On 1 August 2017, China formally opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Neither the date of inauguration nor its location in one of the smallest, most resource-scarce African nations are coincidental: this was an event long in the making for Chinese naval strategists.
A well planned manoeuvre
The first day of August marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the combined armed forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Communist Party of China (CPC). As such, it seemed a suitable juncture at which to initiate a new PLA-project, which, according to Chinese officials, aims to back “naval escorts in Africa and southwest Asia [as well as] UN peacekeeping and humanitarian support.”
The location of the base was also meticulously planned. Djibouti sits at the gateway to the Suez Canal on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait; one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. It is a perfect place for a naval facility, as it allows close control over international trade in the area. The base supports Beijing’s trade ambitions and contributes to the development of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, an undertaking that complements China’s concurrent railroad expansion throughout Central Asia.
However, the Chinese are not the first to take advantage of Djibouti’s strategic location – indeed the tiny African nation is prime maritime real estate. The base is located right next to Camp Lemmonier, the largest US military installation in Africa, and neighbours a French Foreign Legionnaire base as well as Italian and Japanese facilities.
Following China’s announcement that it was to place itself among these other powers in Djibouti, Saudi Arabia revealed in January that it had finalised a deal to install its own facility nearby. This indicates that China has not only created its first overseas naval base in Djibouti because of its favourable geographical location, but is also hoping to partially counterbalance the influence of other powers in the region.
This most recent development follows an established precedent of years of Chinese investment in Africa. Infrastructure projects have been a hallmark of this investment, and Djibouti is no exception. A 750km Chinese-built railway links the sea port of Doraleh in Djibouti with Addis Ababa, thus facilitating a connection between the Ethiopian capital and the Red Sea in less than 10 hours, boosting the economies of both states.
Access to Djibouti’s ports is vital for landlocked Ethiopia, which, due to tensions with Eritrea and lawlessness in Somalia, relies on its neighbour for access to maritime trade. Indeed, 95% of all Ethiopia’s trade is done through Djibouti. China’s increased military and infrastructural investment in the region, therefore, is expected to increase Beijing’s capacity for geopolitical influence deep into the Horn of Africa.
As well as providing diplomatic advantages, the security agenda has played an important role in China’s thinking. Djibouti serves as a convenient point for the observation of politically unstable countries in the Middle East – including Yemen, just across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait – without having to set up any bases in conflicted areas. Moreover, the naval base gives some sense of security to Chinese citizens living and working in the Middle East and Africa, enabling fast evacuation from the region if required.
Further, a Chinese presence close to the Somali coast enables Beijing to conduct anti-piracy operations. Any ship in these waters must factor in the danger of attacks by pirates, who are especially active along the busy Red Sea shipping route. As a sea-lane frequented by vessels heading to or from China, a reduction in piracy can only be advantageous.
A new direction for China’s foreign policy?
Chinese foreign policy in Africa is becoming increasingly complex and difficult to assess. On the one hand, Beijing is often pictured as a new colonial power on the continent, exploiting Africa’s natural resources by pursuing a ‘resources for infrastructure’ policy and controlling extractive industries without employing local people, thus making little contribution to the development of the region’s economy. It is further accused of supporting authoritarian regimes in Africa and impeding democratic transitions in many places.
On the other hand, Beijing’s contribution to poverty alleviation in many African countries should not be overlooked. Learning from what it perceives as a misguided Western aid programme (financial assistance offered in return for democratic reforms and liberal economic policies), Beijing’s overseas development assistance (ODA) offers a different type of aid – one with no conditions attached to it.
Furthermore, Beijing always stresses one of its core values in international affairs, non-intervention, when crafting its foreign policy. This is particularly problematic for the international community as it allows China to refrain from taking a stance in controversial issues in African politics, turn a blind eye to regional disputes and avoid participating in military conflicts.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s foreign policy, especially in the area of non-intervention, is becoming increasingly assertive. Under the pressure of the international community, China has become a more responsible global power, gradually becoming more involved in the domestic affairs of African states; for example assisting the UN peacekeeping operation in South Sudan.
Although for a long time China refrained from taking a side in the Libyan conflict, it finally gave its support to the UN Security Council Resolution on the matter and made possible the referral of Libyan leaders to the International Criminal Court. It clearly demonstrates that China is craving greater influence in Africa, not just with regard to the extraction of natural resources but also in the politics and economy of the region.
The place of Djibouti in China’s plans
What does the creation of Beijing’s first base beyond the South China Sea mean in relation to its foreign policy?
The base in Djibouti has been perceived by many experts as a projection of military might. Although it clearly serves the purpose of securing a Chinese presence among other superpowers, it should also be seen as a way of enhancing China’s economic power. International security issues cannot be ignored, but as China focuses on the construction of The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, it needs the naval and logistical base in the sea to secure its own economic interests relating to international shipping.
We should also remember that foreign policy, as an extension of domestic policy, needs to acknowledge the nation’s own demands. Chinese policies in the international arena need to respond to its citizens’ nationalistic demands to pursue the ‘Chinese Dream’. As a result, China has already abandoned ex-leader Deng Xiaoping’s approach which relied on keeping a low international profile, and followed Xi Jinping’s new emphasis on ‘striving for achievements’. Demonstrating military capabilities, strengthening the navy and balancing the influence of traditional rivals such as Japan or the US through the construction of overseas bases are assertive steps along this new foreign policy path.
Therefore, Djibouti perfectly fits the new mould of Chinese foreign policy. Allowing for tighter control of the situation in the Horn of Africa not only benefits Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean but also enables increased participation in the domestic issues of Djibouti’s neighbours. Shifting from natural resource extraction as a staple of foreign policy, China seems to be aiming at strengthening its influence in the area in order to consolidate its position and overall importance in the global affairs.