One vs. Eight Hundred: China’s First Overseas Naval Base

(SCF) – In the West, no one, especially not in the US, pays any attention to the fact that a net of about 800 American military bases has been cast over every country and continent on earth. There are 172 of them in Germany alone, 113 in Japan, 83 right next door in South Korea, and still more elsewhere, in 80 countries including Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Qatar, Kosovo, and Kenya. But the biggest Western media outlets have all chimed in together to call attention to the Chinese warship that recently sailed out of the military port of Zhanjiang, headed for Djibouti to help set up Beijing’s first overseas military base.

The London-based Reuters news agency reports that the materialization of this Chinese military base on the Horn of Africa is already a source of great concern for India, which is afraid that it will become «another of China’s ‘string of pearls’ of military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka».

But military bases do not suddenly materialize on maps without the consent of the host country. Beijing and Djibouti have been conducting a friendly, neighborly dialog for several years, in accordance with «the common interest of the people from both sides,» and under the auspices of which China agreed to build a naval base to support to its military ships as they sail ever farther into the world’s seas. The official description explains that «[t]he base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia».

However, this is not an exhaustive list of the missions that the Chinese naval base in Djibouti will undertake. Naturally the highest-priority items on its plate will be the military missions of the People’s Republic of China, including military cooperation and joint exercises. The base will defend China’s interests abroad and ensure the security of its international strategic seaways.

The British news agency quoted the People’s Liberation Army Daily’s assertion that the facility «would increase China’s ability to ensure global peace, especially because it had so many U.N. peacekeepers in Africa and was so involved in anti-piracy patrols». This is actually an interesting detail: the recalibrating of the zones of influence in Africa has spawned a host of bloody conflicts, the beneficiaries of which have traditionally been France, the United Kingdom, and the US. China is the new kid on the block in Africa. However, in the last ten years it has already made itself at home on the African market, with its cheap goods and services, displacing Britain and significantly weakening France’s position. Yet the United States is still getting exports of minerals and other resources from the African continent.

In recent years China has overtaken France in the quest for African resources and is gaining on the US, which is stoking a conflict of interest that will shape the future of the entire African region. It was no coincidence that as soon as China established a palpable presence in Africa, the US created the AFRICOM military command in 2008. With a fixed contingent of marines stationed there, that military headquarters is capable of undertaking any mission in any African country. But now AFRICOM’s main job is to train African armies in Ethiopia, Sudan (Darfur), Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, the Seychelles, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia, Cameroon, Gabon, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania. From their very inception those armies were obligated to be allied to the US. Private military companies (PMCs) should also be added to this list, such as Protection Strategies Inc, DynCorp International, AECOM, and Pacific Architects and Engineers, tasked with countering both the threat to American interests posed by radical Islam as well as, quite understandably, China’s increasing influence in Africa.

It won’t be so easy to just yank the Yanks out of Africa at this point, however…

The precedents set in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria – when compared with what is outlined in China’s White Paper detailing «China’s Policy in Africa» – are just too egregious for the leaders of African countries to overlook. China is sparing no expense to promote its economic interests. It has invested large sums not only in the construction of manufacturing facilities, but also in infrastructure improvements for its partners. And meanwhile, no one’s asking questions in Beijing about respect for human rights, democratization, or the environment. They have no use for any of the usual criticisms found in the West’s repertoire. Some believe that the «Arab Spring» itself was incited by the Americans on account of its growing rivalry with China in the region. Everyone remembers that it was France that was the biggest proponent of the military operation against Libya in March 2011, in order to gain access to Libyan oil and gas deposits that could be mined, and also to be free to push the wares produced by its military-industrial complex onto the African market.

Image Source: Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

But what does a tiny little country of 750,000 people who live between the Gulf of Aden and the desert matter, compared with a global collision between the interests of Beijing and the West? One possible answer suggests itself: within the 24,0000 sq. kilometers of the nation of Djibouti, there are four – and now five! military bases. The US base is the largest in Africa, plus there are bases belonging to Italy, Japan, France, and now – China. Djibouti is a port city at the mouth of the Red Sea, it is the gateway to the Suez Canal. Through it passes all the Suez traffic and half of the exports coming from Ethiopia. In conjunction with its free trade zone, Djibouti is of great economic interest, but what’s most important is its capacity to accommodate US Navy warships as large as cruisers and to provision them with fuel, fresh water, and food.

The Americans were the first to post their own guard at this «gateway», through which sail approximately 17,000 ships and almost one billion tons of cargo (data from 2015) each year. Obviously they’re not interested in getting new Chinese neighbors here. And even though China currently only boasts one naval base to their 800, that one is still a win for Beijing. The Chinese version of conquering Africa has a much better chance of success in Djibouti, which has a per capita GDP of less than $3,000 per year (putting it at 167th in the world) and where half of the population lives below the poverty line. And even if the Chinese aircraft carriers the Liaoning and the Shandong (which is now afloat and being readied for operations) are not able to enter the port of Djibouti because of their size, China’s first foreign naval base is an important milestone in Beijing’s geopolitical expansion.

This report prepared by ELENA PUSTOVOITOVA for Strategic Culture Foundation.