A New Chinese Base in Djibouti

China is seen by some as a rising global military threat; by others, an investment partner.

China is building its first “permanent overseas deployment” in Djibouti, a small African country on the Horn of Africa.[1]  China wants to establish 18 strategic bases strung around the Indian Ocean as fueling, supply, and “fully functional centers for replenishment.”[2] Djibouti, perched perfectly at the edge of key shipping lanes, is important not only for trade, but for the counter piracy and extremism operations in the region. It can be, for whosoever has the power, the keystone to Africa and the Middle East.  Some analysts see China’s choice as a direct challenge to the established Western, especially American, power in the region.

Beijing’s 2014 defense agreement with Djibouti includes the use of its port by the Chinese Navy.[3] China will rent the base for 10 years at $20 million a year.[4] Their partnership has also involved other kinds of military and technology assistance, including $12 billion for new infrastructure.[5]  These agreements are part of the larger “Overseas Strategic Support Bases” scheme which closely resembles the American strategy in the region and a “Dual Use Logistics Facility” model.[6]

Domestic demand for natural resources and cheap investment opportunities, especially when investments are strategically located to challenge American hegemony, has led to increasing Chinese economic influence throughout Latin America and Africa. Djibouti isn’t the only African country China is pursuing port and infrastructure agreements with, and this could be indicative of a plan to gain greater regional control. China became the continent’s largest trading partner in 2009.[7] In 2015, Sino-African trade may have been more than $300 billion, and this is apart from aid.[8]

Other countries have also cultivated relationships with Djibouti. The American Camp Lemonnier is the seat of USAFRICOM and regional covert and counter terror operations.[9] France, Germany, and Japan also have bases.[10] . However, while some analysts fear a dramatic shift of the balance of power in the Indian Ocean region, these bases stand out from recent Western disinterest in Africa, and China has stepped up as an investor in places with few alternatives. Rather than a strategic step to counter American power, the base could just be an example of China expanding its influence into areas of relatively low resistance.  The oft reflected on risk of the base being converted to an offensive operating post is slim because of the lack of historical basis, current PLAN behavior, and the much higher level of investment that would be required to launch “large scale operations.”[11] The government has even been avoiding the term “military base.”[12]

Even assuming peaceful intent, many Western nations disagree with China’s noninterference policy. While competing for the same investment opportunities, they go about it with very different expectations and requirements of their partners. China as a creditor competes with the IMF and other global, multilateral (Western dominated) organizations.

China may have several goals in mind. The Port of Djibouti could be intended as the tail end of the New Silk Road project.  Chinese leadership may also be acting in the genuine interest of its citizens, establishing a military presence to protect their African diaspora. Growing trade and presence of Chinese business is incentive for the Chinese government to control piracy and protect its merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean.  China is also involved in global peacekeeping efforts, and sees shipping protection as part of that obligation.[13]

For Djibouti, positives of a relationship with China include economic growth, alliance with a big power, and military assistance. Partnership with China has not only lead to better supplies and training for Djiboutian forces, but Chinese military presence also decreases the burden on the Djiboutian Navy and Air Force.  Chinese investment could help Djibouti achieve coveted status as a global shipping hub, and for the nation to become part of China’s efforts in opening the entire African continent to trade.[14]

The relationship also has the added benefit of stimulating competitiveness from the United States. Competition between two big powers allows them to take advantage of both sides’ interest and raise bids. It is in Djibouti’s interest to play the West, fearful of Chinese influence in the region, and China, seeking to overtake Western influence, against each other.  In addition, a compelling reason for developing African nations to look to China rather than the West may be history. China did not enslave Africans or own African colonies, and seeks to develop mutually beneficial bilateral relationships while also courting regional, multi-lateral organizations disassociated from WTO and IMF stringency.

For Djibouti and its neighbors, the benefits of Chinese partnership are huge, and will likely guarantee its presence for years to come. Fledgling relationships between corporations and nations and organizations are likely to grow, even as China’s domestic economic growth slows.

Overall, the military effects have been minimal. The real impact of Chinese military presence, to this point, has been to set certain countries on edge.

[1] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/59ad20d6-f74b-11e5-803c-d27c7117d132.html#axzz4B0NeuLRJ

[2] Abhijit Singh, “PacNet#7 – A ‘PLA-N’ for Chinese maritime bases in the Indian Ocean,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 26 January, 2015, http://csis.org/publication/pacnet-7-pla-n-chinese-maritime-bases-indian-ocean

[3] http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/mideast-africa/2015/05/16/analyst-chinas-djibouti-ambitions-a-sign-of-the-future/27371513/

[4] http://www.africanews.com/2016/03/24/china-defends-its-naval-base-in-djibouti/

[5] http://www.africanews.com/2016/03/24/china-defends-its-naval-base-in-djibouti/

[6] Brendan Thomas-Noone, “The Master Plan: Could This Be China’s Overseas Basing Strategy,” The National Interest, 6 November, 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-master-plan-could-be-chinas-overseas-basing-strategy-11620

Christopher D. Yung and Ross Rustici, “’Not an Idea We Have to Shun’: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, October 2014, http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/china/ChinaPerspectives-7.pdf

[7] http://www.cfr.org/china/china-africa/p9557

[8] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2015-11/10/content_22417707.htm

[9] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2015/05/150509084913175.html

[10] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2015/05/150509084913175.html

[11] Christopher D. Yung and Ross Rustici, “’Not an Idea We Have to Shun’: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, October 2014, http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/china/ChinaPerspectives-7.pdf

[12] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti-idUSKCN0WA0IT

[13] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti-idUSKCN0WA0IT

[14] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti-idUSKCN0WA0IT

http://www.africanews.com/2016/03/24/china-defends-its-naval-base-in-djibouti/

 

Note: once again, the featured image is of no related place, but I thought matched the theme.  I’m sorry if you felt misled.  The picture is of a fortress tower in Reus, Spain.

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