Only a few miles down the road from the U.S. base at Camp Lemmonier, China has just announced the opening of its first overseas military base in the tiny nation of Djibouti on the Bab al-Mandeb straits at the southern end of the Red Sea. As Reuters reports:
China formally opened its first overseas military base on Tuesday with a flag raising ceremony in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, the same day as the People’s Liberation Army marks its 90th birthday, state media said.
Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fueled worry in India that it would become another of China’s “string of pearls” military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
China began construction of a logistics base in Djibouti last year. It will be used to resupply navy ships taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, in particular.
China secured rights to the base, which can house up to 10,000 troops, through at least 2026 by granting loans to Djiboutian government that amount to 60% of Djibouti’s GDP on top of $20 million per year in rent and billions of dollars on Djiboutis infrastructure. China claims that the base is a “logistics and fast evacuation base.” That has some merit to it. Chinese nationals, often working for state-owned companies, do business in some incredibly dangerous parts of the region long after Western corporations have deemed them unsafe. Lacking a regional military presence, China was forced to evacuate 35,000 of its citizens from Libya in 2011 by privately chartered boats and planes. That experience, which prompted the Chinese to consider an overseas base in the wider African and Middle East region, has been repeated on a smaller scale in countries like Yemen and South Sudan.
Of course, those Chinese firms have that presence in the wider region as part of China’s overall geopolitical strategy. The base in Djibouti will likely be an endpoint of China’s string of pearls across the Indian ocean. It will also secure the enormous investments that China has made in East Africa, including the new Ethopia-Djibouti rail line and infrastructure projects binding the region together to guarantee China’s resource needs. It will also help China protect its oil imports going through the Mandeb Strait.
The United States and India will view the base as an unwanted intrusion and a potential source of conflict. Perhaps. It’s also the natural extension of a rising power into a region they’ve invested in and that the rest of the world has often ignored. It’s a big first step for a more globally-oriented China. And a globally-oriented China, that is by necessity forced to take on some of the responsibilities of a true world power, is not necessarily the worst thing in the world.