HONG KONG — On the horn of Africa, as you may have read, the tiny nation of Djibouti, home to American, French, German, Italian, and Japanese military bases, is about to welcome the Chinese as well.
Last November, China and Djibouti reached an agreement to set up a naval base in the Obock region in the north of the country, where an American outpost was evicted last August.
The U.S. base that remains, called Camp Lemmonier, costs the United States $70 million a year in lease fees and development aid.
For 10,000 Chinese troops to move in to East Africa, Beijing promised the completion of a $3 billion railroad to connect Djibouti with the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and a $400 million investment to expand and modernize the East African nation’s port.
This will be the first overseas military installation of the People’s Republic. Chinese officials say the base will be a logistics and supply center, which sounds innocuous enough. But its location has major strategic significance: south of the Suez Canal at the mouth of the Red Sea, facing the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coastline.
In fact, whoever controls Djibouti’s strategic position controls a key chokepoint of global trade.
Even if China doesn’t present its project that way, clearly that’s the attraction.
Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, the foreign minister of Djibouti, told the press, “The goal of the base is to fight against pirates, and most of all, to secure the Chinese ships using this very important strait that is important to all the countries in the world.”
“For Djibouti,” he added, China is “an additional strategic ally.”
Those Chinese ships Youssouf was referring to are carrying oil, and lots of it.
By taking advantage of crashing commodities prices, China has been buying up the world’s petroleum. Last year, Bloomberg reported that China purchased half a million barrels of crude in excess of its daily needs in the first seven months of 2015. In the current economic downturn that is rocking markets across the world, China is saving $460 billion per year in its purchase of commodities, about $320 billion of which is from cheap oil.
China’s new base in Djibouti can be seen as part of its policy in Africa and the Middle East. Last December, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in funding to China’s partners in Africa. The next month, he visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran.
For many years, Saudi Arabia was China’s biggest supplier of crude oil (Russia now periodically displaces the kingdom in that role), with bilateral trade reaching $69.1 billion in 2014.
China will lend the Central Bank of Egypt $1 billion to prop up Egypt’s foreign reserves.
Xi was the first foreign head of state to visit Tehran after sanctions on Iran were lifted, leaving with 17 signed agreements to increase bilateral trade to $600 billion in the next decade.
Beyond commerce, Beijing has also taken an interest in Middle Eastern geopolitical affairs.
Another way to view China’s new base in Obock is as an element of Chinese naval expansion, driven by conflicting territorial claims closer to home, and the desire to counter American influence in its backyard and regions where Chinese trade is seen as a matter of national security.
On the final day of 2015, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson announced that the navy’s second aircraft carrier was being built in Dalían, a city in northeastern China. The first, the Liaoning, was built by the Soviet Union, purchased from Ukraine in 1998, then refitted by Beijing. This second ship will be built entirely in China, although its design is a copy of a Soviet-era vessel with some modern touches. It is lighter than the Liaoning but with a slightly larger flight deck. China’s J-15 fighter jet pilots and carrier crew have been training on the Liaoning, and the Chinese military announced in late-December that it is now able to operate ship-borne aircraft.
Conflicting claims to islands, reefs and rocks in the East and South China Seas have set off verbal battles between neighbors in East and Southeast Asia, and those spats are constantly on the verge of escalation.
From July to September last year, Japanese jets scrambled 117 times to prevent incursions by Chinese jets over the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Beijing has built artificial islands in the South China Sea to strengthen its claim to existing island chains. Following the USS Lassen’s freedom of navigation operation near the Spratly Islands, which China calls Nansha and claims as part of its territory, China’s naval commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, told his American counterpart, Admiral John Richardson, that a minor incident could spark war if the United States does not halt “provocative acts.”
Last month, the USS Curtis Wilbur, made a similar pass near the Paracel Islands. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the operation “was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others, not about territorial claims to land features.”
Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesperson Yang Yujun said the American ship’s patrol “damaged the peaceful, safe, and good order in relevant waters and is not beneficial to regional peace and stability.”
More recently, the Chinese military placed two batteries of eight missile launchers, plus a sophisticated radar system, on Woody Island, which is part of the contested Paracel Island chain.
When Secretary of State John Kerry met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing in late-January, Wang reiterated Chinese President Xi Jinping’s commitment to avoid the militarization of the South China Sea—a pledge made during Xi’s September visit to the U.S. last year. Wang also said China had built civil installations in the South China Sea, then added ominously, “International law has given all sovereign countries the right to self-defense.”
By Beijing’s logic, missile batteries make the South China Sea a safer place.
China is eager to expand its wartime capabilities, in fact.
In the military publication PLA Daily, a researcher at the People’s Liberation Army’s Naval Military Academic Research Institute said the country needs at least three aircraft carriers in rotation for naval patrols, training, and maintenance. However, analysts in the U.S. predict a much more viral rate of expansion.
Under directions from Congress, the Pentagon commissioned an independent assessment of American strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. The Center for Strategic and International Studies produced that report in January. The study warns that the South China Sea will be “virtually a Chinese lake” by 2030, because there will be so many Chinese aircraft carriers operational by then.
A base in Djibouti, or any other location open to hosting the PLAN (the suggestive, if coincidental, acronym for the People’s Liberation Army Navy) would be necessary to project that power beyond China’s immediate neighborhood.
Ultimately, China’s base in Djibouti is a component of Xi Jinping’s flagship “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Superficially that looks like a project to deepen economic ties between China and many of its trade partners. But consider the series of ports that China is building, has developed, or expressed interest in.
China is building Colombo Port City, a patch of land to be reclaimed off the shore of Sri Lanka’s capital, and will own Port City when it is operational.
China has ambitions to transform Bangladesh’s Chittagong port. (That may not happen. Japan might have established a foothold there already.)
A Chinese state-owned enterprise signed a 40-year lease for control of the Gwadar Port free trade zone in Pakistan.
China invested $2.5 billion in a port on Maday Island in Burma to secure an oil and gas pipeline in Yunnan Province.
China uses Port Victoria in the Seychelles as a refueling point for anti-piracy operations, and gifted a purpose-built vessel to the Seychelles Coast Guard for patrols.
A decade-old Booz Allen Hamilton report calls these ports part of China’s “string of pearls”—a network of facilities that run through major maritime chokepoints and strategic locations.
What we see now is the PLAN expanding westward.
China says it maintains a non-interventionist principle in its foreign policy, but when Chinese troops set foot in Djibouti, it will be clear that Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” economic plan has a strong military component, setting a disturbing precedent where China attempts to exert dominance of global shipping routes, both economically and militarily.
For the Chinese navy, that means a significant adjustment to their role. Not only are they meant to secure Beijing’s interests in the East and South China Seas, the Chinese navy is now also a tool of power projection around the globe.