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July 16, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1587

Beijing's Overseas Military Base In Djibouti

July 16, 2021 | By Tuvia Gering and Heath Sloane*
Africa, China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1587

Introduction

Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, has become a geostrategic point for China. With a population of under one million, it is situated in a geopolitical hotspot, at the end of a chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden through which one-third of the world's ships must pass to transport energy and cargo.


(Source: Twitter)

A former French colony, Djibouti hosts Camp Lemonnier, a United States Naval Expeditionary Base that is the most extensive permanent U.S. military base in Africa, in addition to the French naval base of Djibouti that is also known as the Naval base of Héron; the Japan Self-Defense Force Base Djibouti; Amedeo Guillet, an Italian military support base; and the Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base, which has been operated by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) since its opening.

Beijing's 2017 decision to build its first overseas military base near the commercial port of Doraleh, just a few kilometers from the U.S. Army's Camp Lemonnier, raised concern in Washington.

As a crossroads for three continents, Djibouti provides easy access to the PLAN warships, while its proximity to other military bases as well as to conflict zones in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula makes it useful for intelligence operations and cyber warfare.[1] The base is advantageously located near the heavily trafficked Bab-el-Mandeb – the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden – constituting a major chokepoint for maritime traffic en route to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.

On April 20, 2021, AFRICOM Commander General Stephen J. Townsend, the top U.S. general in Africa, notified the House Armed Services Committee that the Chinese facility had successfully completed a wharf extension. The new pier is long enough to accommodate one of China's two aircraft carriers, its largest amphibious assault ship, or four nuclear submarines.[2] Later that month, Gen. Townsend stated that Djibouti was only a stepping stone, and that China is considering establishing a similar maritime base on the Atlantic coast, which puts it closer to America's backyard.[3]

The following analysis explores what led Beijing to set up a military base in this small African country for the first time, giving a better understanding of its current expansion.


Satellite imagery of the Chinese naval base in Djibouti (Source: Washington Post)


Satellite imagery of the Chinese naval base in Djibouti (Source: Google Earth via News.com.au, 2021)

The Base

Soon after concluding negotiations with Djibouti in January 2016, China promptly began the naval and military base's construction in March 2016, at an estimated cost of US$590 million.[4] On PLA Day, August 1, 2017, the first flag-raising ceremony was held.


The flag-raising ceremony at the opening of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti, August 1, 2017 (Source: STR/AFP)

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base is always referred to in official Chinese sources with the prefixes "logistical support" and "support facility."[5] Despite this, the base's current configuration, as well as its personnel and munitions, allow it to maintain warfighting capabilities.[6]

The alleged "logistical support base" was built on a 200-acre site surrounded by medieval-style defensive battlements that are nine meters across at their widest point and have a maximum capacity of 7,000 people. The site features an office building, watchtowers, a seawater desalination plant, air traffic control, drone control, a 400-meter runway, and hangars.[7]

Although the airstrip is too short for fighter jets and heavy transport planes, PLA scholars are confident that the Chinese air force will have free access to Djibouti's main airport "if and when necessary."[8]

The base also includes an underground space spanning approximately 23,000 square meters. While the exact purpose for this underground facility remains the subject of conjecture, it allows the PLAN to conduct clandestine operations, offers an added layer of protection for personnel, facilities and vehicles, and may serve as an ammunition storage facility.[9]

A modern military hospital serves approximately 2,000 soldiers and personnel, including hundreds of marines.[10] The hospital has provided free medical treatment to locals on several occasions, in addition to public welfare scholarships, emergency rescue, and disaster relief.[11]

 
Diagram of external fortifications at the Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti (Source: H I Sutton)

Expanding The Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base

Since 2017, China has continued to expand the Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base in order to enhance its fortifications and strategic capabilities.[12] In February 2018, China began a construction of a 320-meter-long pier, likely completed in early 2020.[13] Aside from new reverse-osmosis tanks and an evaporator building for the facility's desalination plant, satellite images from September 2020 show China had also retrofitted seven existing aircraft hangers, possibly for an armed helicopter fleet of two dozen craft.[14]

More up-to-date images show that significant progress has been made since the outbreak of the ongoing pandemic, including the construction of an additional 200-meter-long pier with a deep-water berth.[15] The development will bring China closer to completing the nine planned piers, four of which will be dedicated to PLAN vessels.[16]

As General Townsend stressed, the new additions could accommodate one of China's two aircraft carriers – the Liaoning, a Ukrainian hull auctioned to China for US$20 million in 1998, and the domestically built Shandong. It is worth noting that China is working on a Type-003 aircraft carrier that will reportedly carry the Chinese military's latest generation of stealth fighters and be similar in size to U.S. carriers.[17] The Type-075 amphibious assault ship, the third of which China launched earlier this year and which can carry an estimated 30 helicopters and hundreds of troops, could also be housed at the new pier.[18]


Satellite images depicting the rapid pace of construction at the Djibouti base (Source: India Today)


Thomas Shugart, a former U.S. Navy submariner and CNAS expert, tweeted in March about Chinese progress on a new deep-water berth (Source: Twitter @tshugart3)


The Type-003 aircraft carrier under construction in Shanghai (Source: Naval News)

Protecting Chinese Interests Abroad

In October 2008, nine workers of State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) were taken hostage in Sudan; four were killed and one went missing.[19] A month later, Somali pirates hijacked a Chinese state-owned fishing vessel with 24 crew members near the Kenyan border.[20] Within a span of less than two months in 2016, Al-Qaeda fighters killed three Chinese peacekeepers in Mali and South Sudan.[21] Such events convinced China that an offshore (support) base in the strategically-located Djibouti could be critical for its military operations other than war (MOOTW), namely, anti-piracy, counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts.[22]

It's possible that the negative public perception engendered by the above events influenced Beijing's decision,[23] but an event that left an indelible mark on the nation's psyche was most likely a major factor in Beijing's decision to expand to Africa: China's 2011 rescue of Chinese workers from Libya.[24] When the 2011 Libyan February Revolution to depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi erupted, 36,000 Chinese citizens employed there, primarily on state-owned projects worth US$18 billion, found themselves in danger. Four thousand miles away, China scrambled to send a frigate and airlifts for noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs), but due to a lack of tools and skills, it was forced to rely on the benevolence of friendly countries in the region to evacuate its citizens.[25]

Thereafter, as part of President Xi Jinping's Chinese Dream of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, namely "to make the country strong," China's Military Strategy (2015) stated that one of the strategic tasks of the Chinese army is to "safeguard the security of China's overseas interests."[26] While President Xi is credited with China's more assertive foreign policy, Chinese expansionism dates back to Jiang Zemin's administration, who set the goal of turning China into a "maritime great power" (海洋强国).

An article by the Overseas Network, published September 24, 2020 by the Chinese media outlet Sina Military, stated: "The main purpose of the base [in Djibouti] is to provide effective guarantee for China's participation in escort, peacekeeping, humanitarian rescue and other missions in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters, so that the Chinese Navy can perform better in military cooperation, joint exercises and training, evacuation and protection of overseas Chinese, emergency rescue, and overseas missions, [and can] fulfill the international obligations of a responsible major country, work with all parties to maintain the security of international strategic channels, and jointly maintain peace and stability in Africa and the world."[27]


Pirates holding captive the crew of the Chinese fishing vessel FV Tian Yu 8 off the coast of Somalia, November 17, 2008 (Source: China Daily)

China's Commercial Foothold

Over the past 10 years, China has increased not only its number of contact points abroad, but also their volume and intensity. In 2013, shortly after approving the PLA report that recommended China establish the military base in Djibouti, President Xi Jinping unveiled his signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to which Djibouti is a party.

Scholars have since described China's involvement in the small African country as a "microcosm" of the country's growing economic footprint across the continent,[28] as well as its strategic rivalry with the U.S..[29] At the same time, the two countries regard it as "a model of mutually beneficial cooperation between countries that are different in size,"[30] and Djibouti's top officials have made it clear that they want no part in the Sino-U.S. quarrel.[31]

In 2017, China and Djibouti agreed to establish strategic partnership to strengthen all-round cooperation.  Recognizing Djibouti's strategic location, huge infrastructure deficit, and crippling poverty in the early 2000s, Beijing has earmarked and developed schools, stadiums, highways and government buildings in it, including its Foreign Ministry building. The construction of its Arta Hospital, the renovation of its People's Palace monument, and solar power projects were all completed with Chinese aid.[32]

Chinese state-owned enterprises are behind Djibouti's US$590-million Doraleh Multipurpose Port, a $3.5 billion international Free-Trade Zone (FTZ), a $3.4 billion, 752.7-km Ethiopia-Djibouti railway,[33] a $322 million Djibouti-Ethiopia water supply project, and a $4 billion, 767-km pipeline stretching from the gas fields of Ethiopia's Somali region.[34] In January 2021, it was announced that a $3 billion overhaul and expansion of the original French colonial-era port would transform it into a regional hub and a key node in the BRI.[35]

China holds 70% of Djibouti's debt, and has a strong foothold in its critical strategic infrastructure. When the PRC state-owned enterprises gained tremendously from their endeavors in the country as part of the BRI, the average Djiboutian experienced little change in his bank account.

Military Commentator Liu Xiaofei: Djibouti Is A Low Priority For Long-Term Carrier Embarkation; PLA Major-General Jin Yinan: The Djibouti Base Is 'The Greatest Achievement Of The Chinese Navy'

In April 2021, renowned Chinese military commentator Liu Xiaofei of Huaqiao University's School of International Relations commented on the recent pier expansion at the Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base. In a video posted online, Liu discussed the likelihood of an aircraft carrier being stationed in Djibouti, as well as whether the PLA would expand beyond Asia to other parts of the globe.

Liu listed three prerequisites that must be met before this can happen: 1) all domestic missions must have been accomplished, e.g., China must take control of Taiwan, the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the South China Sea; 2) the carrier can be protected from attacks by "forces other than pirates"; and 3) there must be sufficient additional forces to protect the home front.

Given that none of these requirements have been met, he concluded that Djibouti is a low priority for long-term carrier embarkation, although he does not rule out short-term and future deployments.[36]

Liu's comments support earlier statements made by Song Lifang, former editor of the state-run Xinhua news agency, who claimed in 2017 that “[t]he Djibouti base has nothing to do with an arms race or military expansion, and China has no intention of turning the logistics centre into a military foothold”.[37]

In a late May 2021 interview, Senior-Colonel (Ret.) Zhou Bo, senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at prestigious Tsinghua University, said: "China's peacekeeping mission serves as a beacon for the UN," and "China does not want to be the world's policeman."

Zhou, who is also a former director of the Centre for Security Cooperation in the Chinese Ministry of National Defence's Office for International Military Cooperation, added: "The Chinese People's Liberation Army has two main missions overseas, the first is to protect China's overseas interests, and the second is to assume international responsibilities."[38]

In contrast to the above mentioned comments, PLA Major-General and National Defence University Professor Jin Yinan earlier focused on the strategic value of China's first overseas military base. In a May 31, 2019 episode of "Yinan Military Forum," a radio talk show that he hosted, the general called the Djibouti base "the greatest achievement of the Chinese navy" because it provided the PLAN with "power projection abilities" vis-à-vis other major powers.[39]

Conclusion

The PLA has made no attempt to conceal the fact that Djibouti is "just the first step" overseas;[40] it is a question of "when" and "where" rather than "if" Beijing will have boots on the ground in other countries. The BRI's success depends on global stability and prosperity, although China's top diplomats have made it clear that the Beijing will not succumb to any perceived attempt by US-led Western powers to "encircle" it in the Indo-Pacific and contain its rise.

According to the Pentagon, Djibouti is the spearhead for China's strategic ambitions on the high seas, and it is confident that Beijing is considering a dozen different locations for new overseas military logistics facilities, including one off the coast of Angola, on the Atlantic Ocean.[41]

In 2018, the Ocean Development and Management Journal, which is published under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources, discussed China's Atlantic ambitions and specified a strategy to "break through the US maritime blockade, and protect China's interests overseas."[42]

The journal stated: "Although China currently has no ambition to acquire global maritime hegemony, and the Atlantic Ocean is not the focal point of China's maritime construction, its historical and practical significance dictate that the Atlantic Ocean should play a larger role in China's overall plan to become a maritime great power." The journal also stressed that the Atlantic has seven of the world's 16 maritime chokepoints, which means that "whoever controls [the Atlantic Ocean's] key strategic corridors would gain trade priority and thus control maritime trade, as well as the ability to block the enemy's maritime forces if necessary."

Hence, after the base in Djibouti, China could open a base in Africa on the Atlantic Ocean to "counter" the Indo-Pacific "encirclement." Nevertheless, the Indian Ocean remain an important focus for China. Tanzania said recently that it has resumed talks with China to revive the $10 billion port in its Bagamoyo port project, located about 75 km south of Tanzania's major port Dar es Salaam. Should this happen, China would have a second foothold on the Indian Ocean, enhancing its strategic goals in the region.[43]

 

*Tuvia Gering and Heath Sloane are Research Fellows for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project.

 

APPENDIX – China-Djibouti Relations – An Overview By The French Economy And Finance Ministry

On April 13, 2021, the French Ministry for Economy and Finance published on its website an overview of China's economic relations with Djibouti that also analyzed Beijing's strategic interest in the country.

Below is the text of the overview:[44]

China Has Quickly Become The Largest Bilateral Lessor In The Country

"In 2019, China was the first supplier (36.3% of imports) to Djibouti and its fifth customer (2.9% of exports). Djibouti plays a doubly strategic role for China: Located along the new silk roads, this country of the Horn of Africa (1 million inhabitants) is also a strategic support point for the Chinese military presence: Djibouti hosts the first and only Chinese military base in Africa since 2017. Although Djibouti is a minor destination for the Chinese FDI, yet China has quickly become the largest bilateral lessor in the country.

"Between 2000 and 2019, Sino-Djibouti trade increased from US$10.4 million to US$1.1 billion. Djibouti has a structural trade deficit with China: it widened considerably between 2015 and 2017, going from -$303.4 million to -$1.2 billion (launch of huge projects around 2015 in the port and transport sectors). The trade deficit in favor of China stood at -$1.1 billion in 2019. The main items of Chinese exports to Djibouti are iron and steel (9.9%), electrical machinery and equipment (9.1%) and power plants and boilers (7.3%). For its part, China mainly imports inorganic chemicals, inorganic compounds of precious metals, radioactive elements, rare metals or isotopes (98.2%).

"Djibouti received $1.4 billion in loans from China between 2000 and 2018, making Djibouti the sixth recipient country for Chinese loans in the AEOI [Automatic Exchange of Information]. Most of the debt was contracted between 2012 and 2017, with a first loan of $490 million for the construction of the railway link between Djibouti and Ethiopia and a second one of $322 million for the water supply from Ethiopia in 2015. In 2016, a new loan of $405 million was granted for the construction of the Doraleh Multipurpose Port, DMP. Over the period, with $1.3 billion (88.8%), the share of Eximbank remained predominant in the loans to Djibouti, followed by [other] credit providers with $114.8 million (8.1%). The main Djiboutian sectors benefiting from Chinese loans are transport $936.4 million; 66.2%) and water supply ($322 million; 22.8%). Djibouti recently renegotiated its debt concerning the railway, a project that is struggling to be profitable: repayment has been spread over 30 years and the grace period has been delayed from 5 to 10 years. Under the ISSD commitments, the Djiboutian authorities notified the suspension of the payment of the debt service to the Chinese creditor.

China Was Considering Setting Up A Confucius Institute In The Country

"In 2019, the stock of Chinese FDI in Djibouti stood at $125.3 million, up from $178.5 M. in 2018. Accounting for 1.6% of FDI flows in the AEOI between 2003 and 2019, Djibouti is the ninth destination of Chinese direct investment behind Madagascar. Between 2003 and 2017, Chinese FDI flows to Djibouti increased sharply from 0 to $104.6 million before experiencing a decrease of $81.1 million in 2018.”

"In 2019, Djibouti welcomed 733 expatriate Chinese workers. Since 2009, the country has been the 10th destination for Chinese expatriate workers (6,744), behind Madagascar (7,607).”

"China was considering setting up a Confucius Institute in the country, but has not yet undertaken any actions in this direction. However, China contributed to the construction of the National Archives Library, as well as of the People's Palace, a large conference center used for official ceremonies or events. In addition, in the project to rehabilitate the historic port of Djibouti, it is planned to transform it into a 'business district,' which will be equipped, among other things, with a maritime studies center. Finally, since 2017 Djibouti is hosting the first and only Chinese military base in Africa, with an estimated strength of 1,500 Chinese soldiers on Djibouti territory."


(Source: Tresor.economie.gouv.fr)

 

[1] Cabestan, J.-P. (2020). China's Military Base in Djibouti: A Microcosm of China's Growing Competition with the United States and New Bipolarity. Journal of Contemporary China, 29(125), 731-747.

[2] News.usni.org/2021/04/20/africom-chinese-naval-base-in-africa-set-to-support-aircraft-carriers, April 20, 2021.

[3]Apnews.com/article/middle-east-africa-china-business-government-and-politics-24f774a952eaabcb38d2b25380b61a62, May 6, 2021.

[4] Theinitium.com/article/20151127-dailynews-china-djibouti-base, February 26, 2016.

[5] Scio.gov.cn/m/ztk/xwfb/jjfyr/32/wqfbh/Document/1457738/1457738.htm, November 27, 2021.

[6] Dutton, P. A., Kardon, I. B., & Kennedy, C. M. (2020). Djibouti: China's First Overseas Strategic Strongpoint. NAVAL WAR COLLEGE NEWPORT RI NEWPORT United States. Retrieved at:

Digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1005&context=cmsi-maritime-reports, April 1, 2020.

[7] Cabestan, J.-P. (2020). China's Military Base in Djibouti: A Microcosm of China's Growing Competition with the United States and New Bipolarity. Journal of Contemporary China, 29(125), 731-747.

[8] Ghiselli, A. (2021). Protecting China’s Interests Overseas, Securitization and Foreign Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9]Defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2017/11/08/satellite-imagery-offers-clues-to-chinas-intentions-in-djibouti/, November 8, 2021.

[10]Apnews.com/article/middle-east-africa-china-business-government-and-politics-24f774a952eaabcb38d2b25380b61a62, May 6, 2021.

[11] Eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2019-12/06/content_9691047.htm, December 6, 2019.

[12] Qt-water.ma/en/actualites/5_Implementation-du-systeme-de-dessalement-conteneurise-fastRO-par-la-base-navale-Chinoise-de-Djibouti, April 10, 2020.

[13] Twitter.com/detresfa_/status/1217052391259820033?s=20, January 14, 2020.

[14] Indiatoday.in/world/story/construction-fast-tracked-at-china-pla-s-first-overseas-base-in-djibouti-1736703-2020-10-30, October 30, 2020.

[15] Indiatoday.in/world/story/construction-fast-tracked-at-china-pla-s-first-overseas-base-in-djibouti-1736703-2020-10-30, October 30, 2020; Twitter.com/tshugart3/status/1376331892660695040?s=20, March 29, 2021.

[16] Indiatoday.in/world/story/construction-fast-tracked-at-china-pla-s-first-overseas-base-in-djibouti-1736703-2020-10-30, October 30, 2020.

[17] Hindustantimes.com/india-news/chinese-latest-type-003-aircraft-carrier-is-a-threat-to-indopacific-101625826966663.html, July 9, 2021.

[18] Scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3130951/chinas-most-advanced-amphibious-assault-ship-expected-be, April 24, 2021.

[19] Eg.china-embassy.org/eng/fyrth/t520167.htm, October 28, 2008.

[20] Edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/africa/11/14/somalia.pirates/?iref=mpstoryview, November 20, 2008.

[21] Qz.com/africa/728566/china-reacts-to-the-death-of-two-peacekeepers-in-south-sudan-with-grief-and-rage/, July 11, 2016.

[22] China.huanqiu.com/article/42GWXEWZ8OA, November 3, 2021.

[23] Ghiselli, A. (2021). Protecting China’s Interests Overseas, Securitization and Foreign Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[24] Cabestan, J.-P. (2020). China's Military Base in Djibouti: A Microcosm of China's Growing Competition with the United States and New Bipolarity. Journal of Contemporary China, 29(125), 731-747

[25] Ghiselli, A. (2021). Protecting China’s Interests Overseas, Securitization and Foreign Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[26] China.org.cn/china/2015-05/26/content_35661433_2.htm, May 26, 2015.

[27] Mil.news.sina.com.cn/china/2020-09-24/doc-iivhuipp6145603.shtml, September 24, 2020.

[28] Thediplomat.com/2021/01/china-consolidates-its-commercial-foothold-in-djibouti/, January 26, 2021.

[29] Cabestan, J.-P. (2020). China's Military Base in Djibouti: A Microcosm of China's Growing Competition with the United States and New Bipolarity. Journal of Contemporary China, 29(125), 731-747.

[30] News.cgtn.com/news/2020-01-09/China-Djibouti-to-continue-win-win-cooperation-N7xEDdIQ9O/index.html, January 9, 2020.

[31] Globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1218305.shtml, March 14, 2021.

[32] Fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/fzs_663828/gjlb_663832/2969_663954/

[33] Thediplomat.com/2021/01/china-consolidates-its-commercial-foothold-in-djibouti/, January 26, 2021.

[34] Gem.wiki/Ethiopia%E2%80%93Djibouti_Gas_Pipeline

[35] Futuredirections.org.au/publication/china-boosts-djibouti-presence-more-investments-and-naval-base-capable-of-docking-aircraft-carriers/#.YIgTdQ977u0.twitter, April 27, 2021.

[36] Ixigua.com/6955342888616067587?logTag=d85454b7a1d6f73524c1, April 26, 2021.

[37] Xinhuanet.com/english/2017-07/13/c_136441371.htm, July 13, 2017.

[38] Guancha.cn/ZhouBo3/2021_05_29_592418_s.shtml, May 29, 2021.

[39] Kknews.cc/zh-cn/military/l9yrk9z.html, May 31, 2019.

[40] English.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/pla-daily-commentary/2016-04/12/content_7002833.htm, April 12, 2016.

[41] Media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF, September 2020.

[42] Sohu.com/a/246480323_726570, August 10, 2018.

[43] Asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/Tanzania-to-revive-10bn-Indian-Ocean-port-project-with-China, June 27, 2021.

[44] Tresor.economie.gouv.fr/Pays/DJ/prets-chinois-djibouti-point-geostrategique-en-afrique-de-l-est-pour-la-chine, April 13, 2021.

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