As it continues efforts to exert influence abroad, China has begun sending troops to its first overseas military base, in the tiny East African country of Djibouti — a move that could see it outflank the U.S. in the region.
China started construction on what it calls a “logistics base” in Djibouti last year, and an unknown number of troops and warships set sail from the southern city of Zhanjiang en route to Africa on Tuesday. The stated aim of the base is to buttress China’s peacekeeping efforts on the continent, as well as provide ongoing support to ships under threat from pirates in the region.
It is unclear when operations will begin at the base, but China is joining the U.S., France, and Japan in keeping a military presence in the strategically important nation. Saudi Arabia has also announced plans to build a military base in the country.
The Pentagon currently stations some 4,000 troops at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. The U.S. government agreed in 2014 to pay Djibouti $70 million annually for the next 20 years in lease fees for the camp, which was established in 2001.
Djibouti’s location, on the Horn of Africa, and its relative stability are key. While wars and unrest have dogged other nations in the region — such as Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Eritrea — Djibouti (population under 1 million) is seen as a model of stability.
It is located just 32 km from the war-torn country of Yemen, and is seen as a perfect staging post for operations in the rest of the Middle East. The country is also important from a commercial point of view. Thanks to its proximity to the Mandeb Strait – which gives access to the trade route along the Suez Canal – it provides a vital port to landlocked countries like Ethiopia.
In a bid to win influence over the government and its people in recent years, both China and Saudi Arabia have poured vast amounts of money into the country to support infrastructure projects, education, and training programs. China alone has put $14 billion into projects in Djibouti since 2015. The U.S. on the other hand supplies just $3 million worth of food aid annually, and runs some modest health and education projects.
When China announced plans to build a base in Djibouti in 2015, some U.S. lawmakers urged the Obama administration to try and dissuade Djibouti from allowing the base to go ahead. In India, the location of the base has raised fears that it will become another link in China’s “string of pearls” of military alliances ringing the subcontinent, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
China continues to push the line that this is simply a “logistics base,” with foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang saying it would not only enable China to make “new and greater contributions” to peace in Africa and the world but also benefit Djibouti’s economic development.
However, in an editorial Wednesday, the state-run Global Times said: “There could be no mistake that this was in fact a military base. Certainly this is the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base and we will base troops there. It’s not a commercial resupply point. It makes sense there is attention on this from foreign public opinion.”