Analysis: Djibouti – China’s first base challenges American dominance
For a strategic planner looking for a critical maritime chokepoint, beyond canals there are only two really scary ones on the planet worthy of attention – the Malacca Strait and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
In the latter case, the Bab el-Mandeb connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.
On 1 August, the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese officially opened their first overseas military base and naval support facility in Djibouti with a flag raising ceremony.
Although there are numerous foreign militaries in Djibouti, including 4,000 US troops and 2,000 French troops, the new Chinese base can handle up to 10,000 with port facilities capable of handling its new aircraft carrier and other large warships, according to a new report by Washington-based CNA, ‘China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti’, released in late July.
To make matters more interesting, the base is heavily fortified and has underground facilities, making many analysts wonder how long the Chinese plan to stay.
‘The base cements the permanence of China’s presence in the Indian Ocean region and gives China strategic weight out of the western Pacific,’ said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor at the US Naval War College and author of the book Red Star over the Pacific.
He said that international power elites must now account for Chinese interests in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean.
‘This represents a profound change in the strategic landscape from just a decade ago,’ Yoshihara said.
According to the CNA report, the base will allow for five types of operations: peacekeeping, counterterrorism, intelligence collection, sea lane protection, counterpiracy, and non-combatant evacuation operations (NCO).
In terms of NCOs, China has conducted two operations so far: Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015.
The CNA report states that relations between Djibouti and Beijing began in earnest in 2007 when China began counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
Then in 2013, discussions began on establishing a permanent base. In 2015, Chinese officials began using the phrase ‘near seas defence, far seas protection’ for the first time in official policy statements in reference to Djibouti.
CNA also identifies six other possible locations for Chinese bases under the ‘near seas defence, far seas protection’ policy: Bay of Bengal; Sittwe, Myanmar; Gwadar, Pakistan; Seychelles; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Djibouti will no doubt be inspirational for China’s plans for future bases.
‘Yet, only inspirational, no more, no less, since all the political, economic, social and strategic conditions will never be the same from region to region,’ said Chang Ching, a retired Taiwan naval officer, now a research fellow at the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies.
One possibility, missing in the CNA report, is that China might use Djibouti as a satellite tracking station to support its global positioning system (Beidou), and communication and surveillance satellites.
‘It is a well-known fact that China’s lack of satellite ground tracking stations has been a bottleneck for expanding its global satellite coverage,’ Chang said.
‘The Djibouti base should be a wake-up for those concerned by the decline of US global influence since the high point of 1991,’ said Sam Tangredi, author of the book Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies.
China seeks all the trappings of a global power and in doing so spends a lot of its efforts mimicking the US military.
Djibouti is comfortable and safe in a ‘authoritarian’ state that has abolished term limits for the presidency and is one of the most corrupt countries on earth, Tangredi concluded.
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