Djibouti is in the limelight after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) recently commissioned its first overseas permanent logistical base off the Horn of Africa. This has major implications for the region and beyond, as it is close to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, which matters for global commerce and energy. Also Read: Chinese Troops Sent to Open 1st Overseas Military Base in Djibouti
The base is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is only about 20 miles from war-ravaged Yemen. It lies on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to the Suez Canal.
The 90-acre base is a useful prism to assess China’s capabilities and ambitions. It is big enough to accommodate 10,000 Chinese troops and is considered to be a major milestone in China’s naval logistics, for which Beijing will have to pay an annual $20 million rent.
Djibouti’s growing importance as a trading centre coupled with its strategic location provides it much shelter and cover. Djibouti, which is sandwiched between Eretria, Somalia and Ethiopia, also hosts American, French and Japanese bases. Now the Saudis have also shown interest to have a base in Djibouti. Will it be India’s turn next?
The Chinese Dimension
The Djibouti base is an indication of China’s global ambitions. As Professor Dutton of the US Naval War College, Rhode Island states, “Its naval power expansion is for protecting commerce and China’s regional interests in the Horn of Africa”. Chinese oil exports sail through the Mandeb Strait, which is a major choke point as it connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
China has played down the strategic importance of the base looking at its value purely in terms of anti-piracy operations and ensuring the freedom of the high seas. This is clearly a strategic ploy. They prefer to call it a ‘support facility’ rather than a ‘naval base’.
They also see it as a base to provide support systems for Chinese participation in UN Peacekeeping Operations, humanitarian rescue missions and escort operations in the volatile Gulf of Aden. The Chinese Defence Ministry contends that it does not intend any expansion of its military or economic interests; nor does Beijing seek a sphere of influence.
For China, the move transcends political-military dynamics, and factors economic and commercial considerations. Most of China’s $1 billion in trade to Europe traverses the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. In reality, Chinese submarines, naval vessels and aircraft are visible across the oceans around the globe.
For instance, the installation of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets on Woody Island in the South China Sea are all part of a larger strategy that falls into place.
The United States’ Concern
The Djibouti base now brings China into closer proximity to its major strategic rival –the United States. The new PLAN base is located near Camp Lemonnier, a full-fledged US naval base which has over 4,000 sailors and marines.
Camp Lemonnier is a special operations outpost, one of Pentagon’s largest, important foreign military facilities. This is a strategically significant base for US aerial and Special Forces operations in the Persian Gulf region, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. It is the nerve centre for drone-launches.
The US base is a staging ground for many of its anti-terror initiatives in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The US Navy base abuts Djibouti’s International Airport and has even been used for various raids into Yemen.
Camp Lemonnier’s lease period has been renewed for 20 years and the annual payments doubled to $63 million. It is the largest American permanent base in Africa. A US expert on the Chinese military Gabriel Collins opines that “It’s like having a rival football team using an adjacent practice field”.
For India, Djibouti’s location on the north western edge of China poses major challenges. India perceives Djibouti as part of Beijing’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. Over the last two years, the Indian Navy has reported the presence of PLAN warships, submarines and intelligence-gathering vessels in the Indian Ocean waters. Now with a base in Djibouti, Beijing will find it much simpler to sustain PLAN operations in the region.
Djibouti as a base also implies that the movement of Chinese ships – both commercial and naval – will increase in the Indian Ocean region which has security concerns for India.
Undoubtedly, the PLAN’s second overseas naval base is underway at Gwadar in Pakistan. Perhaps as part of the debt-relief swap, Hambantota, Sri Lanka will follow. Till now, the PLAN suffered from the tyranny of distance to operate in the Indian Ocean waters, which will now cease with the operation of these new overseas naval bases.
So What Do We Conclude?
Clearly, Djibouti forms part of Beijing’s strategy in the second scramble for Africa and beyond. The base will not only provide logistical support to the PLAN fleet for escort duties in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast, but also pose challenges to the other non-Asian and Asian navies in the region, especially the US, Japan, France and India. Perhaps, this is only the beginning of many more bases to come.
It also has relevance for China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ ambitions. Moreover, Chinese defence expenditure is on the upswing and expected to reach $233 billion by 2020. This will exceed that of the West European countries collectively.
The Chinese state-run Global Times has admitted that this is indeed a ‘military base’. Both China and the US seem to have a shared interest in the strategic location of Djibouti.
Whether US and Chinese pursuits in Djibouti will turn out to be a zero sum game, only time will tell. Needless to say it keeps India on the edge. However modest the Djibouti base is made out to be, the fact is that the Chinese footprint is growing, with the potential to challenge America politically and militarily. Moreover, there can be a difference in China’s ‘stated’ goals and its ‘real’ aspirations. Herein lies the challenge for both the US and India.