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Based On What?: China’s First Overseas Base


The Chinese Peopleâs Liberation Army (Navy) (PLAN) has opened its first overseas base on the coast of the small African nation of Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. Djibouti, already home the enormous American Camp Lemonnier (as well as a Japanese, French, Spanish and other military forces), can now host thousands of Chinese soldiers and dozens of Chinese naval vessels. Only a handful of miles will separate the forces of the two great powers as they keep watch over one of the most crucial strips of sea in the world. We will look at what the construction of this new base means for Chinaâs future engagement with the world.
The Geography
Djibouti sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, opposite Yemen, flanked by Somalia to the south and Eritrea to the north. Its hinterland shares a border with Ethiopia. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait links the Mediterranean and Atlantic to the Indian Ocean via Egyptâs Suez Canal. It is one of the most trafficked sealanes on the planet, and vital to the global economy. Piracy and the Yemen Crisis both threaten shipping here.
The USâs Camp Lemonnier is home to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, which has been involved in security operations in the region since the 9/11 attacks. Drone strikes against Al-Shabaab and logistical support to Saudi forces operating in Yemen have both depended on Camp Lemonnier, as have many training and cooperation missions to African nations looking to increase their military or policing capability. America does not want weak African states giving succour to Islamist enemies, as is happening in Nigeria with Boko Haram or Kenya with Al-Shabaab.
Djiboutiâs proximity to the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean also recommends it as a base. While Djibouti is on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by the Red Sea, forces based there are also close to the Strait of Hormuz. 35% of the petroleum carried by sea passes through the Straits of Hormuz, and it offers access to Iraq, Iran and several Gulf States.
If the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz are incredibly crowded, the Arabian Ocean is in parts barren: there are few places to stop between Africa and India compared to the amount of shipping. It is also good to have a friendly port when sailing down and around Africa, or to the Maldives and Seychelles. Djibouti offers this, especially compared to its chaotic neighbours on the Horn of Africa.
Whatâs the PLAN?
The Chinese Navy has been operating around Djibouti for years. Chinaâs energy security and export-dependent economy both need security around the Arabian Peninsula, so Chinese vessels have been combating pirates and escorting ships. A base in Djibouti will make these two important tasks far easier. Regardless of the quality of the PLAN, blue-water operations cannot be sustained indefinitely without returning to a friendly base, which for the Chinese has often meant China. The ability to defend its own vital shipping arteries, rather than free-riding on American naval dominance is important for practical reasons, as well as maintaining martial pride: a great power should not leave the safeguarding of its vital interests to a rival, as it places these interests in its rivalâs hands. Chinese maritime security operations in the region is no bad thing: we all depend on commerce travelling through this vital part of the ocean. The proximity to the US base is also not necessarily dangerous. The Economist suggests proximity will breed familiarity between the two navies, reducing the risk of an action by one being misinterpreted by the other, causing escalation, for example during a future stand-off in the South China Sea.
Chinaâs base in Djibouti is not just to defend the Chinese mainlandâs economy. During the 2011 collapse of Libya, 35,000 Chinese nationals were in the country. China struggled to evacuate them. Eventually many of the Chinese were brought out of Libya by Greece. For all its size and power, China lacked the infrastructure and capability to protect its citizens abroad. A base in Djibouti, with runways large enough for commercial passenger planes, would make such an operation much easier in the future. It is easier to get Chinese oil workers from, say, Iraq to Djibouti, and then home, than from Iraq directly to China by chartered flights.
China also provides large numbers of soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa (Chinese soldiers comprise about a fifth of the UNâs available forces). A base in Djibouti will help Chinaâs contributions to peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, which should hopefully increase along with Chinaâs power and economic involvement in the continent.
Finally, a military base is a sign of international power. By building one in Africa, China is signalling it is no longer content to be viewed as a regional Asian power. It wants to be viewed as a powerful, seafaring and international power. Djibouti lies at the confluence of Europe, Africa and Asia. A Chinese base there shows the central role it hopes to take in the future.
String of Pearls
China is a great power on the rise, and has shown a willingness to use force and the threat of force to achieve its aims (consider its intimidating approach to maritime diplomacy in the South China Sea). Its new base in Djibouti can house 10,000 people. Arguably, if it has to evacuate another 35,000 Chinese nationals from a failing state this will be necessary, but more likely this space will be used for Peopleâs Liberation Army soldiers. While the new base is doubtless mainly intended for humanitarian and anti-piracy operations, we should not give the PLAN the benefit of the doubt. This base could be used aggressively to further Chinese interests at the expense of others. As with so much in international relations, Chinaâs new base should encourage hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
The String Of Pearls theory, developed by the RAND corporation, has India and the US worried. It argues that China is developing a string of naval bases (the eponymous âpearlsâ) across the Indian Ocean, threatening US naval supremacy and Indian maritime security. There are already Chinese ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and elsewhere. While they are mainly involved in international trade they are âdual-useâ, and could quickly be converted to supporting and supplying PLAN ships and submarines. This is why the base in Djibouti is considered the âfirstâ Chinese overseas base: it has others, but they are at present in civilian hands. The Djibouti base provides a Chinese presence far from the Chinese mainland all the way to Africa, surrounding India. India and China fought one war in 1962 along their inhospitable land border. Currently Chinese and Indian army units are facing each other in similar positions. Indiaâs naval inferiority and long coastlines provide China with an alternative to difficult Himalayan warfare, and Indian Ocean bases can facilitate this.
China itself is surrounded by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, three dependable US allies with capable navies, as well as smaller nationalist Asian states like Vietnam and the Philippines wary of their gigantic neighbour. Bases further afield will increase Chinese naval flexibility, allowing it to project power without needing to slip past rivals and foes. It will be able to maintain fleets abroad.
Scramble for Africa
China has heavily invested in Africa, building infrastructure such as the $200m Organisation of African Unityâs (OAU) Addis Ababa headquarters, which it gave away for free as its âgift to Africaâ. In return it has received raw materials which have fuelled its economic growth. A base in Djibouti will allow China to protect its investments and its clients with military force. Consider how different Libyaâs recent history might be had China been able to launch drone strikes on Gaddafiâs forces to protect its nationals in the country. China has been careful to build good relations with many African leaders whose human rights records make them unpalatable to the West. The Djibouti base will embolden those China considers friends in the continent.
Dire Straits
A Chinese fleet operating from Djibouti would be able to sail up the Suez Canal, projecting power along North Africa, the Levant and the Mediterranean. It could exit the Pillars of Hercules and join up with the Russian fleet in the Baltic, as Chinese ships did recently. Again, there are many positive humanitarian or economic reasons to do this. Libya, for example, is still a failed state which might require foreign intervention. Perhaps a peacekeeping operation might be needed between Greece and Turkey, with the US viewed as too biased to play the role. A nearby, professional naval force could be valuable. However, a base in Djibouti also allows China to provide succour to international troublemakers like Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Russia, in a sustained way than if Chinese ships had to sail from China proper.
Chinese ships in the Suez Canal are a recipe for mischief should conflict break out in the South China Sea. Chinese investment in Djibouti dwarfs US investment. In many ways China is propping up Djiboutiâs President Guelleh. Should push come to international shove between China and the US in the not-too-distant future, Washington may not win in Djibouti. This would menace its, and its allies, access to the South China Sea or Indian Ocean in times of conflict. A severed Suez Canal and Chinese presence in the Strait of Hormuz could also be economically ruinous for Europe and the US, though it would also be financially devastating for China.
Basic Thinking
Chinaâs new base in Djibouti is unlikely to be its last. As Chinaâs power grows, so will its wealth. As its wealth grows, so too will its overseas investments. As its overseas investment grows and its dependence on foreign resources increases, it will have the means and the motive to develop more bases to protect its vital interests, just as the US has done. This process will probably continue even without considering its great power rivalry with the US (and with India), global and hopefully peaceful competitions for influence based on power, money and geostrategic positioning. The Djibouti base serves both these strategic imperatives.
It both allows China to play its newly prominent role in the international system as a dutiful member of the UN Security Council, an anti-piracy crusader and protector of the innocent in Africa. It allows China to ensure access to African resources, Arab oil and Western markets. It also permits China to shadow the Americans in Djibouti and support those who might oppose Washington, from Islamabad to Moscow. Djibouti, a country the size of Wales, finds itself hosting a superpower fighting on two continents and now a great power looking to prove itself. Perhaps this concentration of power will benefit a volatile part of the world, but power plus volatility can be a dangerous combination.

Report written by Brendan Clifford


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