its regional operations.
China in Africa
As China grows in power globally, so does its influence. In Africa, China is very active across the continent in varied projects. It was only a matter of time before Beijing would establish a base there. Currently China is Africa’s largest bilateral trading partner and has been since 2009, far exceeding that of the U.S. In 2013, the China-Africa trade volume was double that of U.S.-Africa trade and between 2000 and 2013, China-Africa trade increased 20 fold, from around $10 billion to more than $200 billion respectively.
There are vast mineral and oil resources across Africa that have been tapped thanks to Chinese direct investment which grew from $3.2 billion to $32 billion between 2005 and 2014 respectively. Over 2,000 Chinese enterprises are invested in African energy, power, and infrastructure development projects. In addition to natural resources, China has found Africa to be an ideal market for its manufactured goods.
Apart from economic projects, China already has significant military forces across Africa as part of UN-backed missions such as in Sudan where it deployed 700 troops earlier this year. Arguably though, China is as interested in ensuring peace in Africa as it is ensuring the safety of its economic projects.
View from the West
There are those in the West who view this move by Beijing with caution. Senior member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, Senator Chris Coons (D-Del) urges vigilance on the part of the U.S. concerning this development. He said “Overall, China’s presence in Africa is certainly something we need to pay more attention to, but not just in Djibouti. Africa’s middle class is growing faster than ever, and the continent offers great opportunities for partnerships between both governments and the private sector.” He added “We don’t want to lose out on those opportunities to Chinese companies or the Chinese government, whose interests might not always align with ours.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council believes the establishment of a base in Djibouti by China is to be expected given the latter’s economic role in Africa. Additionally such a base would greatly improve Beijing’s intelligence gathering capabilities in the region. Pham said “If China establishes itself as a fellow protector of the global commons, then it certainly increases its stature.”
Arguably the U.S. already has lost out on many economic opportunities in Africa. China has been pouring money into Africa to secure new markets and resources while the U.S. has arguably been on the sidelines. One cannot fault Beijing for taking a more active role towards securing a more permanent footing in Africa due to this. Its planned base must be viewed as being more than a military establishment; it is an investment in Djibouti and will allow for greater engagement with countries in Africa which can result in increased economic opportunities.
Furthermore, there is a real need for such a base. China has been forced on more than one occasion in the past few years to evacuate its citizens from countries in the region torn apart by internal disruptions. While China does rent facilities in Djibouti, the establishment of a long-term permanent base will allow Beijing to more quickly respond to such situations while having greater available resources.
Is this eventual Chinese base a threat to U.S interests in the region? That depends. Djibouti hosts the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. What China is seeking though is primarily intended to be a logistics base. To be honest regarding influence, this base pales in comparison when compared to the degree of Chinese investment into the African continent over that of the U.S. While there are those in Washington who look at this move by Beijing with caution, ultimately blame for the fallout can be placed on their shoulders. The U.S. has been complacent and often disinterested in its dealings with Africa and in the absence of Washington’s involvement, Africa has found a willing partner in Beijing.