Since its construction, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti has become an increasingly important outpost in the Horn of Africa. The base’s geostrategic location yields insights into China’s machinations for the region.
Roughly two years ago, China’s negotiations with Djibouti for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first overseas military base successfully concluded. On July 11, 2017, the PLAN deployed ships from the South Sea Fleet to officially open the base. The opening ceremony on August 1, 2017 was followed a month and a half later with live fire exercises.
China has avoided using overt military terminology to describe the base, as Mordechai Chaziza notes, “preferring instead to use the terms ‘support facilities’ or ‘logistical facilities.’” China still maintains that the base is primarily for nonmilitary activities; last year, the state-run news agency Xinhua wrote that “the Djibouti base has nothing to do with an arms race or military expansion, and China has no intention of turning the logistics center into a military foothold.” Analysis from Stratfor cast doubt on China’s claim, showing the military base has become heavily fortified with an underground space of 23,000 square meters.
Also, in the year since the base officially opened, it has been party to controversy including the United States. Washington alleged that China was directing powerful lasers from its base at nearby U.S. planes, a nuisance and provocation that injured two airmen. China has denied the allegations.
Much of the tension is attributable to a plethora of countries establishing bases in the Horn of Africa for its geostrategic location. Djibouti offers a prime opportunity for third party state actors to observe and defend international commerce passing through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a shipping passage renowned as the fourth most important world chokepoint for oil exports and imports. Because of the strait’s close proximity to Somalia and piracy originating from its shores, state powers have strong incentives to conduct frequent anti-piracy operations.
Because of the opportunity to run anti-piracy missions in addition to counterterrorism and myriad other activities, the United States, France, Japan, and Italy all maintain bases in Djibouti. The United States’ military base in Djibouti – Camp Lemmonier – is its only permanent base on the African continent, with more than 4,000 troops deployed.
China’s military involvement in the Horn of Africa, primarily consisting of anti-piracy missions, began a decade ago. Today, in addition to anti-piracy operations, declassified analysis from CNA posits that China’s naval facility in Djibouti will support four other key missions: intelligence collection, non-combat evacuation operations, peacekeeping operation support, and counterterrorism.
All of these objectives are in line with a nascent but escalating policy of global military engagement stretching from the South China Sea to East Africa. One of the primary mechanisms for achieving this stated goal is a strong navy, allowing China to project its power across the globe. Naval bases like the one in Djibouti will be integral to achieving this ambition. A Pentagon report from last year noted that the Djibouti base, “along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China’s growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces.” China refuted this claim, and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying argued the Pentagon was making “irresponsible remarks about China’s national defense development in disregard of the facts.”
The Djibouti base was constructed within the context of growing China-Djibouti economic relations, which allowed China to create their base over the United States’ objections. The Import-Export Bank of China has loaned Djibouti nearly $1 billion dollars, and sources indicate that China provides nearly 40 percent of funding for Djibouti’s large-scale infrastructure and investment projects. Some of the most notable among these are the Doraleh Multipurpose Port, the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway, and the Ethiopia-Djibouti Water Pipeline.
China’s base in Djibouti may be a harbinger of more to come in the region. As China continues its policy of Belt and Road investments in Africa, which appear to include provisions for more ports in East Africa, ensuring the security and stability of those investments will of critical importance. Counterpiracy and counterterrorism will become increasingly imperative in the years to come, especially in places like the Horn of Africa where instability meets economic opportunity. Thus, China’s base in Djibouti may not be just a military outpost but also a learning experiment for future bases on the continent.
*Tyler Headley is a research assistant at New York University. His articles have previously appeared in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, and The Diplomat.