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Djibouti Military Base Is a New Step in China’s Maritime Footprint
By Rajaram Panda

China seems in a rush to increase its strategic space through aggressive use of its economic, strategic and cultural influence, with the long-term goal of projecting power and contending with the United States to be the world’s No.1 power. It is trying to expand its reach territorially, increase its influence over other countries, create new institutions, rewrite the rules of existing institutions and establish new behavioral norms. In the economic sphere, its massive “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative aims to connect China and its products with Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, in the process violating the sovereignty of other nations, as demonstrated by its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through disputed Kashmir. It is also using liberal financial aid to woo small and underdeveloped countries into its fold. In the strategic domain, it is building ports across Asia, seemingly with a view to strangling India, which it sees as a competitor, in what is now called China’s “string of pearls” strategy.

 

In the process, it is expanding its maritime footprint across Asia and beyond. Its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea have raised concerns about the region’s security, because there are other claimants to some parts of the same maritime space, thereby violating global rules governing maritime commerce. In the cultural sphere, it has launched an aggressive move to open Confucius Institutes in many countries with a view to propagating its soft power. It is also invoking old and even ancient history to expand its territorial claims, as was the case with the recent standoff with India on the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan.

 

A Strategic Outpost

 

In the latest expansion, on July 11, an undisclosed number of Chinese troops shipped out of the port city of Zhanjiang, in the southern province of Guangdong, to occupy China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. The strategic location of this tiny country on the Horn of Africa — across from Yemen, near the Middle East, touching both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden — is along the Babel-Mandeb Strait, one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping corridors, which is why the US, France and Japan also have bases there. Millions of barrels of oil and petroleum products pass through the strait daily.

 

The tiny, barren nation, home to about 900,000 people, is a gateway to Egypt’s Suez Canal and is thus strategically important. The new Chinese base is just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, a major US special operations outpost, where 4,000 US troops are stationed. Being a stable country in a volatile region that factors heavily in global energy supplies makes Djibouti attractive for maritime stakeholders. As a rising power without any overseas bases, China felt it could not be left behind. Besides securing maritime commerce, the larger aim is to expand its maritime footprint.

 

Reading China’s Intentions

 

This maritime expansionism has sent shivers through world capitals, including New Delhi. What are China’s intentions, interests and objectives?

 

Clearly, China wants to use the base for military exercises, to maintain seaway security and evacuate overseas Chinese in emergencies, as well as humanitarian aid and peacekeeping in Africa and West Asia. China bases its decision on past experiences. For example, in April 2015, the Chinese Navy evacuated 50-plus nationals from strife-torn Yemen. When more than 200 foreigners, including some from Europe, Pakistan and Singapore, escaped to safety, China’s hand was visible.

 

China also has experience in peacekeeping missions, such as in South Sudan in 2015. But the deeper agenda there includes China’s oil interests and a market for its weapons. On a larger scale, China’s stake in Africa is huge. Chinese companies are heavily invested in extracting the continent’s enormous resources, building infrastructure and manufacturing. Some 10,000 Chinese firms are involved in various projects in Africa, and this has given rise to accusations that China is the biggest colonizer of modern times, with fears rising over Chinese domination and control over the economies of some African countries.

 

Interestingly, with the US already present in Djibouti at Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent American military installation in Africa, one must ask whether the US and Chinese forces can co-exist as neighbors without conflict. Camp Lemonnier is strategically located between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and the presence of Chinese forces with a potential surveillance capacity is likely to worry the US. For Djibouti, leasing the base is a windfall, because it earns over US$60 million annually from the US and will now earn closer to US$100 million from China. In 2014, Djibouti signed a 10-year, US$630 million lease of the 100-acre Camp Lemonnier with the US. Similarly, Japan has stationed 170 troops at its 30-acre outpost in Djibouti and spends about US$9 million a year to operate it. The terms of that lease have not been disclosed. So, while China is expanding its influence, for Djibouti it is just a fantastic get-rich-quick scheme to rent bits of desert to foreign powers without bothering about potential rivalries.

 

We’ve Been Here Before

 

China’s expansion of its maritime footprint into the African continent has historical roots. In the first quarter of the 15th century, the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He sailed the Indian Ocean and led seven expeditions to Indonesia, Southeast Asia, India and as far out as the Horn of Africa. Medieval Chinese records show Zheng’s expedition — much larger than that of Christopher Columbus, for example — consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships and was supported by approximately 190 smaller ships. The rise of pirates in the South China Sea subsequently led to the suspension of this maritime tradition, as China’s imperial rulers imposed a ban on sea voyages and looked inward. China now justifies its military outpost in Africa as merely a revival of its past engagement with the continent. But the decision has larger implications as part of a policy of aggrandizement, which China does not want to admit. If one joins the dots, the conclusion is that China’s intentions are not at all benign, but rather have a deep hidden agenda.

 

It is with such an objective that Chinese authorities have begun systematically to promote a “sense of ocean” in the country. This is posited in a new concept of “blue culture” (ocean culture), a clear departure from, or abandonment of, the traditional view of “yellow culture” (earth culture) that glorified China’s history. This argument emerges clearly in You Ji’s essay, “A Blue Water Navy, Does it Matter?” Ji argues that if China had developed a sense of ocean 600 years ago, it would have been a superpower. “If China still sticks to its yellow earth policy, it will never acquire its rightful place in the world,”Ji observes.1

 

So, when those Chinese warships left Zhanjiang for Djibouti, the state-run Global Times was quick to emphasize the strategic importance of this new facility at the mouth of the Red Sea. The newspaper stressed that the base is not going to be a “commercial supply point,” but can “support the Chinese Navy to go farther.” Such an observation clearly demonstrates that China is no longer shy about projecting power. At the same time, to allay any apprehensions that could emerge, the newspaper said the main role of the base would be to support Chinese warships on anti-piracy and humanitarian missions in the region. “It’s not about seeking to control the world.”2

 

 

 

A String of Pearls to Choke India

 

China sees India as a rival in the maritime domain. Over the past decade, Beijing has been making concerted efforts to build its maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean by offering to build ports and other infrastructure in pliant states. Such initiatives have come in the form of financing maritime projects through grants, long-term soft loans and other concessions that less developed economies find too tempting to reject. First, Pakistan clinched a deal to develop the Gwadar port, which will have immense strategic significance for China. This was followed by the Hambantota Colombo South Port in Sri Lanka, a number of East African ports, and a couple of terminals in Bangladesh (Chittagong) and Myanmar (Sittwe).

 

China’s grand strategy to weave a “string of pearls”from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean was first mentioned as a new hypothesis by US consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton in 2005 and later in an internal US Department of Defense report, “Energy Futures in Asia,” the same year.3 In the Chinese paradigm, with most of the “pearls” being in the Indian Ocean, this strategy was seen as a clever way of using excess money and excess capacity in China to “win” friends for a give-and-take game, where the “take” would translate into the use of ports and other infrastructure for the Chinese Navy, as well as for Chinese trade under “special arrangements.”

 

As concerns in some Asian capitals about China’s geopolitical aims developed, Beijing quickly rebranded the “string of pearls” as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative.4 But this has not allayed the suspicions of neighboring nations about China’s true goal of regional domination. China is seeking to project the Maritime Silk Road initiative as one designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. This initiative passes through many littoral states in strategic locations and choke points, control of which is China’s primary aim. By selling trade connectivity, small and internationally neglected states are vulnerable to Chinese offers because they find them a win-win attraction. By doing this, China not only aims at strategic penetration but also to build an image as a strong but benevolent power. Thus, one can see its soft power on display, while beneath it is a long-term strategic design.

 

Sri Lanka’s strategic location is attractive to Beijing because of its proximity to the world’s busiest sea lanes. With a view to establishing its strategic footprint, China has built a container terminal at Colombo Harbor. In this US$500 million project, the majority share is held by Chinese state companies. Also, after the Hambantota port project was completed, China began construction of a city roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land off Colombo with an investment of US$1.4 billion.5

 

China’s involvement in the Gwadar port near Pakistan’s border with Iran is worrying for India because the presence of the Chinese Navy would be unwelcome. Located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world’s traded oil, the deep-water port epitomizes a muscular China’s intention to choke India by strategic design. In order to counter this, India has entered into a deal with Iran’s port of Chabahar to neutralize some of the advantages that China would enjoy from using Gwadar.6 Even Japan has evinced interest in becoming involved in the development of Chabahar port. India cannot overlook the strategic dimension of Gwadar, because Pakistan has granted China 40-year rights to operate the port. As in Sri Lanka, China is investing another US$1.62 billion in new infrastructure, including a container terminal, an international airport, and an expressway linking the harbor with the coastline.

 

Closer to home, China’s aggressive maritime strategy is the biggest challenge for India in the Indo-Pacific region. This has inevitably led important players in the region such as Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and others to think in terms of establishing a strategic constellation with the aim of checking China’s maritime advance. Writing in The Hindustan Times, India’s leading strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney says: “For India, whose energy and strategic infrastructure is concentrated along a vulnerable, 7,600km coastline, this represents a tectonic shift in its threat calculus.”7 He further writes that while India continues to repeat the same old platitudes about conciliation and co-operation, China reminds India that there cannot be “two suns in the sky,” or that “one mountain cannot accommodate two tigers,” implying that China wants to be Asia’s sole tiger.8

 

Expanding Strategic Horizons

 

The Djibouti base is the latest development in China’s grand strategy and marks a fundamental shift in Beijing’s stated policy of no “forward deployment.” For India, the Chinese military presence in Gwadar and Djibouti is discomforting despite its own presence in nearby Chabahar, because Djibouti is only about 1,525 nautical miles from Gwadar, a distance that can be covered in about six days at sea. China would lose no time in converting the posts it has developed in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar into military facilities to increase its strategic leverage over potential competitors. India needs to respond by building its own strong naval capabilities and expanding its maritime space in the Indian Ocean and beyond so that peace and tranquility, as well as unimpeded commerce, are maintained. The annual bilateral naval exercises with Australia and trilateral naval drills with Japan and the US should send a message to China that its adventurism at sea will be met with equal, appropriate responses when the situation warrants.

 

India has not reacted to China’s outreach in Djibouti, but the move fuels worries about China’s military alliances. China began building the base in February 2016, with the declared aim of using it to resupply naval vessels taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coast of Yemen and Somalia, in particular. While Djibouti is China’s first overseas naval base, Beijing officially describes it as a logistics facility — but the world is not so naïve as to believe that claim.

 

Interestingly, Beijing’s state-run Global Times said categorically in an editorial that there could be no mistake that this was a military base. It observed: “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 that there is attention on this from foreign public opinion.” At the same time, it said that China’s military development was about its own security and “not about seeking to control the world.”9 There is nevertheless speculation in diplomatic circles that China will build other such bases like it in Gwadar and Hambantota.

 

In addition to worrying India, the Chinese military base in Djibouti poses very significant operational security concerns for the US. It is just one among many Chinese projects in Djibouti. For example, Chinese banks have funded at least 14 infrastructure projects, including a railway connecting Djibouti and Ethiopia, valued at US$14.4 billion. There are similar investments across the continent. These stoke concerns for the US.

 

Feeling the Pressure

 

India sees the Djibouti base as a potential hub for Chinese surveillance operations and has objected to China’s planned shipping network with Pakistan because it cuts through disputed parts of Kashmir. China’s objective to develop civilian ports in Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is seen as a first step toward allowing naval vessels to visit. For the past few years, China has been deploying its submarines, warships and tankers in the Indian Ocean on the pretext of anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. India has tracked Chinese submarines entering the Indian Ocean since 2013. In 2015, the US Defense Department confirmed this as well. It is baffling what role submarines could play against pirates and their dhows, so Chinese explanations for their presence fall short.

 

The logical response from countries in the region is to seek ways to balance China’s growing influence. This has led to countries such as India, Australia, Japan and Vietnam sharing a common view of the situation and considering informal alliances to bolster regional security. The urgency of such an initiative became greater after the unpredictable Donald Trump moved into the White House, raising doubts in Asia about the US commitment to regional security. The larger number of naval warships that took part in the recently concluded India-Japan-US trilateral Malabar 2017 naval exercises may be seen as a sign of enhanced preparedness. China, however, has criticized such military balancing and insisted that it does “not seek a sphere of influence.”

 

However, the contrary is the case. The truism is that China has crafted a deliberate policy to deepen economic and security relationships with Africa, which is now an explicit part of Beijing’s foreign policy. In 2015, President Xi Jinping pledged US$100 million to the African Union standby force for UN peacekeeping and US$1 billion to establish the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund. An estimated one million Chinese nationals are spread over the African continent, with many employed in China-backed infrastructure projects. China’s involvement in African security is the product of a wider transformation of its defense policy, which incorporates new concepts such as the protection of overseas interests and protection of the open seas.

 

Thus China’s burgeoning partnership with Africa and deep economic penetration gives rise to the specter of China becoming the new colonial power, with its hidden objectives camouflaged in various economic and strategic projects. We are likely to witness a situation that recalls the days of the old European colonial rulers as China seems destined to strangle the economies of poor African nations through economic handouts and selling projects in the name of economic development, thereby taking total control of their economies. The military base in Djibouti is just the latest chapter in this developing narrative.

 

Rajaram Panda is the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University in Japan. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of either the ICCR or the government of India. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com


Notes

1 You Ji, “A Blue Water Navy, Does it Matter?” in David S.G. Goodman and Gerald Segal, eds., China Rising: Nationalism and Interdependence (Routledge, 1997), pp.196.


2 Quoted in Ben Blanchard, “China sends troops to open first overseas base in Djibouti,” July 12, 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti-idUSKBN19X049


3 For a detailed explanation, see “String of Pearls (Indian Ocean),” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_of_Pearls_(Indian_Ocean)


4 Brahma Chellaney, “China reinvents ‘string of pearls’ as Maritime Silk Road,” Nikkei Asian Review, April 29, 2015, http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints-archive/Perspectives/China-reinvents-string-of-pearls-as-Maritime-Silk-Road


5 Panos Mourdoukautas, “Ten Years From Now, China Will Still Won Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port,” April 5, 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/panosmourdoukoutas/2017/04/05/ten-years-from-now-china-will-still-own-sri-lankas-hambantota-port/#1ebde0671168


6 See Rajaram Panda, “India’s Outreach to Iran: Modi Visit to Deepen Ties,” The Pioneer, May 22, 2016, www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/agenda/backbone/indias-outreach-to-iranmodi-visit-to-deepen-ties.html


7 Brahma Chellaney, “Doklam standoff: India must be ready to give China a real bloody nose,” The Hindustan Times, July 21, 2017, www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/doklam-standoff-india-must-be-ready-to-give-china-a-real-bloody-nose/story-APFZAV2LoQH2QErI5AykDL.html


8 Ibid.


9 Noted in “China sends troops to open first overseas military base in Djibouti,” The Times of India, July 13, 2017, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/china/china-sends-troops-to-open-first-overseas-military-base-in-djibouti/articleshow/59556244.cms



Back to Issue
    For those who hadn’t been monitoring China’s actions in the Indian Ocean and beyond in recent years, the news headlines were eye catching: On July 11, the Chinese navy dispatched ships from the port of Zhanjiang to the country’s first overseas military base, in Djibouti. For India, in particular, the move set off alarm bells, confirming suspicions that Beijing is intent on containing New Delhi’s influence over the Indian Ocean region, writes Rajaram Panda.
    Published: Sep 21, 2017
    About the author

    Rajaram Panda is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com.

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