Esquire 20 July 2017
Russia, we noted last month, is boxed in by the tyranny of hydrography. They really have no way to get out onto the surface of the deep blue sea that is not constrained by land, ice, or NATO. China, on the other hand, does have a long oceanic and ice-free coastline. But for similar reasons, has a bit of a problem, ocean-wise.
The problem for the Chinese is less one of immediate access, and more one of ultimate freedom. In particular, even once they reach the open ocean, they are effectively isolated to some degree. This is because in order to reach the natural resources and markets that have so dramatically expanded Chinese economic fortunes, a gigantic proportion of their shipping must pass through one of two straits well beyond their territorial waters. The Sunda and Malacca Straits, in particular, are nightmares for Chinese strategists; yet they must use them to get to Middle Eastern oil, fishing grounds on the coastlines of Africa (their own are nearly fished out), and the resources of the interior of Africa, to say nothing of the markets in all of those places as well as Europe.
The Chinese have been pursuing an incremental yet sustained maritime expansion for more than 30 years. In this, we American strategists envy them in that we can only dream of such political consistency as to devise, and actually execute, a plan that would take at least 50 years to reach fruition.
Step one of that plan has been playing out in the sea bordered by Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, and to a lesser degree, Taiwan. We have covered that here as well. Simply stated, China has illegally been creating islands, and then fortifying them, in what is known as the Spratly Islands (and the Paracels) in the South China sea. That process has been taking place since 1974.
Step two has been the development of Chinese-friendly shipping bases in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Although not owned by China, both formerly limited ports were dramatically expanded by the Chinese, nominally for economic reasons. In practice, however, these bases and the Chinese influence attendant with the money that flowed into both countries create the potential for future Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations on the far-side of those two limiting straits.
And now we are witnessing step three. Just last week, to great fanfare, the PLAN launched a minor flotilla to occupy China’s first true overseas military base since at least the early 1400s. Yes, that is a gap of 600 years. But it is the location that is most interesting, and the timing.
Their first base is in Djibouti, right on the Horn of Africa. When did all this start? Well, it was on January 21, the very day after the current president took office, that the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that they had struck a deal with Djibouti. Construction started literally days later. Nominally created to provide logistics support to PLAN warships escorting Chinese freight through the pirate-infested waters of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, this places the nation with the most sophisticated land-to-sea (anti-ship) missiles in the world directly on top of the mouth of the Red Sea, and therefore astride the shipping lanes from the East (both Middle, South, and Far) to Europe. Oh, and not coincidentally, the only American base on the entire continent of Africa is just a few miles away.
Nope, nothing to see here folks. Move along. Nothing to see here at all.