In an ongoing effort to expand its global reach, China is looking to establish an outpost in the tiny nation of Djibouti, strategically located on the Horn of Africa. In the geopolitical world, this latest development falls into the category of big things coming in small packages, and as usual, it raises questions about the nature of China's expansion.
"At the same time that China is a coastal power, it is moving outward," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It is essentially developing a more active global presence, although its primary focus is still to deter threats that are closer to China."
That line of thinking was articulated in a defense policy white paper released by the People's Liberation Army in May, outlining policies that, while not exactly new, were newly put to paper. According to the report, China plans to "gradually shift its focus from 'offshore waters defense' to the combination of 'offshore waters defense' with 'open seas protection.' "
The news of the possible outpost follows a recent visit to Djibouti by People's Liberation Army Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui. Nevertheless, China is insisting that its interest not be misinterpreted as a sign of military expansion.
China does have a considerable commercial presence in Africa that it needs to protect, and Djibouti is already a major hub for military options. Not only does the country host the French military, it's home to the US military's headquarters for operations throughout East Africa — counter-piracy and the ongoing fight against al Shabaab in Somalia. The nation also sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb straights, just across from a rapidly disintegrating Yemen.
This outpost would be China's first foray into the Indian Ocean, the means by which China can get access to East Africa.
"It's only in the last couple of years that the Chinese have started operating submarines and surface vessels in the Indian Ocean," noted Glaser. "And in doing so, they clearly are signaling that they have interests that go beyond simply their East Asian coastline, and they want to have more of a presence."
Beijing's efforts to build relationships with African nations have been long-term and multi-dimensional, taking forms like foreign aid, for-profit economic ventures, and peacekeeping operations. Their interests are broad as well. While much of the focus remains on China's desire to grow commercial bonds and gain access to the continent's natural resources, as a recent Brookings Institution analysis points out, the cultivation of African political support is seen as critical to Beijing's foreign policy stances on the international stage.
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That commercial presence on the continent has led to growing security concerns as Chinese nationals and business enterprises contend with regional conflicts and issues of piracy around the Horn of Africa.
The anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden has especially pressed the need for a more established presence. China has "found out over time that it is increasingly difficult to support those ships [involved in anti-piracy operations] without having some kind of facility in the area," said David Shinn, a former US ambassador to both Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, and an expert on Sino-African relations. "As you have a growing number of Chinese nationals living in the region … they increasingly find themselves in harm's way," he said. Beijing is "concerned about how it can protect its nationals more effectively than it has done in the past."
Djibouti's geographic location has made the tiny country strategically crucial to many foreign powers. There's its commercial significance, as a bridging point between the Gulf and Africa across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, connecting the valuable shipping lanes of Asia and Europe, a big driver behind the Somali pirate attacks on commercial shipping. And there's the military, as a hub for operations in the war on terror.
American forces are stationed in Djibouti at Camp Lemonnier, the headquarters for US military operations in East Africa. It is also the launch pad for drone operations in Somalia and Yemen, and as such, plays an enormous role in clandestine counter-terror operations. In the spring of 2014, the US signed a 20-year lease for the base, reportedly agreeing to pay the government of Djibouti a yearly sum of $70 million through a combination of fees and aid.
Before China's most recent foray into Djibouti, China had made major moves there. In 2014, it reached an agreement for the Chinese Navy's use of the port of Djibouti. Beijing has not only sought to establish an almost-base there, but has deepened its financial ties as well. A significant share of infrastructure investments in Djibouti are Chinese-backed, including airports and a rail line connecting Djibouti's port capital with the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. This year, Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh cancelled a longstanding contract with Dubai-based DP World for the administration of Djibouti's port and signed a contract with China instead.
The prospect of greater Chinese commercial, political, and military involvement in the region is seen by some as potentially threatening to the crucial role that Djibouti plays in the ongoing US war against extremism in both Africa and the Gulf. A greater Chinese presence could, some argue, have critical implications for US intelligence-gathering practices and US political influence.
Shinn thinks this is not such a serious concern. "I don't think it'll have any impact on intelligence gathering," he said. "A lot of it depends on what China ultimately agrees to put in Djibouti, and we don't know [what that will be]. So if it's something rather modest and looks like it's less than a base, I don't see that the United States is going to be very concerned about it."
While China clearly seeks to expand its interests, influence, and economic partnerships, Glaser says that Beijing probably has no plans to establish military presences at outposts around the world. "I don't see that the Chinese are looking into putting military troops on the ground anywhere," she said. "That's not something that the Chinese have ever really looked for. They don't see themselves as expanding their influence through having ground troops."