In a sign of Beijing’s growing clout, the Communist country sent ships carrying its military personnel to its first overseas base in Djibouti, Africa in a bid to rapidly expand its military reach. China had already begun construction of a logistics base in Djibouti last year that they claimed will aim to resupply naval vessels working for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Somalia and Yemen. This will be China’s first naval base overseas, though Beijing describes it as simply a ‘logistics facility’.
China’s foray into Djibouti is, however, not the first one. US, France, Japan and Italy already have small military installations. But the narrative of a tiny country with almost no natural resources, high unemployment rate, and vast stretches of semi-arid desert doesn’t quite explain why global military powers are making a beeline for the Horn of Africa.
There’s one very valuable asset that Djibouti possesses that’s of prime concern to global military powers: It’s location.
What is Djibouti important?
Djibouti has largely weathered the storm in an otherwise volatile region marred by internal and external strife, and is viewed by many countries as a model of stability. Situated on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, gateway to one of the world’s busiest trade route Suez Canal, Djibouti provides an essential port for its landlocked neighbour Ethiopia. It assumes significance as the railway between their respective capitals is completed. Infrastructure projects led by China, which include construction of maritime and airports, are present here much like in the rest of Africa.
Djibouti’s proximity to edgy regions in the Middle East and Africa makes it strategically important for military superpowers to set up their bases here. For instance, to its south-east, Somalia continues to witness unrest with global ramifications with pirates and al-Shabab Islamic militants posing a grave threat to the tense region.
Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, which is situated less than 20 miles north-east across the Bab -el-Mandeb Strait, provides a rather easy passage into the Middle East without having the need to be based there.
Such crises have justified the need to set up military bases in the vicinity and justified international intervention.
The United States military has its largest permanent base in Djibouti called Camp Lemonnier, which houses at least 4,000 military personnel. In fact, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s stopover here during a recent trip to Africa highlights Djibouti’s growing significance despite the presence of other prominent powers in the Continent.
But it’s not the presence of US, Japan or France’ involvement in Djibouti that’s raising eyebrows. It’s the advent of the dragon’s military ambitions in the area that is of particular importance. As per a report in BBC, a US congressman had protested before Kerry’s Africa visit that US strategic interests in Djibouti could be endangered in the face of China’s presence here. The report also suggested a more worrisome fact: that the Chinese base in the northern Obock region might eclipse smaller US bases here.
China’s foray into Djibouti and implications for India
Djibouti’s location in the Indian Ocean’s northwestern edge could potentially become another of China’s ‘string of pearls’ of numerous military alliances surrounding India, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
What does China’s state-run daily say about the development?
While Xinhua said in a report today, as reported by Reuters, that Beijing’s ships had departed from Zhanjiang ‘to set up a support base in Djibouti’, Global Times in an editorial said ‘there could be no mistake that this was in fact a military base’. In the editorial, it said: “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. It makes sense there is attention on this from foreign public opinion.”
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, wrote that this development was ‘landmark move’ that seeks to expand China’s ability to ensure global peace. It supported its argument saying it has so many United Nations peacekeepers in Africa and therefore its role in anti-piracy patrols is of utmost importance.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the overseas base would enable China to make “new and greater contributions” to peace in Africa and the world and would also benefit Djibouti’s economic development.
(With inputs from Reuters)