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600 yrs after Zhang He, first base overseas: Reading signals from China’s new military base at Africa’s Horn

This week, as Beijing sent personnel to Djibouti, its first military base overseas, it marked the formal return of Chinese maritime expansionism — and sent a few shivers of concern in capitals around the world, including in New Delhi.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | Updated: July 14, 2017 1:11:57 am
Zhang He, Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, chinese military, chinese military ship, South China Sea, china maritime A photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday shows a ship carrying Chinese military personnel departing a port in Zhanjiang in south China’s Guangdong province for the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. AP Photo

In the first quarter of the 15th century, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He sailed the Indian Ocean, leading seven expeditions to Indonesia, Southeast Asia, India and as far out as the Horn of Africa. Medieval Chinese records say his massive 1405 expedition consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships, supported by approximately 190 smaller ships. Zheng He’s voyages are considered to have come earlier, and been bigger than the expeditions of Christopher Columbus.

China’s great maritime tradition was, however, stopped by the haijin, or sea ban, imposed by its imperial rulers as part of the defence against pirates in the South China Sea. This week, as Beijing sent personnel to Djibouti, its first military base overseas, it marked the formal return of Chinese maritime expansionism — and sent a few shivers of concern in capitals around the world, including in New Delhi.


“In recent years, the government and the PLA have sponsored a campaign to promote a sense of ocean among the civilians. The country is now portrayed both as a Continental power and a Pacific power. Against the traditional view of yellow culture, which glorified China’s heartland history, China’s scholars are now keen to introduce a concept of blue culture (ocean culture) to its population,” You Ji, a lecturer at the School of Politics at the University of New South Wales, Australia, wrote in the book, China Rising: Nationalism and Interdependence. (Ed. David S G Goodman and Gerald Segal: Routledge, 1997)

In the chapter ‘A Blue Water Navy, Does it Matter’, You, currently a Professor and Head of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau, recalled Zheng He’s legendary blue water voyages: “The message is clear: if China had developed a sense of ocean 600 years ago, it would have long been a superpower. And if China still sticks to its yellow earth policy, it will never acquire its rightful place in the world.”


As two Chinese Navy warships left the military port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong for Djibouti on Tuesday with an undisclosed number of military personnel on board, an editorial in the state-run Global Times focussed on the strategic importance of the new facility at the mouth of the Red Sea.

“Certainly this is the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base and we will base troops there. It’s not a commercial resupply point… This base can support Chinese Navy to go farther, so it means a lot,” said the paper.

However, the Global Times also said, the main role of the base would be to support Chinese warships on anti-piracy and humanitarian missions in the region. “It’s not about seeking to control the world,” it said.

But for many of those watching China’s maritime ambitions, the setting up of the overseas base in eastern Africa suggests a fundamental shift in Beijing’s stated policy of no “forward deployment”. It also raises the possibility of “forward deployment” at India’s doorstep — at Pakistan’s Gwadar port, where the deployment currently is intended only to “protect” Chinese workers at the facility. In any case, a few officials in South Block pointed out, Djibouti is only about 1,525 nautical miles from Gwadar — a distance that can be covered in about 6 days at sea.


Writing in an Observer Research Foundation publication, Emerging Trans-Regional Corridors: South and Southeast Asia, Darshana Baruah, a research analyst at Carnegie India, observed: “Beijing is making headway in port development in the region, providing an insight into Chinese ownership of these ports in other territories. While the debate about turning these ports into bases could be regarded as hawkish, the possibility of an increase in Beijing’s military facilities in the region is not far from reality. It is true that a military base does not serve the same purpose as a military facility, especially during times of war; however these facilities can serve immense strategic leverage in a world where nations are looking to project influence while avoiding armed conflicts. It would be naive to consider that Beijing has not calculated the strategic leverage the MSR would provide, if it materialises. (‘China’s MSR: A Strategic View from India’)

As China moves quickly into the Indian Ocean, the appropriate Indian response would have to revolve around the building of stronger naval capabilities. While encouraging investments to build India’s maritime infrastructure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said at the Maritime India Summit, 2016, “This is the right time to come to India, it is even better to come through the sea.”

India will be hoping the Prime Minister’s call gets an enthusiastic response.

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