DN - Defence Notes

Analysis: Details emerge on China’s Djibouti base

29th September 2017 - 06:09 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

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As China’s first overseas military base, the facility in the Horn of Africa is of great significance as it is strategically sited to monitor sea lanes. 

Indeed, the idea was ostensibly proposed to support the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) anti-piracy task force operating in the Gulf of Aden.

In a report entitled ‘China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti: The Economic and Security Dimensions of China’s First Overseas Base’ and published by CNA in July, the authors listed five uses of the Djibouti base: counterpiracy, intelligence collection, non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), peacekeeping operations and counterterrorism.

That intelligence collection is listed is interesting, as the base puts China in close proximity to American, French and Japanese facilities in Djibouti, as well as their activities around Africa.

‘While it is too soon to know how the facility will be used, it seems reasonable to believe it will be used in support of counterpiracy operations early on,' the CNA report noted.

'China’s military support facility in Djibouti may also be of immediate value in collecting various types of signal intelligence, which can likely be done without having to leave the confines of the Chinese facility, and in ways that do not attract attention.’

The authors continued that additionally ‘black swan’ events, such as a government collapse in a country where China has significant personnel or investments, may press the base into supporting more complex operations such as NEOs sooner rather than later. 

'Absent such an event, however, we may begin to see the facilities supporting a wider range of operations after the PLA Navy gains experience in operating and managing its new facilities.’

Negotiations between Djibouti and Beijing began in 2015, and China was eventually permitted a ten-year lease as construction kicked off in March 2016. The first troop contingent departed China on 11 July.

The base is sited immediately southwest of the Doraleh Multipurpose Port being constructed by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation, of which phase one opened in May.

In a detailed study of the 36-hectare base, Col Vinayak Bhat (retd) recently authored an assessment published by ThePrint in India.

Bhat estimated that the base, which he described as a fortress, ‘can accommodate a brigade and [it] has unprecedented security arrangements’.

There are four layers of security fences and two entrances. The outermost fence, as well as the two innermost, are solid, while the other is a wire fence. Roads separate the fences to allow for security patrols.

Bhat concluded that the innermost hollow wall is 9m wide. The other two inner fences are 8-10m high, protected by lights and guard posts. 

The heliport can accommodate up to a dozen helicopters, Bhat concluded. It features seven aircraft storage hangars, a larger maintenance hangar and control tower. The tarmac is approximately 400m long. 

There are at least ten storage buildings (each 15x45m), a five-storey accommodation block, ammunition point, underground air-conditioning plant and office complex. Bhat suggested the base could have a reverse-osmosis water filtration plant too, and there may be a hospital.

The hardened ammunition point is built underground and is fenced off from the rest of the base. In addition, the base has a 60x70m semi-underground storage tank for fuels.

There are garages for vehicles. A Xinhua picture of the official opening ceremony on 1 August revealed that at least six ZBD-09 IFVs and Dongfeng CSK141 4x4 armoured vehicles are present.

Certainly, the presence of such armoured firepower seems unwarranted given threat conditions in Djibouti. Therefore, the choice of such vehicles reinforces the notion that China wished to create a permanent expeditionary force there.

The base is still under construction, leading Bhat to state, ‘The west side of the facility that is still not constructed may have satellite communications facilities, very low frequency and/or over-the-horizon radar and a direct sea access in future.’

The latter is most certainly accurate, with the South China Morning Post publishing a story on 27 September quoting a source: ‘The Chinese navy needs a large-scale pier to offer logistical support for its flotillas conducting anti-piracy operations in Somali waters.’

The source continued, ‘The scale of the wharf should allow for the docking of a four-ship flotilla at least, including China’s new generation Type 901 supply ship with a displacement of more than 40,000t, destroyers and frigates, as well as amphibious assault ships for combat and humanitarian missions.’

Construction of the wharf will commence after accommodation areas are completed. If the wharf facilities can accommodate the Type 901, it is not inconceivable that it could host a Chinese aircraft carrier too.

The facility will certainly contain a maintenance and repair capacity. China was embarrassed by the breakdown of a Type 052B destroyer in the Gulf of Aden in May 2010.

China has never revealed how many troops will be stationed at the base. Speculation has varied from several thousand up to 10,000, although the latter figure seems exaggerated given that the US has an estimated 4,000 troops at Camp Lemonnier, currently the largest foreign base in Djibouti.

Last week it emerged that PLAN marines conducted live-fire drills at a Djibouti military firing range, showing the PLA’s desire to interact with Djibouti’s military and to not confine itself merely to its base.

The establishment of the new base accords with China’s stated government policy. Its 2015 Defence White Paper introduced the term ‘near seas defence, far seas protection’ for the PLAN’s new naval strategy.

Furthermore, in the same year the country passed a counterterrorism law that permitted the PLA or People’s Armed Police to conduct counterterrorism operations overseas.

Bhat said, ‘While it would enable China to exert influence in the African continent, the facility could be the model for similar bases that are being planned at Gwadar or Karachi in the future.’

Certainly, there is ample evidence that China is considering other bases abroad. 

For example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March 2016, ‘We are willing to try to carry out the construction of infrastructure facilities and logistic capacity in the regions where China’s interest is involved.’

The CNA report quoted a 2014 article from China’s Naval Research Institute, which listed the following seven potential locations for future Chinese military facilities: Bay of Bengal, Sittwe in Myanmar, Gwadar in Pakistan, Djibouti, Seychelles, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

CNA predicted, ‘It is worth noting that the Chinese may wait for some time before establishing any additional military facilities overseas; in particular, they may wait until they have gained some experience in Djibouti.

'However, what is clear is that with the establishment of its first ever military facility in Djibouti, the Chinese navy has entered a new stage in its pursuit of becoming a truly international navy.’

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