The People’s Republic of China has inaugurated its first military base overseas in the Republic of Djibouti. The project further cements Beijing’s interest in the African continent, and exemplifies how the latter continues to be utilized as part of a geopolitical game of influences by global military powers.
Beijing has stated that the base will be utilized to monitor maritime commerce that crosses the Suez Canal and passes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean. A July 11 article by Xinhua explains that “the base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia” and also it will “be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.” The base was inaugurated on 1 August and the Beijing – Djibouti deal will reportedly last until 2026.
There are certainly valid reasons for the project, as pirates off the coast of Somalia have targeted civilian vessels for years. As a response, the Europe Union created the Naval Force Operation Atalanta, to combat piracy in the Horn of Africa. Apart from European navies, countries like Colombia and China have also provided vessels to protect this important maritime route. China is particularly at risk of suffering if maritime trade through the Indian Ocean suffers, as the Asian giant imports much of its resources.
As for the facilities, they are supposed to be a port for Chinese naval platforms to dock, resupply and continue their patrolling operations. Nevertheless, the complex appears to be suited for other tasks. The renowned company Stratfor published on 26 July an assessment of the base, which included aerial photos of the facilities. The article explains how the base has an “extensive security perimeter, which features three layers of defense,” as well as “a large underground component [which] measures approximately 23,000 square meters.” Stratfor also explains that there is a “tarmac and a row of eight hangars which suggest that aircraft such as helicopters could be based there someday. However, it is unlikely that the facility will host fixed-wing aircraft because at 400 meters the tarmac is much too short to accommodate fighter jets or even larger drones.”
Indeed, China’s first base abroad should be regarded as a major, well-defended complex.
To be fair, China is not the sole hemispheric power to have military facilities in the African continent. In fact, the U.S. already has a base in Djibouti: the US Naval Expeditionary Base, situated at Djibouti’s Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport, also known as Camp Lemonnier which is shared with France. France also has access to naval base of Héron; Italy has BMNS-Base Militare Nazionale di Supporto (National Support Military Base); while Japan’s defense facilities are called Deployment Airforce for Counter-Piracy Enforcement (DAPE). In other words, five nations, out of which three are nuclear powers, with Tokyo and Washington having issues (to phrase it mildly) with Beijing, have facilities in a country measuring approximately 23,200 km2.
While it is outside of this commentary’s analysis, one must wonder what is the rationale of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (in power since 1999 and re-elected in 2016 for a fourth term) to allow five countries, to have military deployments in his nation’s territory. One of the explanations has to be financial as the leased military bases to the five nations will add funds to the coffers of the country. Secondly these bases could discourage Eritrea from any further adventures as border issues between the neighbors escalate. Of course this also means that the quality of the Djiboutian military will improve as well as the foreign powers will probably carry out training operations with local forces.
Moreover it is worth noting, the U.S. has several other bases across the continent, known as Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) and Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs). As for France, the European nation has become very involved in Mali to combat al-Qaeda linked groups. A May 19, 2012 report by Al Jazeera highlights how Paris has “1,600 French soldiers stationed [in Mali], on the largest French military base outside of France.” Additionally, France has a base in Gabon. India, another rising global power like China, has the Indian Overseas Military Base at Assumption Island in the Seychelles. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has British Army Training Unit in Kenya and the International Military Assistance Training Team (IMATT) in Sierra Leone. Similarly, recent reports hint at Turkey opening up training facilities in Somalia with plans announced recently to open an additional facility in said country.
Finally, it is important to note that the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are increasingly active in Africa as well. As one of the co-authors has pointed out previously, the GCC “recognize[s] that across Africa’s Muslim-majority countries a host of violent and extremist Islamic groups pose a dire threat to Arabian Peninsula security and GCC interests in Africa.” The UAE has already opened up a base in Somaliland region, and it will be interesting to see if other GCC nations take similar initiatives in the near future.
21st Century Military Geopolitics
Today, the Africa continent constitutes 54 independent nations (depending on whether to count Somalia as a single state, which is another issue). Nevertheless, while the era of colonialism is over, neo-colonialism seems to be alive and well. There are a plethora of works in recent years about how Africa continues to be taken advantage of, with very little trickling down to benefit the masses. For example, Tom Burgis’ The Looting Machine discusses the role of transnational companies that profit from Africa’s natural resources.
Moreover, various extra-hemispheric governments have increased their presence in Africa by establishing military facilities to battle specific security threats (mostly rebels, pirates or terrorist movements) but which have the added bonus of creating strong defense-related bonds between the host country and the outside power. The United States, by far, has the biggest military presence in Africa in terms of number of bases as well as personnel (though figuring out an exact number is tricky given the secrecy of these deployments). However former colonial powers like France, Italy and the UK, as well as non-Western states like India, Japan, Turkey and GCC states also have defense roles in the region. Hence, it should not be a surprise that China is establishing a base in Africa, as Beijing is simply following a pattern established by several other nations.
With that said, there is the obvious concern about how the ongoing mistrust and animosity between Washington and Beijing will play out in Djibouti. Will the facilities of both nations manage to co-exist peacefully as they are there, at least theoretically, to face common security threats?
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect any institutions with which the authors are associated.