A suburb of Djibouti City
China is set to install “a few thousand” troops and staff at its first ever overseas military base, the first permanent overseas deployment by Chinese armed forces.
The new naval facility will sit in the same city as America’s own sprawling African military headquarters in Djibouti, the Horn of Africa country where the US has a 4,500-strong base running counter-terrorism operations across the region. Japan, which also has its only overseas military base in Djibouti, already faces a tense stand-off with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The move underscores concerns that China, historically inward-looking and non-interventionist, is making a policy shift to assert itself as a global military power. Djibouti occupies a vital strategic position at the southern entrance to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, with 30 per cent of the world’s shipping passing close by.
China has already vowed to near-quadruple its contribution to global peacekeeping operations, to 8,000 troops, and is explicitly building up aircraft and submarine capabilities in pursuit of what it frames as a new responsibility to help assure global peace and stability.
So far China has said little about its own intentions in Djibouti, referring to the project in low-key terms such as characterising the new base as “logistical facilities” for naval rest and resupply, including its contribution to anti-piracy operations. It has offered no information on staffing numbers.
But in an interview with the Financial Times, Djibouti’s foreign minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf for the first time spelt out the likely scale of China’s presence in the small, strategically important country that sits at the mouth of Bab el-Mandeb Straits that lead to the Suez Canal.
While the US in 2014 agreed to nearly double the rate it pays Djibouti to $63m a year to rent its site, Mr Youssouf told the FT that China will pay Djibouti $20m a year for their location, with likely “a few thousands” of military and administrative personnel. Mr Youssouf said the Chinese, like the US, signed a 10-year contract with an option to extend for a further 10 years.
“The terms of the contract and agreement are very clear and they are the same for each and every country that requested military presence in Djibouti,” Mr Youssouf said. He added the main purpose was for China to use the naval base to protect its national interest — monitoring its merchant vessels passing the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and for naval refuelling and restocking.
Tom Kelly, US ambassador to Djibouti, told the FT that managing the existence of both a US and a Chinese base in the same country “will be a challenge for all involved”. Concerns range from eavesdropping on activities at the US base, much of whose wide-ranging anti-terror operations are covert, to fears China may develop a string of bases to give them strategic control over waterways leading into Europe.
Mr Youssouf said that China, which is scheduled to build a second major airport in the country, would have as much right to use drones as the US and France.
Why should the Chinese not have the right to preserve and protect their interests in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb?
- Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s foreign minister
“The Americans have enough technology, enough fighter aircraft, enough drones [here] to control each and every piece of this land and even beyond,” said Mr Youssouf. “Why should the Chinese not have the right to also use those materials . . . to preserve and protect their interests in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb?”
China’s foreign ministry declined to respond to requests for comment on the terms of the new base.
China has instead framed the coming base in terms of an effort to showcase itself as a rising but responsible global player, supporting existing anti-piracy patrols and peacekeeping missions on the African continent, which is a hub for Chinese investments. China has sent navy ships to patrol the Gulf of Aden off Djibouti and Somalia since 2008, the first time China had sent naval ships on a mission outside its territorial waters in more than 600 years.
Last November, a spokesperson said of the proposed naval “support facility” that it “will help China’s military further carry out its international responsibilities to safeguard global and regional peace and stability”.
Mr Youssouf and senior port officials said the base would combine a naval jetty and fenced-off location at the same site as the capital’s forthcoming Doraleh Multipurpose Port, still under construction. The new port is part-financed and part-owned by China Merchants Holding, a part state-owned company and the largest public port operator in China.
China is also set to lend more than $1bn at non-concessional rates for other infrastructure projects to help transform Djibouti’s $1.5bn economy, including a water pipeline and a new railway link with landlocked, populous Ethiopia.
Additional reporting by Charles Clover in Beijing
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